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Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

September 16, 2010 by  



The more I watch this film, I come away watching it and discovering something new.  “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is a much different film compared to Oshima’s more rebellious films that he is known for.  But if you give it a chance, you can find its story quite deep.  And to make this latest release of the film worth the while for the cineaste, The Criterion Collection has done cinema fans a big favor by including special features that really enhances your appreciation of the film.  Definitely recommended!

Image courtesy of © HanWay Films Limited. 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535

YEAR OF FILM: 1983

DURATION: 123 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:78:1 Aspect Ratio), Color, In English and Japanese with English Subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/Les Films Du Jeudi/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: September 24, 2010

Based on the Book “The Seed and The Sower” by Laurens Van der Post

Directed by Nagisa Oshima

Screenplay by Nagisa Oshima, Paul Mayersberg

Executive Producer: Terry Glinwood, Masato Hara, Geoffrey Nethercott, Eiko Oshima

Associate Producer: Joyce Herlihy, Larry Parr

Producer: Jeremy Thomas

Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Cinematography by Toichiro Narushima

Edited by Tomoyo Oshima

Production Design by Jusho Toda

Art Direction by Andrew Sanders

Starring:

David Bowie as Maj. Jack “Strafer” Celliers

Tom Conti as Col. John Lawrence

Ryuichi Sakamoto as Capt. Yonoi

Takeshi Kitano as Sgt. Gengo Hara

Jack Thompson as Group Capt. Hicksley

Johnny Okura as KAnemoto

Alistair Browning as De Jong

James Malcolm as Celliers’ Brother

Chris Broun as Celliers aged 12

Yuya Uchida as Commandant of Military Prison

Ryunosuke Kaneda as President of the Court

Takashi Naito as Lt. Iwata

In this captivating, skewed World War II drama from Nagisa Oshima, David Bowie regally embodies Celliers, a British officer interned by the Japanese as a POW. Rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also composed this film’s hypnotic score) plays the camp commander, obsessed with the mysterious blond major, while Tom Conti is the British lieutenant colonel Lawrence, who tries to bridge the emotional and language divides between captor and prisoner. Also featuring actor-director Takeshi Kitano in his first dramatic role, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a multilayered, brutal, at times erotic tale of culture clash, and one of Oshima’s greatest successes.

He is known as one of Japan’s most controversial but also highly respected director, his name is Nagisa Oshima, a filmmaker who shocked Japan with his films in the ’60s and achieved notoriety with his unsimulated sex film “In the Realm of Senses” and followed up with another controversial film with “Empire of Passion” (1978).

One of the founders of the Japanese New Wave, Oshima was known for taking on Japanese taboos and creating films against the status quo and in 1983, Nagisa Oshima, now residing in France, went to work on his film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, a historical war film loosely based on the novel “The Seed and The Sower” by Laurens Van der Post and Laurens’ experience as British soldier who surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 and was a prisoner of war for several years and saw how soldiers were treated by the Japanese but how he was able to stay alive due to his ability to speak Japanese.

But Nagase Oshima has always had a different perspective towards Japanese culture and for Nagashima, this was a chance to explore men’s attitudes in POW camp but to also explore perspectives of men from two different worlds and the consequences of war. Because “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was released in 1957 and dealt with British prisoners of war, both Oshima and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”, “Eureka”, “The Last Samurai”) wanted to make things different with this film and other POW war films.  “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” would eventually be nominated for a Golden Palm at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for six Japanese Academy Awards and also a winner of a BAFTA Award for “Best Score”.  And now “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” has been given the Criterion Collection treatment and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD.

The film revolves around four men at the camp.  Liutenant Colonel John Lawrence (played by Tom Conti, “Deadline”, “The Wright Verdicts”) is a British officer who speaks Japanese and because of that, he is like the spokesperson to the British POW’s and communicates with both Captain Yonoi (played by popular musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, “The Last Emperor”, “Appleseed”, “Wings of Honneamise”) and Sgt. Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano, “Brother”, “Zatoichi”, Sonatine”, “Johnny Mnemonic”).

