An appropriate blog follow-on from Brother in a number of ways - this was Takeshi Kitano's first real break from his "Beat" Takeshi persona and his emergence as a serious actor, starring here as Sergeant Hara. It's also another cinematic miscegenation - East meets West - and Nagisa Oshima's first crossover picture. It's clear that Kitano's involvement was a formative experience in his own career as a director, picking up his rapid, economic way of working from Oshima, as well as an interest in exploring cultural differences. As with Brother, Merry Christmas exposes a seemingly impassable gulf in value sets, that lead the Japanese to prefer death to shame and Westerners to privilege survival over everything.
Ostensibly, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is a POW film, set in Japanese-occupied Indonesia, towards the end of WWII. Unlike many previous efforts, having a Japanese director at the helm makes for an intriguing take on an established genre. For a POW film, it's not especially violent: there are sporadic bursts of violence, often cleverly alluded to rather than graphically paraded by Oshima, but Merry Christmas is a essentially a subtle, character-driven movie, full of atmosphere, which is embellished by Ryuichi Sakamoto's brilliant score.
Oshima made the bold move of casting pop icons David Bowie and Sakamoto in the key roles of Jack Celliers and Captain Yonoi. Despite powerful performances from all the main players, it's Bowie's strange, christ-like Celliers who steals the show. The tension between Celliers and the camp, repressed, savagely cruel Yonoi is palpable. And while their relationship is about irreconcilable differences, the relationship between Lawrence and Hara suggests that the shared humanity of the Japanese and the British, arbitrarily cast in opposing roles, could lead to a deeper understanding, and the possibility of friendship in spite of circumstance.
Dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983