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Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)

Courtesy of HanWay Films

Main image of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
35mm, colour, 124 mins
DirectorNagisa Oshima
Production CompanyRecorded Picture Company, Cineventure, TV Asahi, Oshima Productions
ProducerJeremy Thomas
ScreenplayNagisa Oshima
 Paul Mayersberg
PhotographyToichiro Narushima
MusicRyuichi Sakamoto

Cast: David Bowie (Major Jack "Straffer" Celliers); Tom Conti (Colonel John Lawrence); Ryuichi Sakamoto (Captain Yonoi); Takeshi Kitano (Sergeant Gengo Hara); Jack Thompson (Group Captain Hicksley)

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Set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on Java during World War II, this describes the human and inhuman aspects of the clash of cultures inside the camp.

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Among the many striking aspects of the first high-profile Anglo-Japanese feature film is its handling of the subject that still divides the two countries (the treatment of Allied prisoners in Japanese prisoner of war camps during World War II) - it doesn't tone down or sanitise the issues.

Given the uncompromising track records of producer Jeremy Thomas and especially director Nagisa Oshima, this is less surprising than it might otherwise be. Oshima had spent over two decades tackling Japanese taboos head-on, be they capital punishment (Death by Hanging/Koshikei, Japan, 1968), rebellious youth (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief/Shinjuku dorobo nikki, Japan, 1969) or graphic sexual obsession (In the Realm of the Senses/Ai no corrida, France/Japan, 1976, banned in his native country), so he was hardly likely to soft-pedal Japanese wartime atrocities.

In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), prisoners are worked beyond exhaustion and subjected to brutal beatings or more elaborate tortures. It's not just the prisoners who are mistreated - the Japanese commit ritual suicide (hara-kiri) after seemingly minor infractions, a side-effect of the ruthless discipline that governed the Japanese army.

Then Oshima and co-writer Paul Mayersberg introduce a different taboo: the homosexual passion felt by Japanese Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) for Australian POW Major Celliers (David Bowie). To complicate matters, Celliers is a trouble-maker determined to subvert the rigid rules at every opportunity, and Yonoi is frequently the butt of his jokes. Yonoi and Celliers engage in a series of power games that inevitably reveal both the former's desires and the latter's shameful past.

However the most important character in the film is Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) - as he's the only prisoner who speaks Japanese and who makes any attempt to understand their culture. As a result, he is able to engage his captors in intelligent debate, giving both sides a coherently-argued viewpoint. It's not the first film to attempt this - Tora! Tora! Tora! (US/Japan, co-d. Richard Fleischer & Kinji Fukasaku, 1970) was a similar meeting of East and West, this time over Pearl Harbor - but few other films have made such a concerted effort at bridge-building.

As a footnote, the sadistic Sergeant Hara is played by Takeshi Kitano - then a TV personality, now an internationally acclaimed director. And the haunting score was composed by the multitalented Sakamoto, who won an Oscar for The Last Emperor (Italy/China, d. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987).

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The firing squad (1:55)
2. All honourable men (3:05)
3. Rock of Ages (3:39)
4. 'Kill them' (3:07)
Bowie, David (1947-)
Conti, Tom (1941-)
Mayersberg, Paul (1941-)
Thomas, Jeremy (1949-)