“The past, again and again.” —Major Jack Celliers, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Nagisa Oshima’s filmmaking career began with the risen sun—or rather, with the promise of a sun soon to rise: Tomorrow’s Sun (1959), a dizzyingly designed faux “coming attraction” for a never-intended genre-hopping teen flick. (Call it a giddy demo reel, a candy-colored six-minute jape in the manner of Yasuzo Masumura, one of the few filmmaking elders the young Oshima admitted he admired.) A little over a year later, only two incendiary features into his soon-to-be-legendary filmography, Oshima’s cruel stories of youth were already approaching political and melodramatic supernova status, and with the title of his third, the director extended nothing less than a solemn invitation to attend The Sun’s Burial (1960). Yet still, for Oshima, the sun continued to rise: here a red umbrella irised open against a cloudless sky, there a drop of blood spreading in the snow; new films, new fame—and with each fresh celluloid vision, the director again slashing skyward in ferocious determination to bring low that blazing orb, the emblem of “eternal” Imperial Japan, the past, again and again.
“The filmmaker must always seek a new tension with reality and constantly negate himself in order to continue to create a new artistic involvement,” wrote Oshima in 1960, a few months before his career at Shochiku studios came to a precipitous end. In the years that followed, Oshima would continue to meet negation with creation—forming an independent production company, Sozo-sha (Creation Company), where he would craft a series of stylistically disparate and increasingly scathing anatomies of Japan’s social, sexual, and political outcasts—but he never lost sight of the sun. And in his internationally anticipated 1983 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, the filmmaker’s first work since winning the best director prize at Cannes for Empire of Passion in 1978, he returned to it once again, opening on a slow suffusion of crimson through a lattice of bamboo, a screaming bird that sends a slumbering gecko skittering up the wall of a darkened hut, and a sudden, radiant gush of bleeding sun that becomes . . . Takeshi Kitano’s face. The face of one of Oshima’s greatest pupils, destined for his own glory as a filmmaker, not to mention enshrinement in supercelebrity as perhaps the most recognizable face in all of modern Japan, its beaming son and sun, the face upon which Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence begins, ends, and depends.
A smoldering soldier’s story set in the Javanese tropics in 1942 (a year that saw some of the Japanese military’s largest territorial advances and most horrific wartime atrocities), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence must have seemed an unlikely project to appeal to Japan’s greatest radical filmmaker: a sweat-perfumed fusion of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, originally written by, and told from the perspective of, a British officer and former badly treated POW who nevertheless speaks Japanese and is extremely sensitive to Japanese culture (a sort of agent of empathy between empires). In retrospect, though, the film’s far-flung mélange of culturally disparate elements seems nothing short of kismet. It’s as if the term international coproduction had been coined for the occasion: based on a largely autobiographical 1963 novel by the Afrikaner and future CBE Laurens van der Post, entitled The Seed and the Sower, and marketed on the casting of rock stars Ryuichi Sakamoto (who provided the film’s score as well) and David Bowie (who also appeared in Tony Scott’s debut, The Hunger, that year), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was produced by the Englishman Jeremy Thomas (and cowritten by his recurrent collaborator, the film critic and Man Who Fell to Earth scenarist Paul Mayersberg), shot by Oshima and key members of his regular Japanese production team on location on Rarotonga (in the Cook Islands) and in New Zealand (home of the locally hired young first assistant director Lee Tamahori), and released throughout Europe under the title Furyo—“Prisoner of War” (in Japan, it’s known as Senjou no Merry Christmas: “Merry Christmas on the Battlefield”). But to which furyo does that title refer?
