Jen Yamato September 28, 2010
Men of honor come face to face with the enemy in the war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, one of Nagisa Oshima‘s finest and most accessible meditations on culture clash between the East and West and the undeniable, potentially destructive nature of eroticism that results when the two cultures meet.
That fascination with the other — and the desire to express and evoke emotion, to understand a fundamentally opposite being and compel them to understand in return — propels three male relationships formed inside a brutally-run Japanese prison camp in Java during World War II.
The story begins with an incident of sexual abuse between a Dutch prisoner and a Korean guard, which starts an ongoing ethical debate between the camp’s harsh foreman, Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), and the British officer Lt. Col John Lawrence (Tom Conti). The introduction of a new prisoner, the ethereal and rebellious Jack Celliers (David Bowie), provokes desire and contempt in commanding officer Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), and the undeniable pull between the two men upends the fragile infrastructure of the camp with fatal consequences.
Originally released in 1983 after debuting in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (Oshima’s fellow countryman Shohei Imamura took home the Palme d’Or for his Ballad of Narayama that year), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has now been given the Criterion Blu-ray treatment, which is exciting news for fans of Oshima, fans of Japanese actor-comedian-filmmaker Kitano, and fans of the film’s most famous stars, pop musicians Bowie and Sakamoto.
Criterion’s new high-def transfer brings clarity to Oshima’s visuals, whether capturing the grimy interiors of the prisoners’ quarters, dim and shaded with electric hues, or highlighting the stark, almost obscenely clean courts and offices of the Japanese. (The film’s overall palette, however, remains muted even after significant restoration efforts.) The remastered picture quality is most appreciated, however, whenever Oshima sets the camera’s gaze on his actors’ faces, where the psychological and physical tolls of war and imprisonment are most evident. It’s here in close-up that we take in Cellier’s delicate, unearthly beauty and ourselves understand just why Yonio, himself possessed of a cruelly pretty, effeminate face, is so captivated from first glance. And it’s here in close-up that we take in the brutish Hara, a soldier for whom physical intimidation is merely a tool for doing an officer’s duty. By film’s end, Kitano’s face takes on a much different quality as he smiles, ear to ear, with childlike innocence, wishing Lawrence the titular greeting on the eve of his own execution.
As expected, this release shines when it comes to its bonus offerings, which paint a comprehensive portrait of the film’s production through recorded interviews and featurettes with its principals. “The Oshima Gang,” a making-of featurette produced in 1983, combines footage of Oshima and star Bowie presenting their film at Cannes — the director in a bright pink and black custom T-shirt adorned with the film’s title nearly overshadowing his strikingly handsome star, who’d just released his 15th album, “Let’s Dance” — with interviews with co-star Conti and Sir Laurens van der Post, the author upon whose semi-autobiographical novel the script was based.
More recent interviews conducted in 2010 with Conti, actor-composer Sakamoto, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, and producer Jeremy Thomas provide anecdotes and trivia on the making of the film. Soundtrack aficionados already know that co-star Ryuichi Sakamoto, described as the biggest rock star in Japan at the time thanks to work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, also composed the charging and sensual pop-synth score; here, he tells of how he effectively negotiated with Oshima to compose the score when the director called him to offer him the role, Sakamoto’s first ever acting performance.
Mayersberg recalls how he was tapped to rewrite Oshima’s original screenplay and the unique lessons the two taught each other about Japanese and Western film. For amateur film historians and scholars who’ve analyzed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, this piece is invaluable; Mayersberg’s insights run the gamut from the film’s spiritual roots in the ancient Shinto faith, the differences between Japanese and Western ideas of shame vs. guilt, and just why Yonoi, a strict Captain in the Japanese Imperial Army, wears make-up like a midcentury militant glam god.
Special features are rounded out with Hasten Slowly, a 1996 documentary about author/veteran van der Post; the original theatrical trailer; and a comprehensive accompanying booklet that contains a 2010 interview with Kitano, a 1983 interview with Oshima, and a wonderfully crafted celebratory essay by Chuck Stephens.
All in all, Criterion’s Blu-ray release is a must-have for Oshima devotees — as much for its insightful supplementary materials as for the high-definition restoration, which combine to present a thorough treatment of a film that, nearly 20 years after it was made, still resonates in its idea that men may yet discover kindred spirits and common ground in those they consider enemies.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is available now from the Criterion Collection.
Categories: DVDTags: Criterion collection, Dvd reviews, Nagisa oshima