In the many films that have captured the life and struggle of prisoners of war, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is perhaps one of the more brutal. After experiencing so many struggles within the Second World War on film, it does start to blend together. From time to time, it is difficult to distinguish one achingly horrid recollection of war crimes from the other. Such is the fast and free lifestyle we live, though, as we consume these stories. By far the greatest benefit of this World War Two-era piece from director Nagisa Ōshima is pop sensation, David Bowie. He had already proven himself a worthy leading man with The Man Who Fell to Earth, but he had not yet struck the tones of horror and healing made so clear by his performance in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
With such a striking and convincing display as Major Jack Celliers, I would be lying if I thought Bowie had it in him to strike with such heart and conviction. It is so far removed from the Ziggy Stardust pocket of fame I love him for, yet his ability to elevate Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence into a project that is far above the films that would follow it. Those that would entertain the notion that the prisoner of war camps was not just rife with struggle, but rich with box office draws. The Railway Man made such a mistake, and while it barely made its budget back, one of the many reasons it had such a struggle was because it did not capture the struggle of its characters.
That, in effect, is the greatest strength Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has. Bowie plays a defiant character, one that will not bend the knee to Japanese fascism. Moments throughout suggest a complete surrender of thought. He knows he shall not leave the camp. Equipped with such bravery and hatred for Axis forces, he defies the rules and odds to present them a unique challenge. He minces words and displays respect and admonishment for Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) in equal measure. Balance is used with exceptional style and grace here. Between Hara and Celliers, there is Lawrence (Tom Conti) and Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), but neither of the latter two offers as much as the Bowie and Kitano collaboration do.
At the core of it all, emotion is manifest. Grief slides through the narrative frequently. It is present on the faces of hard-fought forces acknowledging their failure. Not just the prisoners of war, but the infighting among the Japanese captors, and the dissemination of power, is shown to be a touchy subject that leaves these characters with guilt beyond their control. But it is hard to feel overwhelming sympathy for them when they are the rulers. Their reign is tough and cruel, beyond the pale of what should be considered ethical in times of war. That disgust should be channelled more. Grief is presented, torture too, and the link is there for the taking. Ōshima does not shy away from the hard truth of his country, and that is the sign of a solid craftsman, he just doesn’t manage to chip away at the rough surface, where underneath such beautiful emotion flows.