Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (Oshima, 1983)

"I always look for characters that have either an emotional or physical limp" 
- David Bowie 

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

I originally wrote a large part of the following blog for publication in David Bowie Glamour, a fanzine put together by Nick Smart - @QuietSeclusion and Andy Jones - @DavidBowieGlam with artwork and design by Helen Green - @Helengreeen and @LoveMilkyCereal which can be purchased here: .

I've decided to post it here but to also expand on the piece included in the magazine with a few further thoughts, as I was originally working with a small word limit and there is more that I'd like to say about this thoughtful film.   

When I first heard the news on the morning of January 11th - three things about David Bowie immediately raced through my mind. The first was obvious - Blackstar, the album we had all been listening to the night before. The second was a rush of songs of his that I had always admired - Word On A Wing, Everyone Says Hi, Teenage Wildlife, Letter to Hermione…. The third was this film, because it had long held a special place in the back of my mind. We’ll always see our hero as a singer first, but I think this unusual picture captured maybe better than any other, his gift for acting.

"I didn't find a crazy rock star, I found a very hard working man serious about his work" - Tom Conti on David Bowie

Even though the perception of Bowie is as someone who was always one step ahead of absolutely everyone, looking to the future - in this he plays someone who is shaped by, and motivated by everything that has happened in his past.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (Dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983) focusses on a Japanese prisoner of war camp located on the island of Java in 1942; the titular main character, John Lawrence (Tom Conti) is a compassionate and resourceful British officer that speaks fluent Japanese, and who spends much of the film trying to maintain any sense of order he can between the Japanese and their western prisoners despite their polar opposite cultural views. Lawrence's relationship with Japanese guard Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kaitano) is the first of the two main relationships that drive the picture, the second is that of Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers (David Bowie), a new prisoner who disrupts the order of the camp and Captain Yanoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), who takes an immediate fascination and attraction to the new arrival.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

Nagisa Oshima hired David Bowie for the film after seeing him in the stage production of The Elephant Man (Bowie himself agreed to take on the role based on nothing but his respect for Oshima's past work). On the surface, it’s difficult to see why such a role would give Oshima a brain wave. Captain Celliers couldn’t be any more different. He is confident and admired leader (a “soldiers soldier”) and defiant against the way the camp is ruled. In so doing he represents a challenge to the Japanese guards, who are not used to rebellion or what they would consider, bravery. Whilst the western prisoners see the Japanese as unrelentingly and despicably cruel, the Japanese see their enemy as cowardly and undeserving of mercy - they themselves are driven by an extreme moral code that sees any form of cowardice worthy of punishment and utmost shame. 

At least, that’s was we’re led to believe. But in reality Celiers is just as damaged as John Merrick - he’s an emotionally and psychologically broken man who is forced to bottle up his traumatic past. His stoicism is what fascinates Yanoi, but what makes Bowie’s performance so memorable is that he creates a character with a surefooted facade that is in reality so removed from the private anguish that he battles with. 

In a rare moment of vulnerability, Celliers reveals in flashback what befell him before joining the army. Withdrawn and ashamed, he explains how he failed to intervene when a group of schoolchildren were tormenting his younger brother in a brutal initiation ceremony at the boarding school they both attended. A gifted singer with an angelic voice, Celliers' brothers’ spirit is absolutely crushed, and he never sings again.

“Over the years, I became, you might say… a haunted person. I really wanted to see him again. I never did. I was an eligible bachelor… a reasonably successful lawyer…and absolutely nothing” - Jack Celliers

Everything that Celliers does in his life after this is an attempt to compensate for these actions - he “embraced” the outbreak of war because it was something that offered a chance for redemption. He sneaks food into the camp, saves Lawrence from torture, and attempts to raise morale in the infirmary by leading a sing-along (quite humorously, he has to pretend he’s no good at singing in this scene... and I ain't buying that). But the moment when he sees a chance for his true act of atonement comes at the end of the film, after Yanoi orders all prisoners to stand before him.

Oshima creates a great sense of foreboding in this scene. No-one knows what is about to take place. The Japanese surround the POW’s, set up machine gun turrets and hold their rifles up ready for use. Lawrence assures Celliers that it’s all “fairly routine stuff”, but Jack seems lost in some sort of trance. He stares forlornly into space and says “listen John… I wish I could sing” - I think at this moment he hears his brothers voice in his head, so when a fellow prisoner is dragged to the feet of Yanoi to be executed, Jack is filled with sense of duty - to this time sacrifice himself in sake of another rather than standing to one side. Paul Mayersberg, the screenwriter said that he tried to make "as many mirrors of characters" as he could, and that "by having scenes that mirror each other you also cast reflections on the characters". No doubt this moment is a direct parallel with Celliers' time in boarding school. 

In one of Bowie's most famous on-screen moments, he breaks rank and stands between Yanoi and the POW, grabs the prison commander by the shoulders and kisses him on the cheeks. The besotted Yanoi is beset with shame - but as he goes to kill Celliers he instead faints into the arms of the soldiers behind him. Celliers pays the ultimate price for his sacrifice and is buried up to his neck in the sand as punishment. It is in his dying dream where he finally gets to see his brother and reconcile with him, saying how much he "wronged him". As a mark of respect, fellow prisoners sing to Celliers from their barracks, a funeral song that the inmates had previously sung earlier in the film for a deceased prisoner.

Bowie stated that, with this film Oshima gave him one of the most fulfilling experiences in either his musical or acting career. I do think this stands as one of his best performances, and it's definitely my favourite film that he ever appeared in. The fact that he really is a musician before anything else says alot to how much I admired this film before his passing, because as stated, this is one of the first things that I thought about when I heard the terrible news.

Because of the star power in Bowie, it's easy to overlook the other main character, but that shouldn't be the case because Lawrence really is the heart of the film. Bowie described Tom Conti as someone with "a wonderful analytical mind about how characters work and interact with each other", which too acts as a good description of the character Conti is playing. Lawrence is the only one who attempts to truly understand why the Japanese are the way they are, being the only prisoner who is fluent in both languages he is the one bridge between the two sides. In fact at one point, fellow prisoner Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) says that he spends more time with the Japs than he does with his own men. He looses his temper a few times, but ultimately is incredibly level headed in an environment that would drive anyone to madness. Impressively, he knew no Japanese at all before being given the role in the film, and had to learn all of his lines phonetically - he was so convincing that the Japanese attending the screening of the film in Cannes had no idea of this and assumed Conti was fluent in the language. 

The suffering that Lawrence suffers at the hands of the Japanese helps audiences to better understand the barbarity of his captors - at one point he is sentenced to death because of a radio that is found in the prison barracks. Even though it wasn't him who brought it in, Yanoi would rather punish the wrong person rather than no-one at all, to "preserve his sense of order". He too helps the other, non-Japanese characters understand the motivations of them, for example when the prisoners are forced to fast in order to cure their 'spiritual laziness', Lawrence explains to his fellow, confused friends that the Japanese believe taking away the food and the water will take away the nourishment for this spiritual laziness. Despite not believing in their code of honour and understandably finding it vulgar at times, Lawrence is still knowledgeable the culture of the Japanese - even if the cruelty itself is inconceivable, he acknowledges that their code of honour dictates how they must act ("You are the victim of men who think that they are right"). 

Unlike Captain Hicksley, Lawrence harbours, deep down, a kind of respect for his enemy - which is best seen in the ending. By the end of the picture and the end of the war, the roles of Lawrence and Hara have switched. Lawrence is free and Hara is being held in prison before execution for his war crimes, Hara has even learnt English and despite one of them being imprisoned, they finally talk as equals. It's here that it's made very clear that, had it not been for the war, these two could have been very dear friends. They reminisce about their time together and Lawrence is barely able to keep it together as he says that if it were up to him, he'd release Hara straight away to go back to his family.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is based on the book The Seed and the Sower, a semi autobiographical novel written by Laurens Van Der Post. In an interview about the film, he was asked about what he hoped people who hadn't had to fight in the war would gain from watching this film adaptation:

"As important as justice is understanding, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. A deeper understanding is necessary if we're going to have a brotherhood of man" - Laurens Van Der Post

Indeed, by the end of the film, the two main Japanese characters have changed. Yanoi is unable to repress his love for Celliers and cuts off a lock of his hair whilst he's buried, saluting the Major before giving the hair to Hara to take to a village in Japan. Hara, meanwhile, who showed glimpses of humanity while in the camp is utterly sympathetic in the last scene. "There are times, when victory is very hard to take", says Lawrence before leaving one last time - this is the moment that best captures Laurens Van Der Post's quote. The two have forgiven each other, and for the first time their cultures are not anymore a barrier:


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