Captain Yonoi follows the Bushido code and a man who feels guilt because while he was stationed in Manchuria, he was not in Tokyo where his Army comrades were executed after a military coup d’état.  Sgt. Hara is a man who seems to have a sadistic side to him but on Christmas Day, has a side to him where he becomes compassionate.   For Hara, he is very Japanese in the sense that one would not be held as a POW and would commit sepuku (a Japanese ritual suicide, dying with honor) rather than give the enemy a chance to feel they have won.

For Hara, he tries to understand the British soldiers motivation and  Lt. Col. Lawrence explains to him that he wants to survive for a chance to win against enemy.  No one wants to die if they have a chance to live and both men learn about each other’s perspective of life as soldiers.

Meanwhile, a new POW is brought into the camp.  Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers (played by David Bowie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, “Labyrinth”), a rebellious prisoner who has caught the attention of Captain Yonoi.  Celliers is also a man burdened by guilt as his younger brother was always beaten up and humiliated by other kids (because the younger brother had a hunchback) and did nothing to stop it.  So, in many ways, Celliers wants to help his fellow people, may it be to secretly feed them (when they are sentenced by Yonoi to fast, after a death of one of their soldiers), even if it means getting himself into major trouble.

The other Japanese soldiers start to notice how Yonoi is captivated by Celliers (almost like a homoerotic fixation on the man) which leads to one of the soldiers planning to kill Celliers in order for their captain not to lose honor and from that moment, Yonoi knows that his dedication to the Bushido code and running the camp with an iron fist is starting to weaken due to his emotional feelings that he has towards Celliers, prompting him to wanting to have one of the soldiers killed… Lt. Col. Lawrence for a crime he did not commit.

VIDEO:

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535” is presented in 1080p High Definition and in color.  The Criterion Collection version is the best looking version of the film to date.  More grain, colors look very good and even vibrant at times.  You can see the stubble on David Bowie’s chin, you can see more detail on the wood surfaces, the grain on the sand and even the beads of sweat going down the soldier’s faces.  Even during the darker portions of the film you can see a good amount of detail.  There are probably some parts of the film in which “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” does look its age but for the most part, this 27-year-old film looks great on Blu-ray.

According to the Criterion Collection, the new HD digital transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive scanned in 2K resolution on a Spirit Datacine 4K machine at Midnight Transfer, London.  2K color correction was done using Assimilate’s Scratch system, and dirt and scratch removal was done using Pixel Farm’s PFClean system at Cinelmage, London.  This corrected data was output to high-definition tape at On Sight, London.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for a small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is presented in Japanese and English stereo with English subtitles.  Dialogue is crisp and clear and music also comes clear through the front channels.  It is important for people to know that the Japanese dialogue is subtitled but when the Japanese talent are speaking English, there are no subtitles which is appropriate.  But for some people who have difficulty understanding certain dialogue from the Japanese talent, there are no English subtitles.

The film is presented in its original stereo surround format, the soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm Dolby LT/RT magnetic audio track at Sync Sound Audio, London.  Pops, crackle, hiss and hum were reduced with an array of audio restoration techniques.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535” comes with the following special features:

  • The Oshima Gang – (29:35) A behind-the-scenes featurette produced in 1983 with actors David Bowie and Tom Contie, author Laurens van der Post, director Nagisa OShima and producer Jeremy Thomas.
  • On the Screenplay – (11:05) The Criterion Collection interviews screenwriter Paul Mayersberg in regards to the development and screenplay of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and the work of Nagisa Oshima.
  • On Location – (40:00) Interviews with actors Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and producer Jeremy Thomas reminiscing of their experience on the set of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.
  • On the Music – (18:09) The Criterion Collection interviews actor and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who talks about the score for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.
  • Hasten Slowly – (55:32) A 1996 documentary which was produced and directed by Mickey Lemle which explores the spiritual journey of Afrikaner author Sir Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) who  wrote “The Seed and the Sower”.  The autobiographical novel was the basis for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.
  • Trailer – (3:13) The original theatrical trailer for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.

EXTRAS:

  • 30-Page Booklet– The booklet features “Lawrence of Shinjuku” by Chuck Stephens, an interview with filmmaker Nagisa Oshima titled “Oshima: Sex, Militarism and Empire” by film scholar Tadao Saito right before the film was promoted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983 and a ten question interview between Switch Magazine and Takeshi Kitano.

