Release date: September 3rd, 1983
Running time: 123 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: English and Japanese with English subtitles
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Writers: Nagisa Oshima, Paul Mayersberg
Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto
Whether it’s the Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986), the lost alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) or even his fleeting cameo in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), David Bowie’s portrayals have always had a way of getting under my skin and remaining there long after these cinematic journeys have ended.
The same can be said for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Its story is based on Laurens van der Post’s experiences during World War II as a prisoner of war and it focuses on the relationships of five very different men during that time.
Bowie plays Jack Celliers, an English soldier who arrives in a Japanese POW camp after trial. Rather than obeying orders by the camp leaders, he sets out to display his rebellious nature and create discord. Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), the young camp commandant is not pleased and is determined to break him while at the same time he also develops feelings for him.
There’s also Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti), a British officer who speaks Japanese fluently and frequently tries to intervene, hoping to bring balance between both sides. Lawrence in turn strikes up an unlikely friendship with Sergeant Hara (, Takeshi Kitano) despite the sergeant’s brutal nature.
The past, it seems, haunts them. Yonoi regrets that he was not able to fight and die among his comrades in Tokyo during a military coup d’état. He feels ashamed and guilty that he did not share in this patriotic sacrifice. Celliers too has a secret he carries with him; the betrayal of his younger brother when they were at school together.
Yonoi and Celliers come to sense there’s something between them but this is not a place where homosexual feelings are allowed to blossom. We see a Korean solider committing seppuku after being caught with a Dutch soldier who in turn kills himself rather than to be forced to watch the act.
The film is layered with many different themes that make each viewing an opportunity to recognise something that was missed before. Oshima uses language to set barriers between the Japanese and English and forces them to find other ways to communicate and he peppers the landscape of the film with these nuances; a glance, a gesture, a moment. Bowie is absolutely magnetic in his presence and despite his Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust personas in his musical career, he is convincing as a POW.
Music plays a significant role in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The score is created by Sakamoto with variations of ‘Forbidden Colors’ used throughout as a light motif. David Sylvian’s lyrics underscore perfectly the passions that rage on their own battlefield.
It’s a beautifully made film and there’s a strong feeling of restraint from beginning to end. While Oshima’s earlier films like In The Realm of the Senses (1976) and Empire of Passion (1978) dealt openly with lust and filled the screen with images of bare flesh, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence keeps it subdued with Bowie’s character acting as the catalyst for these inner eruptions.
It’s strikingly bittersweet and significantly poetic from start to finish and remains one of the reasons I continue to admire Oshima and Bowie as true artists in their fields.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .