The art of being Bowie

Latest exhibit at the AGO is a thematic trip through the musician's influences, career, and life

The art of being Bowie

Walking up the steps to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), I wasn’t sure what I’d find. David Bowie has all the ingredients of a fascinating exhibit, celebrating a man my father deemed “the original Lady Gaga.” I can recall us going through old album covers together, his eyes sparkling as his brain relived the rebellion and recklessness of his youth.

I was intrigued. I wanted to know what kind of person could do that to someone ­— what lit that spark.

MEDIA PHOTO

MEDIA PHOTO

From the moment I put on the exhibit’s interactive, intuitive headphones (they respond as you travel from section to section — no more pushing buttons), a theatrical hum filled my ears, as if to immerse me into Bowie’s mind. The exhibit itself is sectioned off into various rooms in order of influence, age, and era. It was here, taking the first few steps, where I began to see where my father’s adoration came from. Bowie, a trendsetter from the moment of inception, seemed to always be searching for something bigger. At one point debating the idea of full-fledged Buddhism, he declared his goal was to become a “trendy person, rather than a trend.”

In a world peppered with Internet celebrities, child stars, and reality television, Bowie couldn’t be more right. That’s one aspect which struck me as I walked from room to room — Bowie’s vulnerability. Sure, he may look like an alien, with his unique eyes and bone structure holding court from miles away. He may be very different indeed — yet he holds the same desire for originality, fighting the same demons many of us face in life. When asked about his reason for acquiring such fame, Bowie was recorded saying, simply: “I wanted to be well-known. I wanted to turn people on to new things.”

MEDIA PHOTO

MEDIA PHOTO

Bowie’s endured failure, rose above it, and countered bowing down to the masses by creating a new world with new identities to dominate. Whether he is Bowie or Ziggy Stardust, by claiming to be somebody else he could be himself. In a time when rock and roll was raw and rugged, Bowie would add Kabuki-inspired makeup, vague, embellished wording, and costumes that continue to shape the styles of today. He saw inspiration and influence in everything, and whether you follow him or not, Bowie shaped us.

His big break occurred during the moon landing of July 1969, when the BBC aired his single, “Space Oddity” alongside the miraculous footage. It seems that on that day, two things skyrocketed into our living rooms: the moon and, perhaps, the man whose mind resided there.

Bowie lived for creation in all forms, citing A Clockwork Orange and 1984 as major literary influences. Between music videos, songs, and performances, he refused to exist within a single dimension. The plethora of costumes and drawings shown in the exhibit provide a peek into what rock used to be — a time when individuality was the only option, and social networking had nothing to do with posting a “selfie” on Instagram. Things were either brutally honest or brutally ethereal — you couldn’t claim one as the other.

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MEDIA PHOTO

In the exhibit, a few things resonated with me. Bowie had a fondness for a program called the Verbasizer, which took paragraphs, sentences, and bits of news and scrambled then into new phrases. Sometimes, these compilations would speak to him such that it enabled him to write a song, full of lyrics with meaning for the listener. That is the beauty of Bowie, his words are vehicles that take you somewhere untravelled.

I could write pages on Bowie’s impact on our generation, on his androgynous style and the importance of celebrating it. I could devote paragraphs to the beauty in his layered music, his synthesized beats and cultural trailblazing. But I won’t, because I want you to experience it for yourself. Find refuge in David Bowie’s fantasy, find comfort in his life.

His world is your world, and I strongly advise that you inhabit it.

“David Bowie is” is running now until November 27 at the AGO.

Critics wield undue influence in film industry

Failure of critically-panned films suggests industry imbalance

When it works, the entertainment business can boast some of the most impressive profit margins that exist in today’s economy. That is not to say however, that movies are not a risky investment. Just ask the studio executives at Walt Disney, who were forced to report losses upwards of $80 million in a single quarter due to the now infamous box office flop John Carter, which cost over $200 million to make.

A good part of the reason why this film lost so much money was the poor critical response it received prior to its release. Despite Disney’s multi-million dollar marketing campaign, the film could not garner box office success.

The case of John Carter and its substantial financial loss bring to light the importance of the film critic to the movie industry. More than anything, it is the structure of the industry that lends film critics their significance. There are studios who initially invest in the movie product, production teams that create it, and marketers who promote a film’s release. Finally, there are the bystanders who stand to gain by predicting the success or failure of ventures within this particular market. The film critic falls into this broad category, and that is a problem.

