However, while Oshima lets his character’s use this kind of stereotype in their dialogue, he does not allow the movie to present the same ideas that his characters hold. In other words, by contrasting character’s dialogue with the actual events that unfold, he paints for the audience a different picture – one which allows us more understanding of these concepts.
In terms of how the two cultures relate to death, there are many points in the movie where Oshima brings into question commonly held stereotypes. Jack and Lawrence are spared from death multiple times by Sakamoto and especially Hara Gunso – the two characters who would most be expected to not show any sympathy. Furthermore, when the tables are turned, the British, who supposedly placed such value on the sanctity of life, are shown to not do so at all when the sentence the Japanese to death.
Ideas of individuality as well are shown to not be as simple as just an East vs. West difference. As we learn about Jack’s background, we witness the power of group thought and the attack on individuality, not in Japan, the East, but in England. Additionally, Hara Gunso repeatedly shows examples of taking more individual action than many of the British characters.
Of all the characters though, the one who seems to echo most closely Oshima’s views would be Lawrence. This is especially apparent in some of the lines he has toward the concept of war, for example when he responds to an execution and is then questioned about whose actions were right and who’ s were wrong. “No, no captain Yanoi,” he says, “You’re wrong. …We’re all wrong.” Later, he follows up these sentiments with “…and the truth is, of course, that nobody’s right.” The simplicity of viewing one side always in the same way, for example as one side being “right” in war, is shown now to be a gross oversimplification, and in fact, a dire mistake.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is not so serious and didactic though as to become overly weighty toward the viewer. In fact, I found some scenes to be almost hilarious in their unwitting attempts at ironic humor. When David Bowie voices the line “I wish I could sing,” I almost burst at the seams. Other, similar one-liners are enough to give the movie a unique kind of quirkiness that, if taken just a little bit further, would be enough to make one wonder when the Goblin King is going to break into another rendition of Magic Dance.
Title: 戦場メリークリスマス (Senjou Merii Kurisumasu)
English Title: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Release Date: 1983
Director: Oshima Nagisa
Starring: Tom Conti, David Bowie, Sakamoto Ryuichi, Kitano, Takeshi
The music, composed by Sakamoto Ryuichi, captured me right from the start. Evocative, and hauntingly beautiful, I immediately recalled the music by Masuda Toshio from the series Mushishi and realized the influence he must have had from Sakamoto’s style.
Probably the first thing that I should write in my essay about this movie is that David Bowie plays a lead character. Known more for inventing the character Ziggy Stardust and singing cosmic, space rock, any movie that features Bowie, not for his music, but for his acting is bound to catch the eye.
Bowie, however, is not the only musician playing a lead role in this movie as composer of the film’s soundtrack Sakamoto Ryuichi also stars, as a head of the P.O.W. camp where the film takes place. In addition to Sakamoto’s role, the characters played by Tom Conti and Kitano Takeshi, who give the movie’s best performances, have the most depth and make the movie a very enjoyable watch. We also can’t forget Oshima Nagisa, and his role as the creator and visionary behind this international effort film.
The setting takes place at a Japanese P.O.W. camp in Burma, during World War II. Lawrence (Conti) is one of the many, mostly British prisoners; however he is different in that he has spent some time in Japan and can speak Japanese. This enables him and Kitano’s character, Hara Gunso, to form a connection, and as close of a friendship as their circumstances dictate.
It amazes me how many different issues Oshima attempts to tackle with this one movie. The most obvious is the contact / confrontation of two different cultures – Japanese and English, East and West. Within this sphere, Oshima attempts to portray both similarities and differences between the two, and also capture popular images and views toward the other from that time.
The first of these relates to different views on the concept of death. The British soldiers are portrayed as placing value on the preservation of life – one’s own and others. This is different from some of the Japanese soldiers, especially Yanoi (Sakamoto) who feels that there is more value in ending one’s life than being caught, something which he himself regrets not having done, after some of his comrades were killed.
Also issues of individuality and portrayals of the concept of “the group,” appear repeatedly throughout the movie. Lawrence and Jack (Bowie) at one point spitefully joke about how the Japanese can’t do anything individually and, indeed, events happen in the movie, which might lead one to believe there is some shred of truth to what the characters say.