By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – Criterion Collection Blu-ray
I had nearly given up all hope that this largely-forgotten 1983 gem from Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion) would ever see the light of day on DVD, much less be given the Criterion treatment on Blu-ray-but there you go. I remember at the time of its original release, the stunt casting of David Bowie and (equally flamboyant) Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto in the leads seemed to generate more interest than the film itself.
The story is set during WW2; Bowie and Ryuichi play a headstrong, defiant British officer and a disciplinarian Japanese prison camp commander who butt heads from day one. The dynamic between the two men initially recalls the relationship between Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge on the River Kwai-but quickly moves into some more decidedly weird areas (very, very weird areas).
Tom Conti is excellent as a fellow British prisoner who attempts to mediate peace between the two. The real scene-stealer is Takeshi Kitano, as a prison guard. He injects a subtle humanity into a character that could have easily played one-dimensional. Sakamoto composed the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack (an electro-pop pioneer, he was the founder of the Yellow Magic Orchestra).
This is a film that deserves a serious reappraisal. That being said, the films of Oshima are always a challenging, and not for all tastes, so consider this a guarded recommendation; while definitely worth consideration for the collector on your list who is a confirmed fan of the director, perhaps a “test” rental first would work best for others.