Before going any further, let me be clear that I do not equate critics with financial shareholders. Critics do not stand to make massive profits at the loss or success of any given movie or book. What remains, however, is the fact that critics do consider what makes their own product profitable. There is no question that critiques are informed opinions that we may enjoy reading, while simultaneously reveling in agreement or disagreement with the particular judgment the piece provides. Nevertheless, they are informed opinions with a purpose: to tell you whether a certain piece of entertainment is worth your time and money. In this sense, the critic must shape their review around not only their subjective opinion, but also how they believe audiences at large will receive the film. One should hardly expect a reviewer to attain any readership and subsequent success if they are always panning every film against the attitudes of most moviegoers. Hence, the successful film critic is able to predict what they believe most people will think of a given film.

The confidence or predictive power that a film critic must have in the movie marketplace is troublesome. For one thing, it encourages a double standard that critics increasingly maintain. Take, for example, the type of movie that predominated at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. A universal characteristic of all of these films is that they are artistically inclined and more earnest than your average blockbuster. Accordingly, the audiences for these films are usually more culturally sophisticated. As a result of all this, the reviews we see for these films are almost laughably “highbrow,” dotted with various mystical cinematic terms. Yet the exact same critics will hold non-artistic but potential blockbuster films to such low standards as to call them a “whirlwind of fun” or a “joy ride.”

Now this double standard is, in one sense, perfectly warranted. If you want to see an intelligent, artistic film, then you will read an equally learned review. In contrast, if you just want to see a movie purely for the entertainment factor, then a simple review is probably preferred. But being able to find a professional review that actually caters to your outlook is becoming increasingly difficult. Suddenly, everyone can share and publicize their opinion and/or review on a piece of entertainment. In many cases, these reviewers are perceived to be more personable and credible. To cement their market value, refined, experienced, and — most of all — professional reviewers must take steps to ensure a clear distinction between their reviews and the fare found on the Internet. It stands to reason that professional criticism has become even more valued and influential, as public commentary has grown through social media to become the equivalent of “phone a friend.”

As an upshot, the uniformly high standard of film critics does not bode well for films that look to purely entertain. Maybe many of the movies that we are passing up today are worth seeing. It just depends on how much value we place on the critic’s opinion.

 

Breen Wilkinson is a second-year student studying English, history and American studies. 

The real heroes

A look at the qualities of our favorite superheroes

The real heroes

The comic book geeks have inherited the earth — or at least the movie theatres. The last few years have seen one superhero franchise after another hit the silver screen. The mere mortals of movie-land are being looked after by the likes of gods, human spiders, and rich guys who fell in caves as children. It must be nice.

The latest addition to this trend isMan of Steel, showcasing the greatest hero of them all: Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and shoot lasers out of his eyes, he is everything a growing boy who eats his green vegetables and stays in school should aspire to become.

Superhero films used to be over-the-top for the sake of being over-the-top. Heroes were powerful, but usually the most one-dimensional characters on screen. Millions of dollars and cutting edge CGI make today’s superhero films more flashy, but they are also different in other ways. The current iteration of Captain America is a born leader, Batman a billionaire bent  on justice and Superman an outcast with a knack for saving mankind. They are more than just the gifts and skills they possess — they have depth and character. They are people, pure and simple. The heroes of today’s movies are super not because of their powers, but because of their humanity.

Tales of heroes stretch back to the ancient cultures of the world. Humans have always loved stories of remarkable feats of strength, of great sacrifice and perseverance. The themes that define heroic people and heroic deeds have lasted this long because they are compelling; they provide not only something to strive towards for people (like me) sitting on their couches, but also provide meaning to ‘greatness.’

CGI and 3D are commonplace in cinema today, but they do not account for the superheroes’ success. There exists a quality behind the superpowers and fancy effects that makes a superhero worthwhile. The Man of Steel (Superman) is heroic not because he can fly, but because he overcomes adversity to help those around him. We admire Tony Stark in Iron Man because he redeems himself from past mistakes while doing good for mankind.Superheroes succeed in capturing our hearts (and wallets) because of who they are and not what they can do. They succeed because of their values, their bravery, and their ability to always know what the right thing to do is and actually do it.

The highest grossing movies of all time, Titanic, Avatar, and yes, The Avengers all have characters who embody not only heroic traits and noble ideals but also very human flaws and concerns. Superheroes’ abilities are only window-dressing to the distinctly human heroes beneath. Man of Steel is only the most recent example of the effort to showcase these people, and the overarching lesson is that the “super” part of these heroes is unnecessary — that the people beneath are super enough all by themselves. Of course, heavily muscled men in skin-tight suits do help to sell the idea.

Uncovered: Daft Punk

Tracking the French duo’s foray from Paris’ underground house scene to the mainstream

Uncovered: Daft Punk

Daft Punk released their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories last month. Within the second week of the release, a new Spotify record had been broken. The French house duo has come a long way, froma small-name progressive house act to a groundbreaking pioneer of the new era of electronic dance music (EDM).

Best characterized by their signature ‘70s- styled droid suits, Daft Punk are easily one of the most recognizable and interesting acts in modern music. While it’s a simple to acknowledge and list their many accomplishments, just how much do we actually know about the faces behind the robotic façade and their early foray into the lucrative world of commercial music?

 

The Beginning

1995 was a time of globalization and interesting change — the collapse of communist regimes giving way to new nations, the birth of the Internet, and the death of Kurt Cobain the year before all marked the beginning of a new era. This was also when Daft Punk began to achieve new heights in their musical careers.

After the release of their first single on Scottish independent record label Soma Records, the duo became the focus of media frenzy, receiving attention from publications all over the world.

“We have received faxes from Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Japan, [and] New York … people are interested in this music everywhere,” a young, overly ecstatic Thomas Bangalter, one half of Daft Punk, told an interviewer on a French television program. In this early interview, he appears as a scruffy -haired teenager garbed in a casual démodé pale lime green button-down shirt — the silver chrome helmet is nowhere to be seen.

Then in the following year, Bangalter, and the other half of Daft Punk, Guy-Manuel de Honem-Christo, signed on to Virgin Records — a move that would bring them unparalleled success.

 

Homework (1997)

Daft Punk’s first record Homework, became a global sensation. Punk and different house styles innovatively meshed and deftly compressed into seventy-minutes worth of sonic experience was unheard of.

Music pundits gave the album five-star reviews. Record sales soared. Not only was it a career-changing achievement by the duo, it gave birth to an unprecedented generation of electronic artists in the next decade, from Joel Zimmerman’s Deadmau5 project to the likes of Baauer.

For the first time in their lives, Bangalter and De Honem-Christo were on the front lines of pop culture. But increasing fame and fortune shocked them.

Afraid of being consumed by this overwhelming wave of popularity, they sought to reinvent themselves. In 1999, the two remerged on the scene, in mecha-suits.

They donned the shiny robotic armour so as to maintain anonymity and counter hyped mass-commercialization. However, their plan ironically backfired.

The costumes had made them less human. They became immortalized. From game-changing pioneers, they were transformed into living icons featured on every magazine cover.

Almost everyone was oblivious to the faces behind the suits. Daft Punk had done the impossible — accruing fame and fortune without the cost of having their identities compromised. The world knew of Daft Punk, but remained largely ignorant of the names  “Thomas Bangalter” and “Guy-Manuel de Honem-Christo.” The pair had achieved the ideal aesthetic dream.

Whether the masks were an earnest attempt to retain artistic integrity or an ingenious mercantile tactic to improve record sales, it was obvious that Daft Punk had been ushered into the world of mainstream music.


Discovery (1999)

Daft Punk’s second record, Discovery, was a departure from their influential Chicago house sound. They left behind their original style in favour of high fidelity.

The duo’s sophomore effort was characterized by complex production techniques that emulated heavily auto-tuned vocals and high-pitch computerized guitar solos. It also frequently sampled classic hits from the late ‘70s. Discovery was a far cry from Homework.

Daft Punk’s sophomore album was, once again, was a success. Critics of all types greeted it with admiration, with only a few disdaining the radical shift in the group’s style. While Discovery did not upset a large portion of the EDM community, Daft Punk had undoubtedly alienated an overlooked fan base from their Homework days. Still, in their place would be a new generation of Daft Punk fans.

Suddenly, the duo’s apparent desire to be humble musicians who maintained their artistic license was put into question. Did the group sell out? Or were they keen on exploring new areas of music?

Whatever the answer, Bangalter and De Honem-Christo never took off their helmets. Daft Punk and their private lives would become mutually exclusive.

