Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is showing again on MUBI and it makes an intriguing Christmas diversion. It was last streaming in 2018 to tie in with the limited release of the documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Japan-US 2017) in the UK. It was fascinating to watch it then as a film I hadn’t seen properly since its UK release in 1983. For some reason I didn’t post my writing on it before it disappeared. I remembered only parts of the film and some scenes were a real surprise. Most of all, I wondered what I made of it in the 1980s since so many of the elements of the film might now work differently given what has happened over the intervening 35 years. Now, I realise that I still can’t remember the film in detail so I’m having a third go, revising my notes from 2018.
The film came about through a chance encounter at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 between producer Jeremy Thomas and director Oshima Nagisa. Thomas was at Cannes for The Shout which won the Grand Prix and Oshima was a respected ‘international’ director after the acclaim for Ai No Corrida (1976). In 1978 he won Best Director at Cannes for Empire of Passion. A year later Oshima approached Thomas with his script of an adaptation of two novellas by Laurens van der Post who had been a Japanese prisoner of war in Java in 1942. This script was eventually worked on by Paul Mayersberg and the film was cast with five lead parts. The musician-artist Sakamoto Ryuichi was given a début acting role as a Japanese officer, Captain Yonoi. He was matched by David Bowie, another musician-artist whose own film career had already seen notable success as the lead in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Two established actors, Tom Conti and Jack Thompson, played British officers and the Japanese comedian/actor ‘Beat’ Takeshi, as Sergeant Hara, completed the line-up of principal parts. Since 1983, Oshima and Bowie have both died and the most remarkable change has seen Kitano Takeshi emerge as a major auteur director in Japan. Oddly, the Australian Jack Thompson was the most experienced film actor in the principal cast but he had only fifth billing.
There is relatively little by way of plot in the film. A group of British and Commonwealth fighting men are held in a prisoner of war camp in Java in 1942. Captain Yonoi is the officer in charge. Half the prisoners are sick and rest in a temporary hospital. Yonoi is a young man facing three problems. He has to deal with a Korean guard who has seemingly sexually assaulted a Dutch prisoner. Before he can resolve this he is called away to Batavia to assist in the trial of Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), a British officer who led a guerrilla action against the Japanese after the official surrender. Yonoi is intrigued by Celliers and accepts him as a prisoner to take back to the camp. Yonoi is also determined to find information about any weapons that the British may have hidden, but the senior British officer, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), refuses to provide any information beyond name, rank and number. The narrative becomes about the inter-relationships of the principal characters. Lt-Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) is the only Allied prisoner who speaks and understands Japanese, having lived in Tokyo. Yonoi is the only officer in the camp who speaks reasonably fluent English. Sergeant Hara has been in the Japanese Army since he was 17. He is bemused by British culture and temperament but also inquisitive. He doesn’t fear Yonoi and sometimes gets very drunk. And he can be very violent.
The question in 1983 was how Oshima would approach working on a Western production outside Japan. Would he have the same problems as Kurosawa in his ill-fated attempt to work with the Americans on Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)? The assumption was that perhaps this was essentially a British story (van der Post was South African but close to the British establishment in some ways and had been an officer in the British Army in Java in 1942). Would Oshima’s direction offer new perspectives on the clash of ‘East-West’ differences in culture and philosophies? How would the film engage with the substantial body of narratives about the Second World War and especially the Japanese treatment of the large numbers of Allied prisoners. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the film was seen by some as a kind of response to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The usually astute Roger Ebert came out in 1983 with an argument about Japanese acting styles. He found the two performances by Sakamoto and Kitano ‘unbalanced’ the film. Presumably Ebert thought that the Japanese performances should have been more like the British? Which, apart from destroying the central relationships, seems insulting towards Oshima. In the UK, Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1983) offers a more informed approach with a detailed review by Richard Combs, who also interviews scriptwriter Paul Mayersberg. This is an excellent interview and it helps to get to grips with the film. Mayersberg’s knowledge of Japanese culture helped him to mould a script that would do what Oshima wanted.
My own feeling is that Bowie and Sakamoto both give extraordinary performances. They act as ‘stars’ and as if they inhabit another universe. No doubt Oshima gave Sakamoto detailed instruction about how a young man from a samurai family might have acted at the time. I read some references to Bowie’s experience on the shoot which suggests that Oshima gave little direction to the Western actors. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowie constructed his own part from the basis of the script. As an aside, before this viewing I had never been aware of the fact that Bowie had an eye condition in which his left pupil remained permanently expanded at all times as the result of an accident. This becomes very evident in the many close-ups in the film. Celliers is the most mysterious character in the narrative and the script gives us flashbacks to a ‘house in the country’ and his time in school with his younger brother. This memory is odd for a number of reasons. The major location for the film production was Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, an independent but ‘associated state’ of New Zealand located in the centre of Polynesia. Celliers’ family house is represented by a location in Auckland. The character in the original story was South African and Bowie has a non-definable accent. The school has a uniform and an ethos that implies a British-style public school and Bowie is shown in school uniform as an 18 year-old with his younger brother, supposedly only a few years younger. Oshima cast a young actor as the 12 year-old Jack Celliers but his younger brother is played by the same actor in two scenes supposedly six years apart. By contrast, Sakamoto as Yonoi refers to his memories but we don’t see him as a younger man. Where Celliers is conscious of his ‘wrong’ behaviour towards his brother (his ‘betrayal’), Yonoi is driven by his anguish about what happened to the young officers he knew in 1936 whom he had to leave behind when he was sent to Manchuria and we have to ask why such a dynamic young officer is running a POW camp in Java? (The ‘young officers’ from 1936 were part of a revolt against the leadership of the Imperial Japanese Army – this reference would have significant resonance in Japan but left many Western audiences non-plussed.) Celliers and Yonoi are in some ways alike but they understand each other only at a basic emotional level – and their emotions are clouded by their memories and perhaps a repressed homo-erotic desire. At this point I should say that while I recognise and respect the performances of both actors (and Sakamoto’s music score for the film is wonderful) they didn’t interest me as much as Lawrence and Hara. I realise now that I perhaps missed the thrust of Oshima’s perspective, but I think I did still engage with the question of ‘Japaneseness’, albeit through different characters.