Ostensibly to starman David Bowie’s freakishly fair-haired Major Jack Celliers—Strafer Jack, as this legendary “born leader” is jocularly known among his men—a British officer held captive in a Japanese prison camp run by the equally incandescent and enigmatically kabuki-eyebrowed Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto, intentionally adorned to evoke what might have been a Yukio Mishima stroke book vision of Ziggy Stardust), himself a once bright-futured young officer whose affiliations with the failed 1932 coup attempt in Tokyo have resulted in his punitive placement off the battlefield as a lowly prison warden. But so, too, will Yonoi become imprisoned—shackled by his passion for the lithe and fetchingly recalcitrant Celliers, this blond and bewildering fighting man fallen to earth and eating flowers from a basket, less an avatar of Empire than a wild-eyed boy from Freecloud or far across the moon. Thomas once described Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence as being “about the love of one man for another man’s perfection,” even if the film’s casting suggests something more like a closed circuit of celebrity desire. And who better to admire each other’s pomp and preening circumstance than the leading rock stars of their respective nations? (Sakamoto’s techno-pop group, Yellow Magic Orchestra, had already attained the height of its Japanese and international success; it would disband later that year.) Each doing his high-thespian best to seem earthly, Sakamoto and Bowie face off from the beginning like prize bantams before a fight: “To be or not to be,” purrs Yonoi to Celliers during their initial courtroom meet-cute—the great character actor and Oshima mainstay Rokko Toura posed as a tart translator beside Bowie’s ear, Sakamoto’s astringent synth strings tumescing on the soundtrack, Oshima’s camera sweeping from Bowie’s backside toward his interlocutor’s moistened lips in a Minnellian flourish borrowed from his own Night and Fog in Japan—“Zhat iz zha quez-tion.” Could any glam rock come-hither have screamed as queerly as that Bardic power chord?
But the obliquely rendered passion these empurpled and ethereal rocker-warriors share—a soul love that will eventually climax in a kiss and a severed lock of hair and the blowing of Yonoi’s Bushido-bound samurai mind—is just one of the pulsating veins in the film’s trio of nested stories (an echo of the tripartite structure of Van der Post’s novel). Nearer its core waits yet another cell: the one Celliers carries always within him, an intestinal prison house of guilt over the betrayal he once, back in his school days, dealt his disfigured younger brother, a kind of hunchbacked homunculus cum serenading castrato who haunts the officer’s lushly lilac-landscaped memories, his solitary self-confinements. Rarely, and appropriately for a film in which every culture is examined with an alienating reserve, have the topiary realities of Britain seemed farther away. Adding to these alienations, Bowie—fresh from the physically demanding contortions he’d found success with on Broadway as the Elephant Man, and now working with what the self-proclaimed “novice actor” described as “the least stylized role” of his career—seems, for much of his performance, to have been left largely alone by Oshima (allowing the singer to indulge in a momentary return to his midsixties roots as a mime). Oshima’s approach to filmmaking, Bowie would tell the press corps at Cannes later that year, was much like his own “behaviorist” approach to acting, based on “expression, not impression . . . I felt that we possibly understood one another better than I’ve understood some Western directors.” (In footage of the press conference, Oshima can be seen smiling benignly during Bowie’s comments, perhaps dreaming already of the expressions of his next exotic oddity, the rubber-suited monkey lover of Charlotte Rampling in Max mon amour.)
Oshima had spent his career regarding reality, and “realism,” as a kind of prison, but not since 1968’s Death by Hanging (or the scabrous bunker where much of the 1967 Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is set) had he focused so literally, and intently, on the surface textures and dehumanizing architectures of the various tribunal torture chambers and condemned men’s purgatorial cells of such an institution. Working with designer Jusho Toda, who’d collaborated with the director in various capacities (art direction, production and costume design) since 1966’s Violence at Noon, Oshima created a jungle penitentiary balanced between the clean, brutal lines of courtrooms and commanders’ chambers and the organic chaos of moldering cells made of coarsely troweled mud, serrated palm bark, and seaside volcanic excreta—the torments of the damned, externalized. (Even the school-yard structures in Celliers’s blighted memories bear a resemblance to Death by Hanging’s multitiered execution house.)
