By Jonathan Clements.
In a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942, interpreter Lawrence (Tom Conti) struggles to maintain the uneasy peace, as camp commandant Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) feuds with the charismatic prisoner Celliers (David Bowie). The love-hate between the two is mirrored in a different sort of relationship between Lawrence and the brutal officer Hara (Takeshi Kitano), until their places switch after the war. Lawrence, however, wonders if anything has really changed.
Have you ever bought a disc just for the extras? A couple of times, I’ve caught myself doing just that – ignoring the film and going straight for Brian Blessed’s commentary on Flash Gordon, or the writers’ chat by Palahniuk and Uhls on Fight Club. There are some films I know so well that I don’t feel the need to actually watch them again any time soon, but I am always up for knowing more about them. And in that regard, the new Blu-ray edition of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is a dream come true.
Back in 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence was something of a revelation. Without David Bowie’s star-turn as the haunted Celliers (a man who has betrayed a child, and carries the guilt with him like a permanent shadow), it might have faded into art-house obscurity, but instead it became one of the few “Japanese” films one might expect to find in the provinces.
The Arrow Academy package achieves the remarkable goal, in tune with the film itself, of approaching the film from both East and West, recounting what it meant to Western cinema-goers, but also the very different notes it strikes with Japanese audiences. Jasper Sharp’s long essay in the Blu-ray booklet places Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence within Oshima’s career, offering astute commentary on some of the elements that are likely to have sailed over the heads of Western audiences. These include the throwaway lines in which Lawrence realises that Yonoi was almost one of the thwarted revolutionaries of the Ni-ni-roku Incident of 1936, when earnest young officers failed in a military coup. For Japanese audiences, this unpacks a huge can of worms, linking Yonoi to the sort of far-right super-perfect bishie pin-up also encountered in Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism and Oshima’s later Gohatto. But it also ties the story to Oshima’s infamous In the Realm of the Senses, in which the sordid erotic drama of the latter film plays out with the Ni-ni-roku incident as a barely-seen backdrop. Sharp’s insights also extend to the connections that the film has to the pop world, not merely in the obvious stunt casting of Bowie and Sakamoto, but in several lesser known musicians and singers scattered among the cast.
That’s good enough for most people, and an essay of such depth is often the best you can hope for on a collector’s edition of an old Japanese movie. But the video extras on the disc are at least three times as long as the film itself, including a whole other movie. Ported over from the 2005 DVD, Jeremy Thomas’s producer’s-eye interview is packed with insights about the production, including his nail-biting weeks at Oshima’s side as the director called cut on single takes, with no way of viewing the rushes until it would be too late to know if another try was required. “Nobody wants to buy film stock after it’s been to a desert island and back!” he quips, bemoaning all the unexposed film that turned out to be surplus to requirements. He also recounts a chilling incident on set, when Oshima’s veteran director of photography, incensed with an actor’s inability to hold a sword properly, snatched it from him and hacked off a dummy’s head in a single stroke. He had, whispered on-set trouble-makers, learned how to behead people back in the 1940s, when he was in the army.
Meanwhile, a charmingly humble Ryuichi Sakamoto explains his composition process, as well as his hellish self-doubts over his own acting ability in the role of Yonoi. He still comes across as a little wounded by Bowie’s refusal to collaborate on the music in any way, and is sweetly star-struck by the transformation of his actor-friend from the set, into the unrecognisable super-star who participated in the Cannes press call. “He can wear those masks,” shrugs Sakamoto. “But I… can’t.” Also included is The Oshima Gang (1983), a 30-minute documentary about the promotional tour at that year’s Cannes film festival, featuring not only Bowie and Conti, but the aged Laurens van der Post himself, recounting the tale of his capture in Java and some of the experiences that inspired his 1963 novellas, on which the film was based. Unfortunately, there was no contemporary “making-of” documentary – apparently one was shot, but for some reason, David Bowie refused to authorise its release.
New to this disc, critic Tony Rayns gives a 44-minute lecture to camera about everything you could ever possibly want to know about director Nagisa Oshima, siting him in the ferment of the American Occupation of Japan, the post-war Japanese theatre and movies, and Japan’s desire to recreate itself after defeat. It’s a masterclass in Japanese film history, which I predict will count as “the Oshima lesson” in many a university class forthwith, winningly scattered with cutaway images from the films he name-drops, as he talks through Oshima’s flirtations with the left-wing, his falling out with the Shochiku studio, and (as does Sharp), the foreshadowing of Mr Lawrence in Oshima’s earlier adaptation of The Catch, by Kenzaburo Oe. It takes him 25 minutes to get to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, with a bunch of raconteurial diversions into the world of hard-core pornography, adverts for cockroach spray, and the virtues of wearing a lavender suit, all of which turn out to be intimately related to Oshima’s life and work.
Are you not entertained? The disc also includes the feature-length documentary on Oshima, Paul Joyce’s 1983 The Man Who Put His Soul on Film, an even deeper dive into Oshima in context, with director interviews, commentaries from the likes of Roger Pulvers (Conti’s language coach) and Paul Mayersberg (the co-scenarist), and a new perspective that places Oshima’s work within the story of Japan’s shame over WW2, and the controversy over modern schoolbooks that refused to mention it.
I’ll stop short of calling this “definitive”— a fantasy-perfect edition, with an infinite budget, might have also managed to coaxe Conti and Kitano on camera to talk about their experiences. But such a moon-on-a-stick Blu-ray would have also required a time machine, not merely to get Bowie and Oshima on film again before their deaths, but to be able to talk about van der Post before a posthumous scandal would have made him too toxic to discuss in any depth. For the true nerds, there’s also a collection of radio trailers, and for anyone with a BD-ROM player, the chance to see the Cannes brochure scanned in its entirety. After all that, the film itself is something of an after-thought, waiting back on the main menu screen in a 1080p transfer.
Speaking as someone who has lost count of the number of times I have seen this film, this Blu-ray release achieves that which you always hope a Criterion-class special edition will do, revealing a bunch of new and exciting connections and approaches to the film. I put it in the player expecting only to watch and comment on the extras. But having seen them, they compelled me to see the whole thing again. Nearly forty years on, I am still taken aback by the overwhelming pathos of the film’s ending, as Hara wishes Lawrence the titular happy holiday, not really understanding what Christmas actually is, or why he has been convicted of a crime. What the “real” Lawrence went on to do only a few years later, sadly, makes this incomprehension all the more ironic, but also places the shame of Celliers’ past in sharp new context.