Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was directed by noted Japanese auteur Nagisa Ōshima, who was at the peak of his career when he made this. He was riding high after winning best director at the Cannes Film Festival for Empire of Passion, which is where he met the fantastic and very nice producer Jeremy Thomas. That year at Cannes, they decided to make something together. The film would be a loose adaptation of two of Sir Laurens van der Post’s novels on his experiences as a prisoner of war of the Japanese during WW2.
Jeremy Thomas had worked with Nicolas Roeg before the idea of casting pop stars as film leads wasn’t a foreign concept. Ryuichi Sakamoto was the main person behind the Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra and kind of the “David Bowie of Japan.” He plays Capt. Yonoi, who develops a strange fixation, verging on the homoerotic, on Maj. Jack “Strafer” Celliers. For the role of JC (a very obvious Christ metaphor), Ōshima had visited New York recently and had seen none other than David Bowie play Joseph Merrick in the much celebrated stage play of The Elephant Man (it was around the same time as David Lynch’s film, but they are separate from each other). Since Thomas had worked with Roeg, he had seen The Man Who Fell to Earth and obviously had heard about Roeg directing Bowie, so it was a logical choice. JC remains one of Bowie’s better on-screen performances in a rather chequered screen performance history.
The title role of John Lawrence went to Tom Conti, who was the basically the lead. The story is told very much through his eyes, although the film is always naturally sold on Bowie and Sakamoto. Lawrence is basically a go-between for the Japanese and the British, because he has lived in Japan and can speak fluent Japanese, although their cultures clash constantly. Lawrence befriends Sgt. Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano in his first major film role), and the title comes from an interchange between the two men. Yonoi, however, is determined to undermine understanding between the Japanese and British POWs.
This new Blu-Ray should shed new light on this incredibly interesting film about friendship, obsession and resilience against the odds, which delivers some very memorable performances from its cast. One of the film’s flaws is that whoever did Sakamoto’s makeup laid it on way too thick, he looks more at home on one of his album covers than as a captain in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Bowie also plays his much younger self in a flashback sequence, which doesn’t work at all. Nit-picking aside, however, there is much to admire in the film, and this is a very nice alternative for those who don’t have the US Criterion release.
The disc includes Paul Joyce’s feature-length documentary on Ōshima made around the time that Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence came out, as was the 30-minute doc following the cast and crew at the ‘83 Cannes film festival. Archival interviews, interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas (in his amazing office, which I once had the privilege of visiting) and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the theatrical trailer and an image gallery finish off the disc’s extras. The booklet, only available in the first pressing, is by Jasper Sharp.