 

The Present: Random Access Memories (2013)

Now, flash forward to the present day, and the two tell Rolling Stone that on the metro no one pays them any mind. No autographs are signed. No fan photos are taken. Unsurprisingly, they’ve become invisible celebrities.

So while widespread achievement and renown meant producing more commercial works, Daft Punk can lead its own separate life while Bangalter and De Honem-Christo another.

Star Trek’s stellar technology

EMMA HANSEN takes an enterprising look at the science of Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek’s stellar technology

Star Trek: Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ second venture into the world of Trek, features questionable science amid political commentary and references to classic Trek movies (ED: Major spoilers for the film follow). Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto reprise their roles as Kirk and Spock in the film, which follows a divided Starfleet chasing a terrorist through the galaxy. The villain is none other than Kirk’s arch-rival, Khan (seen most famously in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Throughout the pursuit, the protagonists grapple with their motivation, weighing the costs of justice and of revenge.

The technology of Into Darkness is purely utilitarian: it does not play an integral role in the plot, which focuses more on the personal struggles of the characters. Some of this technology is standard in the Star Trek universe; transporters and warp drive, at this point scientifically dubious, are nothing new on the screen. Into Darkness also contains references to recent developments in science and technology: stellar scenery is reminiscent of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and spacesuits contain head-mounted visual displays that echo Google Glass technology.

Other technology in the film stretches the limits of scientific plausibility. Spock beams down to the center of an active volcano and uses a cold fusion device to render the volcano inert. It sounds good — except that cold fusion doesn’t make things cold. It does not even work. Cold fusion, if it is real technology, would more likely turn the volcano into a nuclear reactor than into stone.

The controversial field of cryogenics attracts people who hope to attain immortality. There are a host of biological, ethical, and religious issues involved with storing and reviving a human body: the term “cryogenic sleep” is nothing more than a euphemism. However, in Star Trek’s 23rd century, cryogenic practices are common. Khan regains consciousness after being cryogenically preserved, and his blood, the miracle serum, does not lose any potency. More questionable is the use of Khan’s blood as a panacea. The platelets in his blood raise a tribble from the dead and cure a young girl on her deathbed. Later, Khan’s blood revives Kirk , who suffers from excess radiation. Such a versatile cure that heals all ailments and all species is not scientifically plausible.

The storyline of Into Darkness is very similar to that of The Wrath of Khan. However, there is a subtle difference between the two films. The crew of the Enterprise in The Wrath of Khan chase Khan around the galaxy in order to keep a dangerous weapon out of his hands. In Abrams’ reboot however, the crew’s focus is different. As in The Wrath of Khan, their goal is to stop a terrorist, but keeping harmful technology out of Khan’s hands is not their motivation.

The primary conflict of the film is not saving the galaxy, but rather maintaining personal moral integrity. The benefits and costs of scientific advances are not weighed in Into Darkness. Science is a neutral entity. This allows the spotlight, and the lens flare, to remain on the moral conflicts faced by the film’s protagonists.

Reconsidering #Fitchthehomeless

The online movement reinforces the perceptions it seeks to fight

A video depicting a young man handing out clothing from Abercrombie & Fitch to the homeless has recently gained traction on the Internet. Why? The video represents one of the prominent backlashes against A&F CEO Mike Jeffries, whose candid explanation of the company’s business strategy has recently resurfaced: “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

In an act of ostensible charity and activism, the creators of the video aim to give Abercrombie and Fitch a brand readjustment by having those outside the company’s target demographic wear their clothes. In the video, the movement is dubbed #Fitchthehomeless, and encourages viewers to donate their A&F clothes to the homeless in order to make A&F “the world’s number one brand of homeless apparel.” Certainly, this statement  is an ironic blow to Jeffries. Yet, after watching the video, I was left quite unsettled.

My first concern is that the allure of the video is solely contingent on the homelessness of the recipients, and is therefore an acceptance of the superficial categorizations Jeffries himself constructed. Without an acknowledgement of the notion that people can be classified under image-based criteria, the whole premise of the video falters. It reinforces the idea that the state of homelessness is deplorable and undesirable, and could thus diminish a brand’s value. The proposed “brand readjustment” is only possible when the recipient of the clothes carries the negative connotations the filmmakers are attempting to associate A&F with.

