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Blogvent Day 19 – Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983,Japan/UK)


Director: Nagisa Oshima       Starring: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Takeshi Kitano, Ryuichi Sakamoto

The prisoner of war camps operated by the Japanese in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War were places renowned for their abject cruelty. The corrupted Samurai code by which the Japanese army operated in those years gave them a special contempt for anyone who would allow themselves to be taken prisoner alive and the resulting dehumanisation of their captives led to the employment of horrendous punishments for those who stepped out of line and plenty of torture for those who may have had useful information to the Japanese command. It seems a strange time and place to visit then for day nineteen of my Blogvent. How can Christmas exist in a place as unrelentingly terrible as a Japanese prisoner of war camp?

The titular Mr. Lawrence (Conti) is the liaison officer between the Commonwealth soldiers who are imprisoned and their Japanese captors. His abiding love of Japanese culture, understanding of their customs and ability to speak the language all serve him well in this role and he seems to have made enough of an impression on the camp commanders, Captain Yonoi (Sakomoto) and his second in command Sergeant Hara (Takeshi) to make the life of the prisoners less uncomfortable than it could be. Things start to change though when the arrival of Major Jack Celliers (Bowie) has an unexpected effect on Yonoi leading to a shattering of the status quo that has far reaching consequences for the prisoners and their custodians alike.

It really is a beautiful film, intensely character driven and carried by the amazing performances of the key cast (yes, including Bowie) although Conti as Lawrence and his interplay with Takeshi Kitano’s Sergeant Hara are probably the true core of the story. Lawrence is a forlorn individual, horrified by what has become of his beloved Japan yet abjectly refusing to hate the Japanese as individuals, even when he receives beating after beating at their hands. Hara treats Lawrence as something of a curiousity, possessing a grudging respect for him thanks to his knowledge of Japanese culture but astounded and bemused at his willingness to be a prisoner rather than take his own life to deal with the shame of capture.

It’s thanks to this relationship between Lawrence and Hara that what you might call a Christmas miracle occurs, averting a potentially disastrous situation (at least as far as Celliers and Lawrence are concerned), Hara finding himself in a sake induced mood for cultural exchange at the festive season. It’s this clash of cultures that is the overwhelming theme of the film with each side in the camp an inscrutable mystery to the other. This makes the bridge formed by Lawrence and Hara all the more important, a connection between the two worlds that gets revisited time and time again.

The film has an overwhelming air of sadness about it, a sense of grief for a nation driven mad all at once (to paraphrase Mr. Lawrence) by cultural conditioning, a society that discourages indiduality, preferring instead a sort of hive mind approach to the will of the Emperor. The Japanese soldiers are not portrayed particularly sympathetically (although they are far from the one dimensional caricatures you might have found in a similar film made without the input of a Japanese director) and there is a clear sense that what they were doing and how they behave toward their captives was very wrong indeed.

The remastered special edition dvd I watched was absolutely phenomenal. The picture was beautifully sharp and looked truly magnificent, so much so that I wishd I’d seen it on blu ray rather than DVD (a blu ray version of the same print would look eye blisteringly good). The photography is wonderful, capturing the dichotomy of the hell on earth that is the prison camp and the jungle paradise it occupies magnificently. The level of detail, the deep focus and the gentle, earthy pallette are all lovely to look at and really add to the authenticity of the experience.

As it turns out then, a Japanese prisoner of war camp is actually an ideal place to discover a little bit of Christmas spirit although to be fair this is a film that you could comfortably watch at any time of the year so powerful and universal are its themes. Both tragic and uplifting it is a great Christmas film, a great war film and a wonderful exploration of two cultures colliding with spectacular results. Exquisite.

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