In many ways, this surfeit of surface textures is rhymed with the film’s pronounced emergence as one of the few Oshima works to wear its heart so clearly on its sleeve: never before had the director indulged in so many Old Hollywood moments, so many stirring, music-driven reveries (Sakamoto’s score—written, per Oshima, as if Yonoi himself had composed it—evoking both a sort of ticktock ersatz Javanese gamelan and a sprightlier version of the whistled theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai), so much shameless tear-jerking. Aside from the film’s overall rechanneling of David Lean, there’s even an incidental moment straight out of vintage John Ford, when Yonoi confines Kitano’s brutal yet somehow beatific Sergeant Gengo Hara to quarters for insubordination, “without sake,” and Kitano cracks a rummy smirk worthy of Victor McLaglen. Not that Oshima auteurists are likely to be disappointed by the director’s temporary turn to such mainstream moviemaking fillips: his signature passions and political agonies are everywhere, beginning with the plight of the conscripted Korean soldier whose affection for a young Dutch prisoner sets the entire tale in motion—and return the filmmaker’s faithful directly to Diary of a Yunbogi Boy (1965), Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968), and numerous other exemplars of his legacy of Korean-identity films. Nor is this the first of Oshima’s Lawrences: so too does Sing a Song of Sex (1967) begin with an invitation to become a “Lawrence of Shinjuku”—a lewd entreaty to “invade” the bathhouses of Tokyo’s pop-cultural Times Square, whispered in a horny schoolboy’s ear. (And the ways in which Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence also functions as a companion piece to 1999’s Gohatto, Oshima’s most recent film, are too numerous and complex to satisfactorily detail here; suffice to say that Gohatto again considers the nigh disastrous impact of a beautiful man on the cohesion and efficacy of a code-bound Japanese militia—as witnessed and interpreted by the passing expressions on Takeshi Kitano’s face.)
Ah, Kitano’s face! Bright and beaming, it is still boyish and (in 1983) as yet unscarred by a near fatal motorcycle accident more than a decade away; Takeshi Kitano—then mostly known as television funnyman Beat Takeshi (and credited for this film as Takeshi alone)—could have lit the entire Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence production with the brilliance of his smile. “What a funny face,” the captive David Bowie, himself awash in moonlit blueface, marvels at the film’s midpoint, gazing up from his delirium into Kitano’s curious orbits: “Beautiful eyes.” (A bit of sick-bay delirium on Celliers’s part—or a piece of showbiz benediction from one media sensation to another?) The heart of the film concerns the evolution of understanding that crosses Hara’s face as he comes to know, if never exactly to fathom, the film’s eponymous Colonel Lawrence (played by a never better Tom Conti, who manages to synthesize some phonetically acquired but altogether effective Japanese-language dialogue with a sense of the ultimate futility of conversation across cultures, and demonstrates the ease with which a master craftsman can reduce an audience to emotional rubble with the merest crack of his voice).
Which furyo? Which prisoner of war? How about Hara, who enters the film a jailer and exits it imprisoned and awaiting execution, four years after the bulk of the tale has concluded and Japan has lost the war? It is, after all, Hara who utters and actualizes the film’s English-language title—Hara who spares Lawrence’s and Celliers’s lives one drunken wartime yuletide, and Hara who reminds us, in the film’s final moments, of the price one must sometimes pay for forgiveness, of the human costs that must be borne during war by those who attempt to bridge the chasms in a world being blown apart. In a cinema as haunted by the shrieks of the modern damned and as torn by the cries of the dispossessed as Nagisa Oshima’s, no moment can rival the final episode of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence for sheer melodramatic impact and merciless courting of audience tears. Brutal, beautiful, bald as the Buddha, there, as the film began, stands Beat Takeshi Kitano—the camera as close to his crooked smile as a lover’s kiss, his condemned and twinkling eyes more radiant than any sun—grinning, ear to ear.
Chuck Stephens lives and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee.