Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Collected Works: Film


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

directed by Nagisa Oshima
Feature film

View a still from the film

The air is warm, the sea calm. Two soldiers lie dead on the grass. One has committed suicide by harakiri; the other choked on his own tongue in horror. Japanese and British troops face off around the bodies, as the soothing sound of the tide washes over the tension. The Japanese captain demands that the Britons stay and pay formal respect; they refuse, appalled by what they have witnessed. He appeals to their esteemed officer for moral vindication, but is met with an apathetic reply: ‘You’re wrong. We’re all wrong.’

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence follows a group of war prisoners on Java in 1942. The titular soldier finds himself caught between compatriots and captors, bridging the many contradictory ideologies around him. A fluent speaker of Japanese and visitor to Tokyo, John Lawrence also proves to be the only individual willing to understand other cultures. Yet against a backdrop of heightening friction, caused by the drama’s other power players, his insistent affirmation exposes weariness in the face of belligerence.

It is perhaps this sense of acceptance that warms the usually dispassionate Japanese captain, Yonoi, whose disciplined camp management and regimented conduct suggests the influence of bushidō, the ‘way of the warrior’. Yet his fondness for a new, eccentric English prisoner discounts such a superficial reading, and erodes his professionalism in the process. Jack Celliers, the recipient of Yonoi’s affection, begins to test patience and coax fate, consciously pushing the difficult scenario towards a breaking point.

A Japanese-British production, the film is fairly placed to explore the cultural clashes encountered within this circumstance of foes held forcibly at peace. Its central motifs, personal and military codes of honour, are neither shied away from, nor depicted with judgement. Much is made of the Imperial Army’s conduct, but it is the wrongful game, not its players, that is subject to criticism. Though tragedies befall both sides, the enduring message of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is one of goodwill.

Words by Hugh Maloney

More to discover

You can watch the trailer here, see an excerpt here, and listen to the theme music here. Chuck Stephens has written about the film for The Criterion Collection, as has Terrence Butcher for PopMatters.

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