DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Blu-ray (1983/2010)

This is as different a WWII drama as Jacob’s Ladder was a Vietnam drama.

Published on September 13, 2010

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Blu-ray (1983/2010)

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Blu-ray (1983/2010)

Starring: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Studio: Hanway Films/Image Ent./The Criterion Collection 535 [9/28/10]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color 1080p HD
Audio: English & Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM 2.0
Subtitles: English as needed
Extras: “The Oshima Gang” – 1983 making-of featurette; New video interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, Tom Conti, actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto; “Hasten Slowly” – 1996 documentary on Laurens van der Post, whose autobiographical novel was the basis of the film; Theatrical trailer; Printed booklet with essay by film writer Chuck Stephens and reprinted interviews with Oshima and actor Takeshi Kitano
Length: 123 minutes
Rating: *****

This is as different a WWII drama as Jacob’s Ladder was a Vietnam drama.  It starred a British rock star (Bowie) opposite a Japanese rock star (Sakamoto), who also provided the stick-in-your-ear theme music and score for the film in a not-at-all rock style. The two British actors were pleased to work for famed Japanese director Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion). Conti talks in the excellent bonus features about at first turning down the part in the film after reading the bloody and brutal screenplay. However there was good exchange between the English participants and Oshima and the director’s approach to the film downplayed the more gory aspects and concentrated on the clash between the two cultures. The result is a much more affecting film than probably would have resulted had it been an entirely Japanese production or an entirely Western production.

The setting is a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Java in 1942. The captors are British, Danish and New Zealand soldiers and the Japanese consider them less than human and often treat them accordingly. Mr. Lawrence is a Brit who is fluent in Japanese and struggles to keep some sort of peace between the Japanese and their captors. Sgt. Hara is merciless both to the prisoners and his own men. Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto) is head of the camp and has become fascinated with the blond British soldier Celliers (Bowie) during an earlier trial.

When Celliers is brought into the camp Yonoi is completely taken with him, and there are strong suggestions of a homosexual attraction. He looks after Celliers’ welfare at first, and even wants him to replace the hostile British representative of the prisoners, Cpt. Hicksley. Celliers proves even more hostile, however, culminating in Yonoi sentencing him to a horrible death. It is suggested that Celliers’ courageous but foolhardy actions are a sort of penance for a guilt-producing event in his past when he failed to stand up for his delicate younger brother. These flashbacks seem a bit forced and artificial, but the rest of the film is a many-layered, powerfully emotional story.

The extras are all fascinating, especially the documentary on the former British soldier who wrote about his experiences in the Japanese camp, who says most of the novel is true.  The discussion about the major differences between Japanese and Western culture in regard to shame and guilt is especially interesting. The digital restoration is of course excellent, as always with Criterion, and the English subtitles are very clear.

 – John Sunier




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