Mayersberg explains that he thinks Oshima wanted to create a parallel between the relationship of Celliers and Yonoi and Lawrence and Hara. Mayersberg’s script develops the character of Lawrence ‘in the flesh’: in the original version he is an observer and narrator of the story. Mayersberg discusses what this parallel might be like but feels that it is problematic because in social class terms, Lawrence should be associated with Celliers and Yonoi. The connection between Lawrence and Hara is much more human and for me, Hara, despite his brutality, is the character who changes over the course of the narrative. The title of the film is Hara’s line. Lawrence understands most, on an intellectual level, but doesn’t get involved and is unsure of what to make of what he sees. Hara is both pragmatic and perceptive. I’m not going to attempt to paraphrase all of Mayersberg’s interesting analysis. Instead, I’ll just point out some of the changes that have happened. Mayersberg says that Sakamoto’s casting, a pop star playing a camp commander in 1942, is ‘insane’ for audiences in Japan. But now it is quite common for pop stars to play lead roles in Japanese dramas (e.g. Kore-eda Hirokazu’s use of Fukuyama Masaharu in films like The Third Murder (Japan 2017)). Similarly, he suggests that ‘Beat’ Takashi, as a stand-up comedian is used as in the British tradition of comedians playing Shakespearean roles. Kitano Takeshi is now known as both a serious actor and an auteur director. I should point out that Paul Mayersberg was primarily active from the early 1970s to the late 1990s and was known as a specialist in Japanese culture and as a frequent collaborator with Jeremy Thomas.
There are other changes which affect readings as well. Mayersberg’s concern is how both sides view the East-West difference. In 1983 the war experience, though 40 years old, was still to some extent part of the British cultural experience but at that time was also exacerbated by the fear of the Japanese economic domination of so many industries. For younger people the wartime images were replaced by ideas about Japanese business practices – all those stories about the workforce doing exercises together to build team spirit etc. Since then the Japanese economy has suffered decades of stagnation and even though some Japanese businesses are now well established in the UK (such as the car companies Toyota and Nissan), those concerns about work methods don’t make the news anymore. In the early 1990s I signed up to be one of the educationists employed by the electronics firm TDK to go into schools in England and Wales to introduce ideas about Japanese culture. The company saw this as part of its public relations programme but the project was scrapped before I got underway because of the changes in the Japanese economy.
I think one of the issues about the film for British audiences is that there is relatively little knowledge about the Pacific War in the UK and especially the situation in Java in 1942. British cinema has neglected the war in the East with only a few high level exceptions. Because the British involvement in the conflict began with a series of humiliating defeats and the capture of so many Commonwealth soldiers, most of the narratives have been about POW camps and the brutality of the Japanese. This is very different to the American output of war combat pictures in the Pacific War. As I understand it, there was only limited combat in Java and the Dutch territories fell quickly over three months. Re-taking the territory was not high on the agenda for the Americans who logically moved more directly towards Japan over the next three years. As a result, Java was still occupied when the war ended. There is a whole issue about the attitude of the Japanese towards the Indonesians who were treated much like the Koreans or Chinese in Manchuria, as a source of free labour, but this isn’t part of the film. I mention the wider war issues simply because Yonoi’s determination to find the ‘armaments experts’ among the prisoners is supported by claims that the war was going badly for the Japanese. In December 1942 the Empire of Japan had reached just about its peak in terms of territories occupied. Admittedly from this point things didn’t get ‘better’, but Java was not threatened by Allied attacks. All of this means that the drama of the two pairings of prisoners and gaolers is in effect undisturbed by the general course of the war.
How can I sum up my feelings about this film? I imagine that every viewer will have their own personal reading and that, like me, they might find that reading changing after repeated viewings. There are several ‘authorial voices’ mixing together here. Laurens van der Post and Oshima represent the two voices most identified with the problem of understanding the differences between two rigid systems of honour and conduct and Mayersberg speaks as a kind of interpreter. Bowie and Sakomoto are very distinct ‘personalities’ and artists who communicate the emotional struggles of their characters. For me, the samurai honour code and the public school ethos are both still undecipherable despite my years of trying to understand them. Tom Conti manages to find the humanity in his character (another public schoolboy) and to forge a relationship with Kitano Takeshi’s Hara. Perhaps it is Jack Thompson who inadvertently shows up the the differences between the characters. I like Thompson as an actor but I don’t really understand his role in the film. He remains for me a bluff Australian and an unlikely Senior British Officer. The character’s behaviour in the film is completely at odds with the manner of both Celliers and Lawrence and this is emphasised by his military dress and the way he moves. Did Oshima know what to do with him? Was his presence associated with selling the film? The Australian audience for a film about the Pacific War would be important and Thompson had previously played a leading role in Breaker Morant (Australia 1980), a film about Australian soldiers under British command in the Boer War. Thompson’s Group Captain is the equivalent of an Army Colonel, thus outranking Lawrence’s Lt-Colonel but in the social class terms of the 1940s, Lawrence seems the superior presence.
I have no clear conclusion except that this is a beautifully made film that is fascinating to watch and has offered me much pleasure in attempting to unravel its mysteries. If you’ve never seen it it, do give it a go – and if you have seen it, why not go back and watch it again to see if your perspective has changed?