As such, #Fitchthehomeless only emblazons the exclusionary circle crafted by Jeffries, and has done little to subvert the existence of such a circle. I understand that the intent of the video is likely to say that anyone, not just an ‘ideal’ person, can belong in A&F clothing, but surely making A&F ‘everyone’s’ apparel instead of the ‘homeless’ apparel has less of an appeal. In the end, the makers of the video use the very same marketing tactic that Jeffries uses by hinging their product image on preconceived notions of certain groups of people.

The video also exemplifies the kind of thoughtless charity much too prevalent in society today. The man in the video doles out his symbolic A&F clothes without regard for the needs and preferences of the recipients.  He drops off his clothing to various homeless men and women without first asking what items they need and if they need them altogether. The underlying assumption is that these homeless recipients absolutely need clothing donations, and that any piece of ill fitting, badly designed clothing will do and will be thoroughly appreciated. There is no acknowledgement on the part of the filmmakers that the homeless have the capacity and conscientious will to recognize and assert their own needs. As well, none of the homeless recipients were asked about their size, colour, or design preferences. Here, the assumption is that aesthetic choices only belong to those who can afford it, from which the homeless are clearly excluded. In effect, #Fitchthehomeless serves to perpetuate paternalistic concepts of dependency and class privilege.

Finally, using the homeless as mere props to make a sardonic statement against an elitist CEO is, frankly, unethical. The entire premise of the movement is no more than a cheap exploitation of the homeless for the profit of an activist cause. It runs in the same vein as hypothetical researchers who would exploit the vulnerability of the homeless to test the efficacy of a new drug. I see a deeply engrained pathology in any movement that uses a vulnerable population, or any group of people for that matter, as a means to an end. The makers of the video fail to recognize the humanity of the people they claim to be helping, and outright promote the homeless as disposable tools to further an agenda.

#Fitchthehomeless attempts to affront Jeffries’ philosophy, while simultaneously helping the homeless. For me, it fails to do either one. Rather, it validates the exclusionary criteria posited by Jeffries, while propagating the stigma surrounding homelessness, adding to the many social barriers already faced by the homeless. I sympathize with the desire to make a statement against disingenuous and superficial corporate values, but we should never resort to exploiting the needs of any group to do so.

If you’d like to help the homeless, there are various organizations on top of traditional give-away programs that aim to address various structural determinants of homelessness. If you’d like to oppose A&F’s philosophy, then stop buying their products. Part of the justification the creators of the film provide in the creation of the movement is that A&F refuses to give their surplus clothes to donation programs in order to maintain their pristine image. Lobbying for A&F to change their donation policy would be much more effective than “fitching” the homeless. After all, we would need to purchase endless quantities of A&F apparel to “clothe the homeless,” as the video sets out to do. It’s not hard to fight for a cause in an ethical, sustainable, and thoughtful manner, but it takes that much more effort.

 

Intellectual theft, disco, and Bollywood

Bappi Lahiri and music’s winding international networks

You may not realize it, but you’ve probably heard a Bappi Lahiri song. Regardless, the melodies of some of his biggest songs will sound familiar — more than a few of them lift sections of American pop hits. Lahiri, an Indian soundtrack composer who hit his peak during the 1980s, is responsible for some of the music now automatically associated in the West with Bollywood. Kitschy synthesizers, lush string arrangements clashing with Hindi vocals recorded loud and distorted, drum machines competing with traditional percussion, and blaring horn sections, danced out in front of glittery backdrops — all Bappi Lahiri hallmarks.

WILLIAM AHN / THE VARSITY

Even if Lahiri’s popularity at home and the lyrics of his music make it somehow representative of India, to think of it as intrinsically tied to India’s classical traditions would be a mistake. His songs are a complete fusion, injecting 1970s and 1980s Western pop into the Indian film industry. Lahiri’s biggests hits, like the soundtrack to 1982’s Disco Dancer and 1984’s Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki, were released in an era when socialist India was still mostly closed to outside business and investment. By referencing or even directly plagiarizing foreign music, Lahiri brought new genres and instrumentation into India at a time when they might otherwise not have made it in.

