“Although he pays lip service to the honor code of Bushido, Yonoiʼs facade of the disciplined warrior is transparent. Celliers sees through it. As Yonoi is about to execute Hicksley, Celliers challenges him in the most provocative way, with a defiant kiss.”
On Nagisa Oshima’s passing on January 15, 2013 at age 80, obituaries identified him as the director of In the Realm of the Senses (1976), by far his best-known film. Barely mentioned was his equally compelling U.K./Japan co-production Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983). With the 30th anniversary, it’s an opportune time for a reassessment.
More than kung fu or Hong Kong gangster shoot-em-ups, melodrama is Asia’s most popular genre. As much as any soap opera, Oshima’s World War II saga, with its moral complexity, romanticism. and theme of unrequited passion, also fits the melodramatic bill. From the opening sequence, set on Java in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, Oshima introduces us to a stylized world, elaborately staged. Cinematographer Toichiru Narushima (Double Suicide, 1969) takes advantage of the island’s yellows and greens to create a dreamlike mood of tranquility, broken only by violence.
It’s 1942, after the surrender of British-led troops. Thereʼs an accusation that an Allied prisoner, De Jong (Alistair Browning), and Kanemoto (Johnny Ohkura), a Korean conscript of the Japanese army, have become sexually involved. Both are tied up on the ground. A little man with a big stick stands over them. The visual metaphor is one of domination, with the bare torsos of the prone prisoners adding to the effect. The Korean frees himself and attempts suicide. He botches a belly-slashing and writhes about in noisy agony. The Dutchman’s entreaties are ignored.
Sergeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano) lashes out with his bamboo cane when Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) tries to intercede. Hara’s comical appearance is deceptive. He seems to like Lawrence but strikes him without hesitation. Hara is childlike, both in his naiveté and in his cruelty. To Sigmund Freud: “A sadistic child takes no notice of whether or not he inflicts pain, nor does he intend to do so.”1 (In Oshima’s The Catch (1961), a black American airman is captured by Japanese villagers. The children paint their faces black and taunt him before he’s killed by the adults.)
Paul Mayersberg’s screenplay is an adaptation of the autobiographical novel The Seed and the Sower by Sir Laurens van der Post, the real-life Colonel Lawrence whose knowledge of Japanese language and culture saved his life when he was captured. In the film, the bilingual Lawrence attempts to explain the inexplicable behavior of the Japanese to his comrades. This is seen as sympathy for the enemy by Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), the ineffectual commanding officer. “Understand them, do you, Lawrence? If I were you, I would commit hara-kiri.” Lawrence clings to the belief, treasonous to Hicksley, that their captors are equally human but have been led astray. Hara tells Lawrence, the scholar of language and culture, that he won’t truly know the Japanese until he’s seen the indiscreet guard commit seppuku. Lawrence asks rhetorically: “Do you want me to hate the Japanese?” Their insistence on honor over humanity is something he understands in theory but never accepts. An astute observer and sympathetic listener, Lawrence serves as an informal therapist even to his adversaries. As such, he quietly wields power that’s at odds with his status as a prisoner. In a scene of relative calm, the complexity of Lawrence and Hara’s relationship is shown by their body language as they sit conversing in Japanese (learned phonetically by Conti). Lawrence assumes the posture of an inferior as a negotiating tactic. Hara shows a playful side, now joking about De Jong’s supposed homosexuality. Oshima once vowed to avoid the type of “boring tatami scene”2 favored by Ozu but here uses it to good effect.
The tragic “love story” of Kanemoto and De Jong foreshadows the appearance of the film’s two stars. British Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers (David Bowie) is captured by the Japanese and put on trial. One of the presiding officers is Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto). The scene takes on an erotic charge when the Captain is unable to take his eyes off the blond major. The soundtrack music becomes discordant as the tension mounts. Recovering his composure, Yonoi becomes the de facto defense counsel. When his death sentence is commuted, Celliers is transferred to a jungle camp where Yonoi has been put in command. This proves to be a mixed blessing for Celliers. He’s harshly punished by Yonoi for his insolence and insubordination. We can, however, sense the mutual fascination between the two.
As played by Sakamoto, who also composed the haunting synthesizer and gamelan score, Yonoi shows a wide range of emotions, unusual behavior for an officer of Imperial Japan. Lawrence states the obvious when he says of him to Celliers, “I think heʼs taken a bit of a shine to you.” In Fetishism and Curiosity, Laura Mulvey describes melodrama as “the genre of mise en scéne, site of emotions that cannot be expressed in so many words.”3 Yonoi’s awkward embarrassment speaks volumes.
