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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)


Starring: David Bowie, Tom Conti and Ryuichi Sakamoto
RRP: £22.99
Certificate: 15
Available 17 October 2011

Having been captured running a small guerrilla war against the Japanese, Maj. Jack 'Strafer' Celliers is sent to the prisoner of war camp run by Capt. Yonoi. The cultures of the west and the east collide in the camp, with the Japanese guards feeling that a true warrior would rather die than surrender. They do not see, as the western soldiers do, that captivity is an unfortunate side effect of war. The Japanese feel that the western captives are cowards and beyond contempt for still being alive. Although there are attempts at re-educating the captives, the true psychological war begins with the arrival of Celliers whose own secret demons means that he is truly not afraid to die and so has no fear in standing up to Yonoi...

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983 - 1 hr, 58 min, 11 sec) is another film which explores the realms of obsession, passion and love, by director Nagisa Ôshima. Given his previous cinematic outings In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion - Ôshima was the ideal director to explore these themes. The film was based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens Van der Post and it deservedly won eight awards and was nominated for a further six. The memorable soundtrack was written by Ryûichi Sakamoto.

Having got this far in the review I have yet to mention Mr Lawrence. Tom Conti plays Lawrence, a Japanese interpreter to the captured allied soldiers; as such he functions as the audience’s way into the film and within the narrative forms the bridge between both east and west. Sitting in this position between the two, means that although he is able to travel more freely between the two cultures, he is never quite trusted by either, though he forms a close relationship with the brutal Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano).

Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto) initially encounters Celliers (David Bowie) when he has to attend his court martial. Although all the other officers are happy to have Celliers shot there is something about him which makes Yonoi save him. From here, when Celliers enters the camp a complex game takes place between Yonoi and Celliers which can only end in the death of one or both of the characters.

As the tensions grow between the two cultures and the two men of honour all the men of honour are tested to extreme and find themselves doing questionable things in the name of honour and love.

The cast is impressively good, especially Sakamoto and Bowie. Sakamoto has a rarefied feminine aspect to his look and behaviour; in fact the film has a level of unexplained homoerotism, which is never properly explored in the narrative. I never understood why David Bowie didn’t do more acting than he did. Obviously, his presence enhances any film which is looking for someone who can project an air of the esoteric, but he really was good in both this film and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Given that this is the most modern of the three Ôshima films recently released, and that it is likely to be the most accessible for a western audience, it’s a shame that the picture is frankly a bit pants. It’s not that there is any damage to the print; it’s just that the quality isn’t that great.

Extra features include The Oshima Gang Featurette (29 min, 35 sec) which is the usual making of featurette which is contemporary to the film’s release and has contributions from both cast and crew. It’s not bad and is a cut above more modern fare. An Interview with Jeremy Thomas (17 min 50 sec) who was one of the producers of the film, talking a little about himself and about the problems of making a film with a crew which was a mixture of Japanese and English.

An Interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto (11 min, 01 sec) has him discussing his approach to mostly the music, but he also discusses his experience as an actor. An Excerpt from Scenes by the Sea, The Life and Cinema of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (3 min, 10 sec) is a small piece on the comic who played Hara, with contributions from the director and Kitano, it’s a subject which could have been better explored. The disc finishes with the Theatrical Trailer (3 min, 03 sec).

Overall the extras are pretty good and the print is clear, it’s just a shame it’s not particularly of a good quality.


Charles Packer

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