The first scene of Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ (new on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion) is occupied with the horror of a soldier being forced to cut his intestines open as a punishment for being in love with another man. The last image of the film is the smiling face of a soldier the night before his execution, beaming a greeting of filial affection to a former enemy. We’re in a POW camp run under the auspices of the Japanese military, where Allied soldiers are half-subjected to, and half-ignored by an honor code that proposes self-disembowelment as the response, it appears, to just about any infraction. In between the attempted seppuku and the smiling greeting, the adorable Tom Conti reflects poetically on the mutually assured idiocy of war, Ryuichi Sakamoto gets angry, and then gets healed while his fascinating and eventually ubiquitous score overplays but not so much that it bothers, and gorgeous burnt light provides a mystical hue to what is ultimately a nightmare that becomes a dream and then finally a reality the audience always wanted: reconciliation between people who were otherwise ready to kill each other.
But not before David Bowie saves the world.
This is probably the least actorly of Bowie’s screen appearances; his portrayal of callow/shallow and ultimately penitent youth is all the more resonant because he seems out of place in the movie: we know him to be something other than either the rigid Japanese or the sentimental English colonel; his off-screen status as chameleon works because he’s more like us than anyone else in the movie. He wanders through a context in which violence is sexualised, men are murdered for loving each other, and everyone is fantasising about being somewhere else. It’s probably the most erotic war movie ever made; it’s a perfect companion piece to the thematically similar ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, whose British Colonel is the antecedent for Sakamoto’s character here: both men obsessed with honor over humanity, both undone at the last possible moment, both the points of deepest frustration for the audience. The formal beauty of the compositions could overwhelm the point of the film: a kind of insider’s apology for, or at least critique of, his nation’s particular brand of nationalistic idiocy, which here is probably best summed up by the institutional nonsense of lying about killing. Not far off my homeland’s own nonsense, nor that of the day I’m posting this, when a holiday is observed in the US, marking the arrival of a genocidal maniac who no doubt believed God and his queen had told him to love the natives by burning some of them alive. Oshima and co-screenwriter Paul Mayersberg evoke Columbus and any number of other pioneers of the sacralising of violence, by having Conti’s character exclaim, ‘Damn your gods. It’s your gods who have made you who you are,’ at the point where he realises that he is to be killed to preserve a sense of order that was psychotic to begin with. And it’s in the confrontation of the madness of the scapegoat mechanism where ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ takes on the deepest core of the human tendency to spiral downward into mutually assured destruction. Regret for the past is why men war with themselves today; an unthinking assumption that someone must be punished is why we kill each other; and the film locates such regret and assumptions in nothing more complex than the cruelty of boys who become men without changing.
But it neither labors nor over-philosophises its point; Oshima trusts us to get it – the first scene is so memorable precisely because it starts half way through where you’d expect. We’re right there – in an attempted imposed ritual suicide; there’s no introduction, no preparation, no consolation for those of us who want our war films to pretend that war isn’t murder.
At the end, I’m left reflecting on three things (beyond the easy admiration for the remarkable career of producer Jeremy Thomas, who in the splendid interview series on the Criterion disc seems to prove that he hasn’t lost any thirst for making films that are both aesthetically compelling and politically humane): How childhood trauma can both cause us to dysfunction within adult relationships, but might also provoke us to live differently; to avoid the suffering we caused others, or was caused to us when we thought we didn’t know any better. On the role of sexual repression as a foundation for violence; and how a well-placed kiss could end conflict between people. And finally, as Thomas says, how certainty is often the enemy of peace, for in war, ‘we are victims of men who think they are right’. ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ sounds, at first glance, like a humorous title; but it’s not, and it could not just as easily have been ‘Happy 4th of July’. It’s a film that begins with a man being forced to torture himself to death, and ends with the anunciation of what, for Rene Girard, perhaps the thinker most capable of explaining why scapegoating kills us all, would consider nothing less than the axis of history. Along the way there’s blue light, Bowie’s blond locks, Conti’s smile, Takeshi’s ambivalence, Sakamoto’s rage. And a war film that sometimes feels like science fiction, sometimes like romance, sometimes like nothing you’ve ever seen before.