Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a 1983 film directed by Nagisa Oshima, and is based on The Seed and the Sower by Sir Laurens van der Post. The film is set in a Japanese POW camp in Java during World War II, and focuses on the Culture Clash and building tensions between the Japanese overseers and the Allied prisoners. Oh, and there's Foe Yay. An awful, awful lot of Foe Yay.
Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is the straight-laced camp 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), 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, 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.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence provides examples of:
- Adaptational Name Change: A small one. In the book, Jack Celliers is called Jacques Celliers
- 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.
- 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.
Yonoi: Who do you think you are? Are you an evil spirit?Celliers: Yeah, one of yours, I hope.
- Another example:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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: A book-only scene. When Celliers is executed (for real this time), the prisoners hold a service for him. The narrator mentions that there was 'hardly a dry eye in the camp'.
- 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.
- Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Celliers turns out to be one of these when he sings along with the hymns. He even lampshades it himself later in the film.Celliers: I wish I could sing...
- Homoerotic Subtext
- Killed Offscreen: In the epilogue, it is mentioned that Yonoi was executed after the war.
- The Laws and Customs of War: The Geneva convention is invoked regularly by Hicksley, despite the fact that Yonoi claims it does not apply (Imperial Japan never signed it).
- 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.
- 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.
- Mismatched Eyes: Celliers often appears to have differently coloured eyes. This is due to his actor's eye injury which causes one of his pupils to be permanently dilated.
- My Greatest Failure: 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. 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-Holds-Barred Beatdown: "I do wish they would stop hitting me..." - Lawrence
- 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.
- Obligatory War-Crime Scene: Plenty, actually. Lawrence is frequently the victim, playing a starring role in exciting features such as being beaten brutally and left hanging by his hands from a tree overnight. Another example Yonoi forcing the sick and dying prisoners to assemble, despite the medic's desperate plea that it's a war crime.
- Officer and a Gentleman: Both Lawrence and Yonoi.
- One-Man Army: It is implied that Jack "Strafer" Celliers is one of these.
- 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.
- Prison Rape: Implied to have been the case with the incident around De Jong and the Korean guard. Even though Hara treats it like it was a mutually consensual act, the things that De Jong says about it imply that the guard took advantage of De Jong's trust. He had been taking care of De Jong's wounds the nights before, and the guard's advances on him took him completely by surprise.
- Proud Warrior Race Guy: All of the Japanese.
- Rule 34: Subverted. Despite the beating, bondage, whipping, obsessions with discipline and control, hierarchical power structures, canonical Foe Yay, watching people while they sleep, and David Bowie, there is next to no fan fiction about this film on the internet.
- Samurai: While Yonoi is not exactly one of these, he would clearly like to be.
- 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 extra's. Its not played for fanservice, though, as many of them look ill and weak from the circumstances they're in.
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: 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.
- Mock executions have been recognized internationally as a form of torture — not surprising for the period.
- 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. The officers in charge of the uprising were all executed - apart from Yonoi.
- "Take That!" Kiss: How Celliers ultimately defeats Yonoi.
- 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, twice.
- 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.