Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Situated midway through VIZ Cinema's ongoing series "Winding Road to Peace"—their commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in WWII as chronicled through the Japanese American experience of the war—comes a film made late in Nagisa Oshima's career: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Senjo no meri Kurisumasu, 1983). As synopsized by VIZ: "In this captivating, exhilaratingly skewed World War II drama from Nagisa Oshima, David Bowie regally embodies the character Celliers, a high-ranking British officer interned by the Japanese as a POW. Music star Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also composed this film's hypnotic score) plays the camp commander, who becomes obsessed with the mysterious blond major, while Tom Conti is British lieutenant colonel Mr. Lawrence, who tries to bridge the emotional and language divides between his captors and fellow prisoners. Also featuring actor-director Takeshi Kitano in his first dramatic role, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a multilayered, brutal, at times erotic tale of culture clash that was one of Oshima's greatest successes."

I missed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence when it screened as part of the PFA "In the Realm of Oshima" retrospective that ran May-July, 2009 so I welcome the opportunity VIZ Cinema provides in programming a 35mm screening of Oshima's film. As Jason Sanders synopsized in his program notes for PFA: "After retreating from cinema during the 1970s (when he fashioned a new career as a talk-show host), Oshima returned in 1983 in typically idiosyncratic fashion, with an international coproduction starring David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, both plopped into a Jean Genet–like narrative of male lust and punishment in a World War II Japanese POW camp. Commander Yonai (Sakamoto) runs his camp with well-heeled precision, keeping his hands soft by letting the brutish Hara (Takeshi Kitano, in his film debut) knock everyone into shape. The arrival of the regal Celliers (Bowie), whose blond locks and chiseled cheekbones shine even when he's in chains, gives Yonai a simmering new challenge, not only to his rule but to his sense of superiority, his national pride, and possibly something more. 'A thinking man's Bridge on the River Kwai' (Cinematheque Ontario), this erotic tropical opera finds Oshima mellowed, but still questioning nationalism and contemplating the subversive power of sexuality." "Twitic" Brian Darr notes that Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence "merges Oshima's longstanding pop and intellectual impulses so that they feel (almost) harmonious."

At the time of the PFA retrospective, I had the great fortune to interview curator and Oshima scholar
James Quandt to enquire after the homoerotic themes in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which I replicate here for ready reference:

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Michael Guillén: I'm wondering if you would be willing to address Oshima's usage of homoerotics in such films as Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and Gohatto?

Quandt: Something that's always fascinated me about Oshima's work is that—from very early on—he treats homosexuality openly. It's a motif all throughout his work and, of course, becomes explicit towards the end of his career with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and Gohatto especially. Part of my passion for Oshima came out of the retrospective I did of his work 20+ years ago at Toronto's Harbourfront when I was still programming there. There's a thing that happens when you invite a director. You get advice from your colleagues. In Oshima's case, it was unanimous: "Don't invite Oshima. Don't have him. Save yourself the grief. He's a bastard. He's incredibly difficult. He's not generous with the audience. There's no reason to have him." I won't name those colleagues—they're still around—but, because he was coming to North America to receive an award and had agreed to attend my retrospective, I felt I couldn't bypass the chance to have him in Toronto. As often happens in these cases, it turned out to be the opposite. Oshima was the funniest, sweetest, generous guest imaginable. Again, his generosity with his audiences inspired Q&As that went on and on and on. I remember that he loved his scotch. I worried at times about getting him from the fourth scotch across the parking lot into the cinema to do the Q&A; but, it always happened and he was always completely and wonderfully cogent.

I asked him about his open treatment of homosexuality one night during one of our long discussions about art and cinema. At the time we both deified Theo Angelopoulos. Now when I look back on it, it's ironic because Oshima was holding up Angelopoulos as a god; but—when I look at Angelopoulos' work—I start to imagine that he probably took some things from Oshima? Of course, Angelopoulos denies any formative influences—he didn't take anything from Jancsó; he didn't take anything from Mizoguchi—and I'm not too sure he took anything from Oshima; but, boy, when you look at some of the early Oshimas and how he treats choral structuring, using groups of people as friezes (like in Night and Fog in Japan), it really does feel like Days of 36 and some of the Angelopoulos films. Anyway, I did ask Oshima about this motif of homosexuality because then—when he was at Harborfront—Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was still relatively new. He hadn't made Gohatto yet—that was still a long way off—and all he said was, "It's very interesting, isn't it?" Then he passed on to some other topic.

Guillén: Oshima's usage of homosexuality strikes me as a purposeful representation of marginalized minorities as a romanticized outlaw position. I'm aware that Oshima was quite fond of Jean Genet's romantic criminals and that—as a television host—he had quite a flamboyant persona. Other than for that passing comment, he never offered anything more on the subject?

Quandt: No, absolutely not. He just had this bewitching laugh. Then when he went to make Gohatto, again I thought it intriguing—aware that this might be his last project because of his debilitating stroke—that this is the story he chose. How do you explain that? He's been married for decades and has many children. I'm not saying there was anything there in his personal life; but, it fits with his fascination with all kinds of minorities, all kinds of rebellions, all kinds of refusals of the Japanese way. As much as it can be pointed out that the bishōnen, this figure of the beautiful youth—who you also get in Shiro Amakusa, The Christian Rebel from the '60s—has been very much a part of Japanese popular culture for a long time. Gay samurai, in fact, have been a part of popular culture for a long time. As much as you can make that argument, the expression of it in Oshima is something singular. It fits with all these various minorities that he's explored.

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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence screens Wednesday, August 11, at 4:30PM and Thursday, August 12 at 7:00PM at the VIZ, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco. $10 general admission. Advance tickets available at the box office (415-525-8600) or at their website.

Cross-published on


Brian Darr said...

I'll have to try on that "twitic" nametag to see how it fits my wardrobe. Never heard the term before you mentioned it, but I'm glad you liked my micro-review. How'd you like the film yourself, Michael?

Michael Guillen said...

The term "twitic" is gaining traction. Last night's press/WOM screening of The Last Exorcism was preceded by Eli Roth's appeal to all twitics in the audience.

I thoroughly enjoyed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It's one of my Oshima favorites so far. Especially for--as you noted--Sakamoto's evocative score, which was wonderfully atmospheric. Performances were sound all around and the film within the film--the root of Celliers' motivations--requires more thought on my part to understand the specific role of betrayal in this specific clash of cultures.