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Film / Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (titled Furyo in some European countries) is a 1983 film directed by Nagisa Oshima, based on the 1963 novel The Seed and the Sower by South African writer Sir Laurens van der Post. Set in a Japanese POW camp in Java during World War II, the film focuses on the Culture Clash and building tensions between the Japanese army overseers and the English-speaking Allied prisoners. Oh, and there's Foe Romance Subtext. An awful, awful lot.

Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is the camp's straight-laced commandant, devoted to discipline, order, and his beloved country. When he is called to attend the military trial of Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), he is fascinated by the prisoner's display of honour and dignity. When Yonoi questions Celliers on whether he can prove he was tortured, Celliers gives him proof (by taking off his shirt). Yonoi decides to transfer Celliers to the prison camp, and it all goes downhill from there...

The situation is not helped by Hicksley, the prisoner rep, refusing point blank to furnish Yonoi with details of which prisoners are arms experts (claiming that it's a violation of the Geneva Code, which Japan hadn't agreed to), stubbornly refusing to involve himself in any sort of attempts at cross-cultural understanding, and generally being an annoying and ignorant eejit. Caught in the middle of all this madness is the unfortunate Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) of the title. A mild-mannered man, Lawrence attempts to bridge the cultural gap between captives and captors, not that this is a guarantee of safety, especially with the brutal and yet terribly human Sergeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano).

Examining power, cultural differences, tolerance, forgiveness and taboos, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is very much a character and psychology-driven film, because POW camps aren't known for their exciting itineraries. The film is also of note for being a Japanese film set in a Japanese POW camp, meaning the director shares nationality with those in charge rather than the prisoners. Ryuichi Sakamoto also composed the soundtrack. With added lyrics, the main theme even became an international hit as "Forbidden Colours" in collaboration with David Sylvian.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Name Change: A small one. In the book, Jack Celliers is called Jacques Celliers
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Lawrence tries his best to be understanding of the Japanese, but his patience starts to run out the more the guards abuse him. He reaches a breaking point when Yonoi sentences him to death over the smuggled radio, even though he knows Lawrence is not the one who did it. Lawrence flies into a rage and destroys the room, cursing and screaming at the Japanese.
  • Bilingual Bonus: A great deal of exposition occurs in the Japanese dialogue only, including details like the nature of the relationship between Kanemoto (the Korean guard) and De Jon as well as the extent of Yonoi's fascination with Celliers, meaning that it'll inevitably be missed if you watch the film without subtitles or if you're not already fluent in the language.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Averted— Yonoi and Lawrence are the only people in the camp who are fluent in both languages. The others simply have to guess at what is being said. Over time, however, the Japanese guards speak English more and more as their ties with the prisoners become more and more apparent.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Celliers dies at the POW camp, but Lawrence and the remaining soldiers manage to survive the war. Yonoi is later tried and executed for war crimes by Allied Forces, with his last request being that a lock of Celliers' hair be left at a shrine in his home town. After the war ends, Hara is tried and also sentenced to death for his actions under Yonoi, but Lawrence visits him the night before his execution and they both part on good terms.
  • The Captain: Yonoi, obviously.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Only slightly, in that Hara is certainly shown to be coarser and more down-to-earth than his superior officer, but is by no means the only one to dole out punishment and mistreatment to the prisoners.
  • Chaste Hero: Celliers has had "no romantic interludes of any real importance". It is (heavily) implied, however, that this is for another reason entirely.
  • Chromosome Casting: All the characters in this film are male. Justified because it takes place in a military setting during World War Two.
  • Culture Clash: Another main theme.
  • Cultured Warrior: Yonoi: "To be or not to be... that is the question, Major Celliers." See also Samurai.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Celliers isn't afraid to talk back to the Japanese, often resulting in snarky remarks like this:
    [upon being dragged along by the guards]
    Celliers: I don't need any help, I've practiced walking for years.
    • Another example:
    Yonoi: Who do you think you are? Are you an evil spirit?
    Celliers: Yeah, one of yours, I hope.
  • Death Row: At the end, Sergeant Hara has been judged and will be executed. Lawrence visits him in his prison one last time.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Hara and Lawrence can both be heard casually using the anti-LGBT+ slur "okama" when discussing homosexuality, representing the heavy homophobia present in both Japanese society and the anglosphere and subtly adding extra weight to Yonoi's conflict over his feelings for Celliers.
    • Celliers outright states during the flashback to his childhood that the reason why he never disclosed his brother's hunched back to his own classmates in school was so that he wouldn't be associated with something imperfect. At the time the film is set, eugenics was very much mainstream (with the idea only being discredited as a result of The Holocaust's publicizing after the war), and the overt ableist connotations of this philosophy are more than apparent in Cellier's treatment of his brother during that scene, something he goes on to heavily regret.
  • Disobeyed Orders, Not Punished: Sgt. Hara violates the POW camp's protocol by releasing Lawrence and Celliers from their cells without Yonoi's approval after another POW confesses to smuggling the two-way radio that got the pair locked up in the first place. Yonoi reprimands Hara for overstepping his bounds when he finds out, but Hara gets let off without any actual punishment thanks in part to Yonoi's obsession with Celliers.
  • Distant Finale: The final scene of the film takes place four years later, shortly after the end of the war.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Implied with Yonoi during Celliers's first appearance. The camera even slowly pans over to focus on him while he sits with an awestruck look on his face.
  • Everybody Cries: When Celliers is executed (for real this time), the prisoners hold a service for him. In the book, the narrator mentions that there was "hardly a dry eye in the camp."
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: The film's special features mention that Celliers' blonde hair is one of the reasons why Yonoi is so fascinated with him; in Japanese culture, blonde hair is typically considered highly exotic as a result of it being virtually nonexistent over there (as the phenotype in general mostly exists among ethnically white populations).
  • Eye Scream: Pay attention during the close-up on a 12-year-old Celliers right after being beaten up by a gang of bullies, and it's possible to notice that he has his left eye squinted shut, likely from being injured there during the fight; this parallels a real eye injury sustained in high school by David Bowie, who portrays Celliers in the film; the injury ended up giving Bowie permanent anisocoria, and this is implied to be the case with Celliers too (seeing as how Bowie doesn't wear any contacts in the film to obscure the permanently dilated left pupil).
  • Fake Kill Scare: In a mock execution, Celliers is told he has been found guilty of war crimes and is chained up in front of a firing squad. They shoot but— surprise! Just kidding! There's a heavy amount of Truth in Television to this: mock executions have been recognized internationally as a form of torture— not surprising for the period.
  • Forced to Watch: When the Japanese force Kanemoto to commit seppuku, they make the whole camp assemble and watch. This is something that would happen in real life POW camps too, as a brutal way to discourage disobedience.
  • Gayngst: Yonoi (and possibly Celliers, although this is more likely to have been at some point in the past). It's okay though. Yonoi is gayngsting enough for two.
  • Heroic BSoD: Yonoi has one of these when Celliers kisses him.
    • At that exact moment, Celliers steps back after the kiss and a brief look of terror (realizing he's just sealed a horrible fate) flashes across his face before he stoically settles it again.
    • Lawrence has one earlier in the film after Yonoi wrongfully punishes him over the smuggled radio.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Celliers turns out to be one of these when he sings along with the hymns, a bit amusing considering who plays him (and the routine's even carried over from the actor's earlier appearance in The Man Who Fell to Earth, to boot). He even lampshades it himself later in the film.
    Celliers: I wish I could sing...
    • One of the kids at the church young Celliers and his brother go to is a truly terrible singer, much to the amusement of the two brothers.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: The film runs on it during the segments with Celliers and Yonoi. Case in point, the start of Yonoi's obsession occurs when Celliers takes his shirt off in court to prove that he was tortured by his captors.
  • Japanese Ranguage: Effectively an Enforced Trope; because none of the film's Japanese cast were fluent in English, all of their dialogue in the language is subject to the various idiosyncrasies that come with heavy Japanese accents. This is part of the reason why most of their dialogue throughout the film is in Japanese.
  • Killed Offscreen: In the epilogue, it is mentioned that Yonoi was executed after the war.
  • Leitmotif: Assorted. Pay enough attention and they'll highlight what's going on under the surface— particularly in Yonoi's head, since Ryuichi Sakamoto was instructed to write the score with Yonoi in mind. The main theme is actually better known than the film itself.
  • Love at First Sight: Yonoi is pretty much spellbound by Celliers from the moment he first sees him.
  • Magnetic Hero: Although being in a POW camp prevents the formation of any sort of merry band, Celliers seems to be one of these. Despite being of a lower rank and not knowing him particularly well at the outset, Celliers is immediately recognized by Lawrence, who is delighted to see him and speaks high praise of him to Yonoi. He is described as a natural leader, and assumes the role when he defies the fast imposed by Yonoi. And his magnetic hero qualities are almost certainly related to what's bothering Yonoi.
  • Market-Based Title: The film is just titled Furyo (俘虜) in France and some other European countries. It's the Japanese word for "prisoner of war".
  • Meaningful Echo: After releasing Lawrence and Celliers, a drunk Hara states "merry Christmas, Lawrence." Later, when being visited by Lawrence the night before his execution, Hara shouts out "merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," signifying the respect he gained for his former prisoner four years later.
  • My Greatest Failure: Both Yonoi and Celliers have their great skeletons in their closets.
    • Yonoi feels immense shame from the fact that he never joined his comrades in the February 26 Incident, a failed military coup that resulted in the perpetrators being executed. Yonoi's view is that he should've been able to die fighting side-by-side with his fellow men rather than watching the events unfold remotely from his station in Manchuria, and it's because of this that his obsession with honor outpaces that of even his closest men in the prison camp.
    • Celliers is haunted by his betrayal of his younger brother, a hunchback. On his brother's initial arrival in their all-boys boarding secondary school, Celliers did nothing to spare his brother the initiation ritual, knowing that his back would be the cause of derision. Despite being asked if he had any reason to want to keep his brother out of the ritual, Celliers states that his brother is perfectly fine. Why? Because he couldn't bear the shame of being associated with something imperfect (note that this was when the heavily ableist eugenics movement was still widely accepted). As a result of the mockery he endures during the ritual, Celliers' brother's spirit is crushed forever and he never sings again. This is also a case of It's All My fault. Because it is.
  • No Dead Body Poops: Zig-zagged; during Kanemoto's forced seppuku, he can be seen moving the bamboo receptacle carrying the killing knife under his rear. This is a real part of the seppuku process, done to catch any, erm, post-mortem exhaust. Once he actually drops dead, however, his back end remains clean, as do those of everyone else who dies on-screen (save for Celliers, who's body is obscured thanks to him being given the Sand Necktie treatment).
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: "I do wish they would stop hitting me..." — Lawrence
    • Celliers gets his fair share of this too, and not just by the Japanese. His flashback segment shows a young Celliers being ambushed by bullies, taking the beating in order to protect his little brother.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: When Celliers tries to escape from the camp he seeks out Lawrence, who he finds tortured, delirious and hanging from a tree. He cuts him down and then attempts to make his escape, carrying the helpless Lawrence in his arms.
  • Odd Friendship: Hara and Lawrence develop one during the course of the film.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Both Lawrence and Yonoi.
  • One-Man Army: It is implied that Jack "Strafer" Celliers is one of these, having fended off a number of Japanese soldiers by himself before ultimately being captured, leading to his involvement in the film's events. That said, he's far more fragile once he does start appearing on-screen, implicitly an aftereffect of the torture he experienced, focusing more on his intellectual strength as a result.
  • Only Sane Man: Mr. Lawrence certainly qualifies. He is determined not to hate the Japanese as individuals and tries to understand them instead, he also comments a couple of times about how man is universally prone to commit atrocities when they think they're absolutely right. However, he is still human and when he thinks he is about to be executed, he rants against Japanese religious customs and trashes the funeral for Yonoi's batman.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Yonoi has lots and lots of this. Hara and Hicksley have their fair share as well.
  • POW Camp: Yet another Japanese camp where you don't want to be a camper.
  • Precision F-Strike: The normally patient and level-headed Lawrence has a few of these moments: once when he is arguing with Hicksley after Yonoi enforces gyo note , and again after he hears Yonoi's plans to put him to death for the smuggled radio, even though he wasn't the one that brought it into the camp.
  • Prison Rape: Implied to have been the case with the incident around De Jong and Kanemoto. The things that De Jong says about it suggest that the guard took advantage of De Jong's trust. He had been taking care of De Jong's wounds the nights before, and Kanemoto's advances on him took him completely by surprise.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: All of the Japanese; Lawrence frequently quips about their desire to become "superhuman gods."
  • Samurai: While Yonoi is not exactly one of these, he would clearly like to be.
  • Sand Necktie: This is how Celliers is executed: buried to his neck in sand and left to die.
  • Secondary Character Title: Mr. Lawrence, while he is a very prominent character, has more of a deuteragonist role compared to Yonoi (and to some extent, Celliers).
  • Shirtless Captives: A bunch of the extras. Its not played for fanservice, though, as many of them look ill and weak from the circumstances they're in. Celliers himself takes his shirt off in the courtroom during his military trial to show the scars on his back from his torture.
  • Shout-Out: Yonoi at the trial opens with "To be or not to be", presumably in an effort to make himself look cultured, as it has very little bearing on what he says next.
  • Stalking Is Love: Yonoi asks Lawrence so many questions about Celliers that Lawrence comments on it (Yonoi avoids the question), and when Celliers is in solitary confinement it is revealed that Yonoi goes "on patrol" there *cough*watcheshimsleep*cough* every night.
  • The Stoic: Yonoi and Hicksley. Particularly Yonoi, who is a machine of self-discipline.
  • Survivor Guilt: Yonoi was once part of an extreme military faction who staged an uprising against the government in 1936. The officers in charge of the uprising were all executed— apart from Yonoi, who was stationed in Manchuria during the coup and thus couldn't fight and die alongside his comrades. Yonoi relates his guilt over this to Lawrence after Celliers' military trial, and it plays a major role in his obsession with honor.
  • "Take That!" Kiss: How Celliers ultimately defeats Yonoi, kissing him on both cheeks and letting his conflicted feelings paralyze him.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Inverted— it is mentioned in the film's special features that one of the reasons Yonoi is attracted to Celliers is his exotic blond hair.
  • Title Drop: By Hara at the end of the film.
  • Tongue Suicide: De Jong commits suicide by biting off and swallowing his tongue during Kanemoto's forced seppuku. His death leads to him being treated as a martyr by the other inmates in the POW camp, though the sentiment doesn't get very far before the guards intervene.
  • Trying Not to Cry: Both Lawrence and Hara in the epilogue. They still manage to have a good laugh as they reminisce about their time in the camp, but when the time comes for them to say goodbye for the last time, Lawrence barely manages to not break down in tears.
    • Celliers eventually chokes up and really tries to keep himself together while telling the story of how he betrayed his brother when he was young, see the My Greatest Failure entry above
  • Worthy Opponent: Yonoi initially takes an interest in Celliers because he is impressed by his bravery in the face of death. That, and he stripped half naked in the courtroom.