Patron Request: ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’

I’m not a big fan of the films of Nagisha Oshima. While I appreciate his Cruel Story of Youth, I find Empire of Passion utterly noxious and In the Realm of the Senses an inferior twin to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Sada. His explorations of straight sexuality are alternately insipid and offensive in their insistent edginess. I just don’t like what I’ve seen of his work.

Except Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence remains incredible. It’s like it was made by a different filmmaker. It has none of the Oshima reflexes I find so off-putting. What it has to say about sexuality (homosexuality, in this case) it says non-explicitly, mostly through hard stares and fragile physical gestures. This film is not the work of a provocateur; it’s remarkably sensitive and gentle. How did this come from the man who made something as radioactive as Empire of Passion? Maybe auteurism is dead after all.

All joking aside, I love Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Oshima elides the themes typical of POW films — of endurance, bravery, and loyalty — and uses the setting to depict how intimate gestures reflect an individual’s inner desires as much as the political realities in which they live. Many Oshima movies are about sexual power relations, but Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence doesn’t turn that idea into some sort of game. Jack Celliers and Captain Yonoi aren’t playing some sort of sexy cat and mouse game, they’re just two men trying to survive their own worst impulses. When Yonoi takes out his repressed queerness in violence, it feels like the tragic consequence of emotion made illegal rather than the inevitable result of any and all sexual fixation.

What really sings about this film is the casting. Oshima made three brilliant and unusual choices here. The first is the casting of David Bowie, who had acted on-screen only a few times before this. Casting musicians as actors is always going to be a risk, but Bowie is a major talent in both fields. Speaking of, the film’s composer Ryuichi Sakamoto also stars as Captain Yonoi. Sakamoto had, to my knowledge, never acted before, making the casting of him in such a significant role a major leap of faith for Oshima. He made the right call, though; Sakamoto is revelatory. The way he plays Yonoi’s imposing yet trembling stature, a man whose inner turmoil is always on the verge of bursting forth, is astonishing. His performance expressions are so clear and vibrant. For a non-actor, it’s quite the work. (His score for the film is, for the record, also fantastic.) The final piece of this casting trifecta is the legendary Takeshi Kitano, in one of his first screen roles! Kitano was primarily known as a comedian and TV game show host at this point, so casting him in such a tender dramatic role is, yet again, a major risk that pays off tremendously. We could never repay Oshima for what he gave us by kickstarting Kitano’s career.

For all the guff I give Oshima, he’s very good at being what I think of as a “tableau director.” He’s so good at composing images of wide scale and intricate detail, where every little piece seems to be in just the right place. These shots can be complex or minimalist, but they’re always locked-off and still. Often the elements of the tableau arrange themselves within the shot itself, causing a commotion before eventually coming to rest in their proper positions. It’s like everyone on set is getting ready to take a group photo. Other times a shot will begin with the tableau and be interrupted and “ruined” by the chaotic movement of the actors. The film revolves around these still images, like an animated photo book. I have to laud Oshima for his technique here. Y’know, maybe he just shouldn’t have made films about women.

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