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of those films that stays with you.  You don’t remember it so much as a war film, but a film about the relationship of man and their differences.

During my trips to Japan during the Winter, you can hear the theme song to this film still being played on the loudspeaker and for nearly three decades, there are many times where I would be asked by Japanese friends if I have ever watched the film.   There is always an allure towards this film by Japanese and also to those who have had the opportunity to watch it and for me, each time I have watched this film, I have come away watching it and discovering something new each time.  And with this latest experience, because of the awesome special features that come with this Criterion Collection release, not only does it answer some questions I have had of this film but it also enhanced my appreciation of this Oshima classic.

For those who are used to Oshima’s Brechtian style of filmmaking, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was a film that proved to be baffling to those who viewed it.   Afterall, one can’t expect another “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and although based on a book, for those who are familiar with Oshima’s work will know that he’s not going to follow things as exactly what was on the pages of Laurens Van der Post’s “The Seed and The Sower”.  We expect some sort of rebelliousness from Oshima and if anything, for him to take on a POW film is quite interesting.

I definitely admire director Nagisa Oshima for not following the path of other filmmakers when it comes to prisoner of war films.  Not to say that these films are cliche but when you have Oshima working on the film, you’re expecting some type of rebelliousness on his part, and also expecting him not to follow the traditional route of filmmaking and storytelling.

As we have learned from Nagisa Oshima from films such as “In the Realm of Senses”, “Empire of Passion” and even his sixties films, one expects some type of rebellious trait that somehow exposes Japanese culture in a non-traditional way and in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, the subject matter is not as simplistic of two different cultures that see their own life in a different manner, nor is it about one side being ominous or correct. It’s about understanding one’s own value of life and in that rare moment, having that ability to see things on the other side.

There are people who tend to focus on the homoerotic attraction of Captain Yonoi towards Cellier but for me, I saw this as part of Oshima’s rebelliousness.   Simply because most filmmakers who have created films on the samurai have always focused on man.  May it be the corruption, the power, the protectiveness or the honor of men but I saw Yonoi’s Bushido-believing character as a man that was no different as samurai in the early ages who partook in nanshoku (male love) as these were depicted even in “Genji Monogatari” (Tale of Genji).  I started to learn more about this three years ago because it was rather interesting that this was a side of “samurai” culture that is known but never shown on film.  But when you think about the situation of the samurai’s of being around men, rarely around women, can this be the case with Captain Yonoi in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”?  Was this that rebellious side of Oshima by cleverly including that homoerotic tension in the film?  Because even for the soldiers, even honor amongst men, especially warriors, if it happened then, Japanese filmmakers never touched upon that subject.  Samurai films or even wartime films of Japanese were always depicted showing strong men who had honor.  So, this was the latest that I’ve got out of the film, watching it once again.  Another layer peeled, and once again, something new to discover.  Or perhaps, I am over-analyzing.

But this was how I looked at Yonoi’s fascination of Cellier.  Like many samurai’s who were in areas where there weren’t many women at all and only men, I saw Yonoi as a man who saw something within Cellier’s.  Some writers say it was a “kindred spirit” but I looked at it as more as a man who was touched by another’ man’s sincerity, his honor of wanting to help people, his honor of submitting himself to become a prisoner of war but not afraid to die.  Call Yonoi fascinated, maybe he was gay but “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” doesn’t need to get into the details of that.  But it makes you wonder how Captain Yonoi was the only soldier who had makeup around his face.  His eyes with the eyeliner, blush on the cheeks.  Why would Oshima want that with only Yonoi and not the other Japanese soldiers?  To make him stand out?  To make him appear more feminine?

It’s important for me to say that by mentioning all this, for the first-time viewer, by no means is this a gay film.  “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is pretty much a film about the relationship of man and the varying perspectives, especially as we see how the Japanese and British soldiers really have a difficult time understanding each other.  But for Yonoi, he is a man of guilt and somehow he felt that same guilt within Cellier’s.

