We like to consider ourselves pretty knowledgeable on all things pop culture here at Loser City, but even we have gaps in our expertise. Rather than hide our ignorance, though, we prefer to educate ourselves in public through Mind the Gap, a column devoted to filling the spaces in our pop culture awareness, be it in the form of movies, books, comics, games, tv series, exotic cuisine, or whatever else might be out there that we haven’t gotten around to yet.
Helping us launch this column is Shea Hennum, who has bravely offered to fill in an empty spot in his Japanese cinema experience with Nagisa Oshima and his later period masterwork Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Like a dark counterpart to Empire of the Sun, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is set in a Japanese POW camp where four men have been forced into frequently tense relationships with one another. The movie is perhaps best known for being one of David Bowie’s rare leading performances, as well as the soundtrack, which features Japanese electronic star Ryuichi Sakamoto collaborating with David Sylvian, the frontman of, uh, Japan.
“You don’t know the Japanese until you’ve seen seppuku,” says Takeshi Kitano. He’s telling this to John Lawrence (played by Tom Conti) who is interred at a Japanese POW camp on the island of Java. Lawrence speaks Japanese and is understanding of Japanese sensibilities and culture, so he’s given a lot of latitude with the guards. This relationship between East and West underscores much of the film’s drama, and it’s as much a film about engaging with foreignness as it is anything else, how one’s culture can sometimes repress and express certain things.
A Korean guard had been caught raping a Dutch prisoner, and Kitano’s character, Hara, is offering him the chance to commit seppuku— ritual suicide in which one disembowels themselves, first horizontally across the belly and then vertically up the chest. They’re beheaded when the pain overwhelms them. The act is usually committed before an audience, and Hara has selected Lawrence to be that audience.
Even though it’s barely remarked upon later in the film, this opening scene is of vital import. It provides the impetus for a short conversation between Lawrence and Hara in which Hara explains what happens during war: the men don’t become gay, and they’re not gay to begin with, but some of them do develop intense feelings towards fellow soldiers—not necessarily romantic, but more than just platonic. That’s just how war works. This conversation, not recalled at all in the movie, is a Rosetta stone for the entirety of Nagisa Oshima’s film. In interviews included in the Criterion collection edition of the movie, both Oshima and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg remark on a discovery they made while writing the film: according to Oshima, in Japan, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask a question at the beginning of the scene and expect it to go unanswered until the very end of the scene. Oshima explained to Mayersberg that the Japanese aren’t made uncomfortable by silences or pauses, and those things don’t mean that the question has been ignored. Lawrence’s conversation with Hara here and its place in the movie embodies that conversational structure which is uncommon in the West.
But while Conti plays the films eponymous character and its narrator, the real meat of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence concerns David Bowie’s Jack Celliers and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Captain Yonoi. After surviving a firing squad, Celliers is remanded into the custody of Yonoi and joins Lawrence in the Javanese camp. Celliers proves too alluring to Yonoi, however, and the too become locked in a distanced, spiritual relationship. One of Yonoi’s subordinates equates Celliers to an evil spirit, claiming that Celliers has entranced Yonoi and is transforming him; the soldier attempts to kill Celliers in the night. Celliers, holding his assassins’ short knife, faces Yonoi, whose sword is drawn; Yonoi expects him to attack, as a Japanese soldier would, but Celliers declines, dropping his knife. The friction between ethnocentricity recurs.
This friction eventually leads to Yonoi’s replacement and Cellier’s death. Years after the war has ended, Lawrence finds Hara in prison and the two talk of Celliers and of that Christmas they shared together. Kitano, in close-up, stares at the camera and shouts the title twice.
This close-up of Kitano that ends the film fades into blackness as the film’s theme rings out, and it’s as if we’re left to answer any questions we have ourselves. Sakamoto, then one of the biggest musicians in Japan, provides the score and his dreamy electronica carries us through the ethereal film. The heavy synths are leitmotif and rise and fall during moments of Celliers’ Messianic glory (Mayersberg posits that Oshima thought Celliers was Jesus). It truly is a beautiful score, and it lends the film a palpable aural depth.
Oshima’s camera zooms in and out, slowly, gently, every move both considered and aloof. Intentional, but emotionally reserved. His perspective is that of Lawrence—distanced, objective, non-judgmental. He doesn’t pick sides or play favorites. He simply watches. And he makes us watch. His subject is sometimes brutal, but he doesn’t look away or visually euphemize the scene. It’s bare and revealing, and we’re forced to confront imagery that is, at times, harrowing. But that’s the appeal of Oshima.
My first experience with Oshima was certainly a stimulating one, and I appreciate the complexity of his work. To be sure, Mr. Lawrence was engaging and the overall experience was an enjoyable one, but it’s not a film intended to make you feel good about yourself. But it does reward the careful viewer, and there’s plenty to unpack. Oshima’s style is methodical and obtuse, and it doesn’t reveal itself very easily. Even now, I’m still rolling around certain things—Yanoi cutting off a lock of Celliers’ hair, the importance of the title—and trying to parse their meaning. Mr. Lawrence isn’t a simple WWII film, and, in all honesty, if it was, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed it at all.
The way Oshima engages with Japanese conventions is particularly fascinating, as he doesn’t seem to be entirely disdainful of them. He questions them and prods them, but he’s not necessarily interested in dismantling them. He approaches them with a deft hand, never entirely siding with any one point of view. I understand that Mr. Lawrence is a tame version of Oshima, so it would be interesting see work by him where the intensity was ratcheted up. This was a good entrée, however, and I’d be open to exploring his lengthy filmography more fully.
Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer who currently serves as the lead writer about comics for This Is Infamous. His work has also been featured at Paste, The Comics Alternative, eFantasy, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock. Essays of his will be included as backmatter in upcoming issues of Shutter from Image Comics, and he can be found as sheahisself on both Twitter and Tumblr.