Monday, December 8, 2014


Although this years' holiday movie has nothing to do with Christmas, the title makes it eligible in my book. While I put the final touches on my end of the year review, I reached out to Leanne (again) to take care of this years' "Christmas" movie.


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) directed by Nagisa Oshima is a unique WWII film which focuses on a Japanese internment camp on Java in 1942 and the volatile cultural clashes which ensued there. WWII films tend to focus on valor and strength, while this film explores how intercultural communication is amplified and skewed by catastrophic events. An entrancing score written by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also plays the troubled Capt. Yonoi, combined with a top-notch cast including David Bowie, Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano and the scene-stealing Tom Conti, provide a window into two cultures bound by the monstrous actions which accompany the hell of war.

The intercultural misunderstandings experienced by the Japanese soldiers and their Allied captives are multilevel within the internment camp which they occupy. Not only is there a conflict between East and West but also within these groups. Capt. Yonoi is of the samurai class and his ideas on honor vary from those of his counterpart, Sgt. Hara(Takeshi). Sgt. Hara absolutely adheres to the traditional Japanese ideals of honor, yet is not of the high class of the samurai and hence more casual. Sgt. Hara metes out his share of torture and discipline, yet his power derives from the military as opposed to an ancient order. The decisions which the two commanders make in relation to the POWs illustrate how cultural norms are morphed by certain time periods and extreme social circumstances. Yonoi and Hara would have unlikely ever interacted in regular life; the War thrust them together to fumble through their own understanding of their position in society and then applying that to a foreign culture which they can barely fathom.

The Allied POWs include those of all classes, with the culture of the military and fear of death bonding them. Col. Lawrence(Tom Conti) is the everyman, acting as the ambassador to the POW's Japanese captors. Mr. Lawrence, as Sgt. Hara dubs him, tries valiantly to cause as little harm to his men as possible while still trying to seem deferential to the Japanese. His aim is to keep his head down, keep his men's dwindling morale stable, and survive until the War ends. Ultimately the capture and addition of Major Celliers(David Bowie) to the camp throws a wrench in Lawrence's efforts. Celliers is a man of honor whose Western individualism serves to rile both his imprisoners and Lawrence alike. Celliers believes that standing strong against injustice will serve his compatriots well, yet does not factor that his boldness will translate to flippant disrespect.

The power of intrigue and curiosity serve to inform the relationships and ultimate fates of the men of the camp. The tones of unrequited love color the relationship between Yonoi and Celliers. The opening actions of the film which involve an ad hoc trial of two POWs, Korean and Allied, who are discovered having sex and are to be punished, set the tone for Yonoi's and Celliers' interactions. Yonoi's overzealous interest in Celliers' well-being and thoughts, lead one to believe he is interested in the Major for more than the military information he can deliver. Similarly, Celliers seems to toy with Yonoi's emotions, confusing him with his acts of disregard for authority, like defiantly stealing food and absurdly eating flowers to rile the camp guards. Celliers takes near glee in his acts of sacrifice, not feeling ashamed of his imprisonment, very unlike the ideas of honor his captor holds. The sight of an honorable yet insubordinate man of regard, from a culture made enemy through war, rattles Yonoi to the extent that he must finally quash that which threatens to implode his entire worldview.

The relationship between Hara and Lawrence is an odd blend of genuine friendship and brutality. If not for the War, one could imagine them meeting on a vacation someday and becoming fast friends. The sadness of their relationship is that they had to meet in a temporary time of horror, which will allow them no such happy accord. The conversations between Hara and Lawrence lean toward the darkly humorous. Hara frankly states, with a jolly smile on his face, that Lawrence should commit suicide, as that is honorable, while being a POW is the utmost humiliation. Lawrence counters that in his culture being a POW is an accepted variable of war and thus not a humiliation. Their debate on this serious subject is more of a witty banter than an order from Hara. Hara never hands Lawrence a knife, he more bemusedly presses on with his total confusion of why one wouldn't kill themself, never fully grasping that there could be alternate action. The final meeting between Hara and Lawrence is bittersweet, affirming the notion that war deforms love and leaves only regret.

The dismal tropical camp setting filled with wretched prisoners barely clinging to life and hope lays bare the terrible tortures which occurred in the Pacific during WWII. The POWs are starved, made to line up in formation in oppressive weather and even forced to commit seppuku. The horrifying slash of a knife into the abdomen of a prisoner confined to take his own life is a symbol the mutilation of a nation's soul. The Japanese were merciless and cruel with their prisoners, committing numerous foul injustices. This film reminds us that any culture can become grotesque in the face of absolute power.


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