I hope everyone is having a happy New Year's Eve. I'm visiting family and enjoying myself, although I didn't pack all the books I meant to, unfortunately. There are a bunch of movies I want to see in theaters (The Hobbit and Django Unchained are at the top of the list), but I haven't had a chance to go yet. Perhaps tonight or tomorrow?
That doesn't mean I haven't been watching any movies. My dad and I love watching films distributed through the Criterion Collection together, so I gave him the perfect Christmas choice: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. This 1983 film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, regarded as one of the best Japanese filmmakers of his generation. It was a joint British-Japanese production, which is very fitting since the story is one of culture clash between British and Japanese soldiers in a WWII POW camp.
It's not your standard POW movie. There is no escape, nor any real attempt at escape. (There is one half-hearted, aborted attempt.) There isn't a strong structure to the film. The tension and interest lies in the relationships between the characters.
The eponymous Mr. Lawrence is played by Tom Conti, the only actual dramatic actor in the main cast - and even he was fairly inexperienced at the time of filming. Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence is a British officer who can speak Japanese, due to time spent in Japan, which puts him in an interesting position in the camp. He's the one soldier with a real chance at understanding his captors. His foil in the film is Sergeant Hara, played by Takeshi Kitano. This was his first dramatic role, and audiences only knew him as a comedian. But his comedic moments in the film highlight the monstrosity of Hara, who honestly can't understand any immorality in his actions.
But the biggest stunt casting in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was pitting two rock stars against each other. David Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers and Ryuichi Sakamoto plays camp commandant Captain Yonoi. Both are limited actors, but used very well. Bowie has a presence that makes the captain's instant fascination with him understandable and Sakamoto's stiffness fits the reserved military man.
I liked Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but it's an odd film. It is extremely character driven, but the characters are often enigmatic. (When in doubt, assume someone is motivated by guilt or shame.) Yet, it works, and I think the film expresses the truth of what it sought to explore. Although there is very little graphic violence onscreen, it is a brutal film. The Japanese characters are obviously the villains, but there is sympathy for their point of view. And even Celliers, the rebellious soldier who performs the greatest heroic act in the movie, has done bad things.
I recommend Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but must warn you not to expect Bridge Over the River Kwai or The Great Escape when you start watching.