Based on Sir Laurens van der Post's novel "The Seed and Sower," which was inspired by his time in a WWII Japanese prisoner of war camp, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" is an interesting study of cultures clashing and relationships between men. Director Nagisa Oshima, making his first English-language film, delivers a more balanced presentation of the different perspectives between East and West than seen in similar films.
Set in Java, 1942, the film opens with POW Lt. Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti), who previously spent time in Japan and knows the language, being called out by head prison guard Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano) to witness some Asian military justice. Lawrence has the best relationship of any of the prisoners with Hara. Not so much a friendship, since they are captor and captive, but a mutual respect.
Lawrence learns that a Korean solider was caught in a sexual liaison with a Dutch prisoner and is ordered to commit seppuku to atone for his crime. Lawrence finds it barbaric, as most Westerners likely would, and tries to intervene. He questions why Hara has brought him to see this. Though unstated, it appears Hara is trying to show Lawrence about Eastern culture. When camp commandant Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) comes upon the proceedings, the viewer learns that Hara believes he is acting with compassion because an honorable suicide will result in the guard's family receiving a pension, which wouldn't happen with a court martial and jail.
Yonoi is called away to take part in a military trial for British Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), who was captured after leading an attack. He is defiant and rebellious in the dock, which confuses the Japanese soldiers in the courtroom. Oshima uses a dolly shot that slowly moves in on Yonoi, focusing on his intense, unblinking gaze that reveals an interest, or more likely an attraction. Celliers is sentenced to Yonoi's camp and becomes an obvious object of preoccupation for the Captain, leading to responses from guards and prisoners.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was a well-known musician in Japan not an actor when he signed on, but he does a good job revealing his character's turmoil. Sakamoto also composed the film's score, which is synthesizer based and offers bell-like sounds. When first heard during the opening credits, the music contrasts harshly with the historical setting. However, the incongruity evokes the film's theme, and over the course of the film, it proves to be a good fit.
There was one decision by Oshima that I felt didn't completely work. Celliers has a flashback that reveals some guilt he is carrying after an incident with his brother at school. A young actor initially played the younger version of Celliers. The flashback jumps ahead to when they are at school together where Bowie plays the part, but he looks too old following the other actor and also in contrast to the younger actors playing his schoolmates.
'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence' is very engaging in that it confounds the expectations derived from its war setting by delivering a meditation on cultural differences. Instead of the stereotypical plot about prisoners trying to escape their confines, the film presents a completely different and much more believable story about the men's interpersonal relationships and the resulting acts of cruelty and kindness performed between the four main characters. The slow pacing, by modern, Western standards, works in context, but may lose the interest of some.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence' (#535 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 28-page booklet containing an essay by Chuck Stephens and interviews with Oshima in 1983 and Kitano in 2010.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.78:1. The color palette predominantly uses a lot of earth tones in the camp and the hues come across richly. Brighter colors stand out, such as the red on uniforms and the courtroom rug and the shades of purple and lilac seen in the garden during Celliers' flashback. Blacks are adequate, slightly stronger when conveying darkness.
Although edges tend to be soft, there is a great amount of detail seen in the various materials. The grounds of the camp are clearly comprised of grass, dirt, or stones. Textures can be seen in the actors' faces, scuffed leather boots, worn floorboards, and the cement walls of a jail cell.
There is a healthy amount of film grain throughout. It increases during low-light shots, but is never distracting. The source is predominantly clean, with a very minimal amount of wear, and there are no digital artifacts.
There is one audio option: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Dialogue is front and center in the mix, but the voices have a tendency to sound flat at times due to the source. Sakamoto's synth score fills the surrounds with the ambiance left to the front channels. The music is the only element that has any worthwhile amount of bass while the pitch of Celliers' brother's singing hits the high, resulting in a limited dynamic range. The effects are a tad flat with the guns having an odd echo after being fired.
'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence' finds The Criterion Collection continuing their fine tradition of presenting and preserving quality films from around the world. The Blu-ray offers improved video, adequate audio, and good extras to learn more about the film and its creation. While I enjoyed the story and its execution, I recognize it may not be for everyone. I would suggest it deserves at least a rental, although fans of Oshima and the film should dive right in and purchase it.