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.