In this one-sided conversation, Lahiri took elements from pedestrian pop and disco songs, and put them to use in completely different settings. The brilliance in Lahiri’s theft was his ability to create new songs from trashy old material by stretching playtimes, adding new layers, and radically changing mood and energy. “Mere Jaisa Mehbooba” from 1984’s Baadal adds female vocals to Herbie Hancock’s robotic hip hop song “Rockit” to build it into something seductive and creepy at the same time. “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” from Disco Dancer steals its structure from a piece by French disco duo Ottawan, but strings, plaintive vocals, and a more propulsive drum machine groove take the song far beyond its inspiration. “Everybody Dance With Me” (from a 1978 B-movie named College Girl) tears the riff from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and lands it in a glammy stomp, complete with wildly echoing boy-girl vocals. Lahiri’s more original songs are equally thrilling, from the infectious call and response of “I Am A Disco Dancer,” to the relentless bass line and out-of-control synthetic tones of “O Beraham Tune Kiye.”

If Lahiri’s songs had only been popular in India, his story would simply be that of a few good songs and an amusing anecdote on plagiarism. His soundtrack to Disco Dancer, however, was massively popular in Russia and China, indirectly bringing traces of Western culture to the Communist world. Since then, Lahiri’s songs have looped back into North America and Europe. While Lahiri was originally the one taking from foreign music, hip hop producers are now sampling his songs, and songwriters are adopting his aesthetic. M.I.A. repurposed “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” into the track “Jimmy” on her 2007 album Kala, and in 2011 Lahiri claimed that Jennifer Lopez had plagiarized elements of “On the Floor” from his 1990 song “Sochana Kya Jo Bhi Hoga Dekha Jayega.”

Today, Lahiri is an over-the-top, chubby figure, and appreciation of his music can unfortunately focus on its novelty factor. Below layers of flash and outmoded production values, however, the back-and-forth at the heart of his music remains captivating for the way in which he took sounds from the West, presented them back to the world as Indian, and kick-started a global exchange of songs and styles.

Cross-cultural Christmas

Bilingual dialogue in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Cross-cultural Christmas

Director Nagisa Oshima, who passed away this January, is known to have said, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.” Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, made in 1983, was his first “English” film, but it isn’t completely English — the story is the experience of British prisoners of war in a Japanese camp during World War II.

Two of the central characters, Captain Yonoi and Sergeant Hara, are Japanese, and the other two, Lieutenant Lawrence and Major Celliers, are British (Celliers, played by David Bowie, is supposed to have a faded Australian accent, but we don’t really notice, thanks to Bowie’s understated approach to everything). The film incorporates both languages, but we hear English spoken the most by both sides.

The way the characters interact in English involves more than just a verbal exchange. Captain Yonoi, the highest authority of the camp, speaks in English and has a great technical command over the language, but his expression of it is unnatural. In a courtroom scene, we see the dramatic articulations of Major Celliers’ face against Captain Yonoi’s, which makes only the slightest movements. Celliers’ drawn-out, musical voice contrasts with the tight speeches of Yonoi, who speaks like he’s hitting something (which he frequently does throughout the film).

The nature of the spoken dialogue reveals a greater cultural dialogue between the East and the West, which is one of the world’s fundamental discussions. The film presents a number of divergences: each culture’s interpretation of war, how men on the same side treat each other, and the best method of punishing transgression. The Englishness of the film’s perspective puts more focus on a few extreme Japanese customs; for instance, the prisoners are made to watch a soldier being punished for a homosexual act commit seppuku, a suicide ritual fulfilled by stabbing one’s own abdomen. In Yonoi’s mind, this is a privilege to the guilty soldier, because in the war it is better to die by one’s own hand, and generally it is less shameful to die in the war than to survive.

The only Englishman to speak Japanese in the film is Lawrence, who is familiar with Japan and has great respect for its culture. He is called upon to mediate violent situations several times throughout the film. As Hara says to the non-Japanese-speaking British commander in Japanese, “You don’t understand. Only Lawrence understands.”

But Lawrence doesn’t understand. Despite knowing the language, he appears to be more tormented and confused by the brutality of the Japanese officers than any other British prisoner. Criticizing Yonoi’s ideas of justice, he says, “You think that if there’s a crime, then it must be punished, and it doesn’t matter who is punished.” These punishments, such as seppuku, are easier for the rest of the British soldiers to accept, because they assume the practices of this strange, alien culture to be as foreign as the Japanese language itself. They know that the war itself makes so little sense.

It is Lawrence’s unique relationship to Japan, his human experience of it, which causes him to expect the Japanese soldiers to transcend the role of enemy.