Film reviews

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) – Blu-ray Review

Arrow Academy’s release of the 1983 Nagisa Oshima film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is the second time this title has been released in the UK on Blu-ray (though the US got it through the prestige Criterion Collection).  After a barebones 2011 effort, Arrow have put a great deal of thought into how best to honour both the film, and the filmmaker.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is set in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp during World War II.  Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is imprisoned along with Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) a fluent Japanese speaker who has spent time living in the country.

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The other two main characters are Japanese Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano, filmmaker in his own right, known for – amongst other things – 2003’s Zatoichi) a brutal presence in the camp (yet developing a friendship of sorts with Lawrence), and Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto – also a huge music star in Japan, and composer of the film’s score).  The film deals in various ways with Celliers and Yonoi’s sense of shame over different events in their lives: Yonoi’s from not being with his Army comrades during an attempted military coup; Celliers’ dating back to childhood.  Against this background, Yonoi develops a fixation on his captive, while Celliers proves a rebellious presence in the camp.

Yonoi’s actions become ever more unstable towards both Lawrence and Villiers, with Hara coming to show respect to both men in the harshest of harsh environments.  Ostensibly a slice of life in a prisoner of war camp, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is at once a timeless look at the tensions between two wildly divergent cultures, and a reflection of the contemporary Japanese values and ideas that the filmmaker  was seeking to challenge.  Themes of honour and love – platonic and otherwise – dominate in a fine film that mashes together two sets of differing traditions and ideas in both areas.

With regard to bonus features, very few are new, but there is terrific value nonetheless in finding such an intelligently put together set.  The film itself has a transfer that is good, if not great – the image being a little soft and dull in places.  The film arrives in attractive packaging, with a reversible cover.  Along with the usual trailer and image gallery, there is a new interview with film critic Tony Rayns (so new, in fact, that he references the effect of COVID-19 on the world).  Although shot in a rather pedestrian manner – Tony talks to an unseen, unheard interviewer for around 45 minutes, with no cutaways, except to introduce topics – he is a terrifically knowledgeable source on both Oshima, and Japanese film and society in general.

Rayns has provided a number of commentary tracks for Asian films, including Criterion and Masters of Cinema releases for such films as Seven Samurai, The Host, and Chungking Express.  This does beg the question of why he was not engaged to provide such a track here.  Two hours of Tony commenting directly on the film, with plenty of scope to add context would have been preferable to the three-quarters of an hour, without images, that we get.  That said, his discussion of Japanese New Wave (directly influenced by its French equivalent), his examination of the Japanese understanding of honour, victory, love and fidelity, as well as societal pressures that were there during Oshima’s career, makes this set immediately worthy of purchase by fans of the film.

There are some older features on the disc – three from the time of the film’s release, and one from the early 2000s.  The latter is a short interview with Jeremy Thomas, the film’s producer.  This feature is fine – a typical DVD extra: short and amiable enough.  It is neither poor, nor does it really add much to the set as a whole; though he does answer some interesting points about Bowie, the idea of having one of Japan’s iconic music stars playing against his approximate Western equivalent, and discusses the idea of Bowie having provided the score for the film.

That is dealt with directly, however, in ‘The Oshima Gang’, a 30 minute documentary following the cast and crew at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.  It is worth watching for Bowie’s thoughts on Oshima, working with Tom Conti, and his attitude to those suggestions he could have provided the film’s music.  Talking of the music – and most people reading will know it, whether they know they know it or not – there is a 1983 interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto about his role in the film, and his score.  Again, it is perfectly fine, and both questions and answers are on topic and of interest.

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The main, big extra is the 1983 documentary ‘The Man Who Left His Soul on Film’.  It is advertised as 82-minutes long – it is closer to 85 in reality.  This is a full profile of Nagisa Oshima, narrated by Michael Jayston, dealing with his entire career to that point, and featuring plenty of contributions from the man himself.  It is a dated, ugly looking standard definition transfer, but of a terrific piece of work that completely contextualises what we’ve seen in the main feature.  A portrait emerges of a man pushing the boundaries of an often very restrictive Japan.  The film deals with several eras of Japanese culture, and shows Oshima depicting some hard-hitting, often taboo ideas.  It is an often tough, yet indispensible watch.

Although notable for its relative lack of new features, this release of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence succeeds by being such a well curated set.  Each feature seems to build on something we learn in one of the others: from the director’s pushing of cultural boundaries, to his enjoyment of working with musicians in acting roles.  As with all good Blu-ray and DVD sets, quality extras serve to bolster the film and expand our understanding of it.  A fine release for an excellent film.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

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