Yonoi and Celliers are cross-cultural “doubles,” aesthetes who have more in common with each other than with those from their own group. And yet they’re doomed to be adversaries. Freud refers to “the narcissism of minor differences” that causes those more alike than different to engage in blood feuds.4 In The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto describes the sources that inspired Hitchcock’s use of doubling: “In the Romantic and Victorian precedents, the double always reflected strong inner conflict, a conflict between the fear of involvement with life, and the concomitant fear of noninvolvement, stagnation and death . . . ”5
Although heʼs a “conquered” prisoner, Celliers retains a sense of self that’s interpreted as arrogance by the Japanese. Because of the intense feelings he’s developed for Celliers, the supposed conqueror Yonoi can no longer lead. After raising his sword, he’s unable to follow through and collapses in disgrace.
For the sadistic mock execution of Celliers earlier in the film, Oshima stages the scene with the prisoner’s arms spread apart with manacles that hang from chains on the ceiling, recalling the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. There’s a near perfect symmetry in the staging that’s played for maximum homoerotic value. A firing squad is lined up in formation. Behind them, a group of officers stand at attention, their faces slightly out of focus. In the foreground is a bound Celliers with his back to the camera. His arms are pulled tight, and the veins appear to bulge out.
Yonoi is part of a military machine contemptuous of any sign of weakness. The power Celliers has over him becomes apparent to his subordinates, one of whom attempts an unauthorized assassination. Before committing seppuku, the aide offers an apology but adds, “Captain, that man is a devil whoʼs trying to destroy your spirit.” Although he pays lip service to the honor code of Bushido, Yonoiʼs facade of the disciplined warrior is transparent. Celliers sees through it. As Yonoi is about to execute Hicksley, Celliers challenges him in the most provocative way, with a defiant kiss. In their two-shot embrace, a dark shadow passes over the face of Celliers. It could be the climax of a Hitchcock thriller. “The kiss literally stops the film,” writes Maureen Turim, “as the gesture is rendered in close-up in stunning, pulsating slow motion. The moment is vertiginous. . . . When Yonoi tries to strike Celliers with his sword after this kiss, he falls backward, as if arrested by a supernatural force.”6
Kissing Yonoi is suicidal but altruistic, a strategic move to save the life of Hicksley. Further complicating matters, Celliers carries guilt over mistreatment of a deformed younger brother. Memories of the brother and his haunting choir boy voice surface as the major awaits execution. Is Celliers driven by a death instinct?7 Peter Brooks writes that Freud’s “formulations on the struggle of Eros and Thanatos suggest an explanation for the fascination of both melodramatic virtue and evil, their necessary interdependence in eternal conflictual union.”8 In an interview with AFI American Film, Oshima contrasted the “physical action” of In the Realm of the Senses with Lawrence’s repressed eroticism. “In this case, the key to the drama, or to the eroticism, is in the impulse to get through to one’s enemy.”
As Lawrence concludes, thereʼs a role reversal of captor and captive. Sergeant Hara, who now speaks rudimentary English, has been sentenced to death for war crimes. With the shaved head and beads of a Buddhist monk, he requests an audience with Lawrence, who offers, “If it was up to me, I would release you today and send you back to your family.” Hara retains his childlike innocence and naively asks why his punishment is out of proportion to crimes that “were no different from any other soldier’s.” Lawrence can no better explain his own superiors than he could the Imperial Japanese. “You’re the victim of men,” he says, “who believe that they’re right.”
To Brooks, “Melodrama starts from and expresses the anxiety brought by a frightening new world in which the traditional patterns of moral order no longer provide the necessary social glue. It plays out the force of that anxiety with the apparent triumph of villainy, and it dissipates it with the eventual victory of virtue.”9
Lawrence recognizes the virtue in his former tormentor and the villainy of the execution order. Oshima presents a moral dilemma as complex as those dramatized on the stage in eighteenth-century France. Instead of the Enlightenment and revolution, the “frightening new world” is an Allied victory fraught with moral ambiguities. “There are times,” admits the Colonel, “when victory is very hard to take.”
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is indeed a melodrama, though one seen through Oshima’s idiosyncratic lens. When Lawrence has said all he can say, there’s a moment of contemplation filmed from above, silent except for the theme music. The final shot is a close-up of a smiling Hara that fills the frame. He accepts his fate and says simply, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”
- Tomas Geyskens, Our Original Scenes: Freud’s Theory of Sexuality (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2005), 42. [↩]
- Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 209. [↩]
- Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 29. [↩]
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961), 108. [↩]
- Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), 328. [↩]
- Maureen Turim, The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 179. [↩]
- Sigmund Freud, Joan Riviere (translator). The Ego and the Id (New York: Norton, 1960). [↩]
- Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 201. [↩]
- Ibid., 20. [↩]