There is also another theme that people who are familiar with Japanese culture (or cinema) will pick up on and that is the feeling of honor.  Dying with honor, serving your country with honor and I felt that Oshima said it best when describing Yonoi’s position of heading a prison camp.  Oshima said (in the interview included inside the Criterion booklet), “heading a prison camp was a humiliating assignment to a Japanese officer’s way of thinking.”  Yonoi’s guilt of not dying alongside his comrades has affected him and having him watch over P.O.W.’s was not making him feel any better as well.  Yonoi is a man of honor and perhaps that is what he saw inside Cellier’s and by then, he would eventually be consumed by his charm.

This is a film that may seem simplistic on the outside but can we classify different human perspectives as simplistic when it is rather complex?  The British soldiers view the Japanese as inhumane and lack honor for how they treat the soldiers but at the same time, the Japanese are in awe of how men can submit themselves to becoming an enemy’s prisoner of war.  The Japanese way is dying with honor.  Lawrence tells Sgt. Hara that for him and his men, it’s about living and being given another chance to fight again.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?

So, I really appreciate how Oshima crafted this film because I enjoyed it…but do I call it a masterpiece?

Roger Ebert wrote in his review at the Chicago Sun-Times:

It’s awkward, not because of the subject matter, but because of the contrasting acting styles. Here are two men trying to communicate in a touchy area and they behave as if they’re from different planets. The overstatement in the Japanese acting ruins the scene.

When I first watched “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” many years ago, I felt the same way.  We know that there are differences in acting style and especially when you try to bring in both worlds together, sometimes they don’t mesh as well.  And I have to admit that when I see Asian talent having to speak (or sing) a song that is not of their native tongue, the results are rather subjective and for me, it works or it doesn’t.  I felt that Takeshi Kitano did a magnificent job especially with the final scene and him delivering the film’s title in his final words but things were good but not great when it came to Yonoi and Bowie.

I know.for some, what kind of movie would “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” have been if it was in the hands of another filmmaker? Or what was the true experience that the real Lawrence, or in this case Laurens had when he was in the POW camp?  What we do know from Laurens Van der Post’s novel “The Seed and The Sower”, Post was a man who embraced the Japanese language and the people when he stayed in Japan.  He was amazed of how in tune the Japanese were to their own environment and at the time, seeing Japanese who have not been in contact with people not of their own culture.  But during war time, he saw how these Japanese that he adored, became different and he saw the hostilities that transpired at the prison camp to the last moment when the Japanese soldiers just switched, as if someone turned the power off and the Japanese accepted their defeat.  There is more to this story which is further explained in the “Hasten Slowly” documentary but I felt that it was simply fantastic that the Criterion Collection added this feature.

And as for this Blu-ray release of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, I felt the special features enhanced my appreciation of the film.  And no, these are not special features that last for five minutes long, these are special features that have a lot of information which explains the mindset of the filmmaker and the talent and it was great to watch this and to see “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” in new light.

I’ve been asked if this film is a masterpiece of Nagisa Oshima and although I do feel the word “masterpiece” is starting to become overused when describe a famous filmmaker’s oeuvre and in Oshima’s case, there are far too many films that I did enjoy but I do feel that this film was much more accessible to the viewer. For me, each time I view this film, I come away with some different as time goes by and I start to see things in a much more different light and I suppose that is why I enjoy this film so much is because it’s simple but yet has a complexity that one can easily interpret this film in a variety of ways.  And you’ll either love it or you don’t.

I felt that “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was a much more entertaining experience this time around and it is because The Criterion Collection had included special features in which we can hear the writer Paul Mayersberg give his own interpretation about the film and working with Oshima, we also get to hear about Bowie, Conti, Sakamoto and Kitano’s impression of the film and get their interpretation of the film as well.   And to finally hear from Laurens Van der Post and his fellow soldiers describe their experiences at the POW camp was impressive and heartbreaking as well.

Overall, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of those films that people will find something deep and complex within its layers or come away feeling like it’s a film that missed its true potential of not following Van der Post’s book and showing a more dramatic approach of the life of the POW.  So, I have no doubt that this film will be subjective towards the viewer.  But if you enjoyed the film before or are the curious Criterion Collection fan who is ready to blind-buy “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535”, you won’t be disappointed.  This is a solid release and is definitely recommended!

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