As a farcical court martial involving a disorderly British soldier is about to cease, a young Japanese captain makes a request to persist with the interrogation. He starts off by quoting Shakespeare’s Danish play. Thus begins a rapid back and forth between the close-ups of an androgynous British rockstar, fresh off the release of his divisive album Let’s Dance, and a stalwart of Japanese electronic music whose alleviating synth soundtrack kicks off the opening moments of Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 classic Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
After their verbal sparring, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Captain Yonoi demands to see Jack Celliers’ (David Bowie) scars during his stint as PoW in Java. Celliers complies, revealing marks on his back. At first, Yonoi’s disgust is easy to brush off as a conventional aversion. But this scene marks the beginning of Yonoi’s unusual fixation on Celliers, culminating in tragedy for both of them.
Oshima doesn’t draw out any homoerotic connection between the unlikely friendship that links the titular Lawrence (Tom Conti), a British soldier who has lived in Japan long enough to learn the language and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a man with equal doses of sadism and humanity in him. Choosing to focus on Yonoi and Celliers instead, Oshima strikes at the heart of what honour means from both sides of the pond.
Embellishing on honour and the role it plays, one can’t help but bring Yukio Mishima into the picture. After being misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and declared unfit for service, Mishima worked his whole life to see Japan return to its imperialistic roots. The Japanese writer and revolutionary wrote a story and later directed a movie titled Patriotism, which dwells upon the February 26th Incident, a coup d’état organized by a group of young, idealistic officers in an attempt to seize control of the Imperial Palace. The attempt went awry and multiple members of the Righteous Army were executed. In the film, Captain Yonoi laments at the fact that he could not partake in the Righteous Army’s patriotic sacrifice, having been posted at Manchuria at the time. Seppuku lurks around the corner of the entire movie, as at the beginning, Sergeant Hara supervises the hara-kiri of a solider who was found engaging in lewd acts with a Dutch prisoner. Furthermore, Yukio Mishima is famously remembered for committing hara-kiri after his failed coup in 1970 with the objective of restoring the power of the Emperor.
Preservation of a quintessential Japanese spirit and discontent with the manner in which the transition from old Japan to modern Japan was taking place are not the only things that bind Mishima and Captain Yonoi. In his 1949 book Confessions of a Mask, the former wrote about homosexual and sadomasochistic desires, including a description of the narrator’s ejaculation, which occurs while he is transfixed by the arrow-pierced body of St. Sebastian, as depicted in the Guido Reni painting. Mishima would further explore these themes in his novel Forbidden Colors (whose Japanese title is an euphemism for homosexuality), a novel which shares its title with one of the tracks on the soundtrack album for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
But it is a rather gross oversimplification to assume that Mishima was simply substituting himself as the protagonists of these novels. The sexual inclination that Mishima speaks of differs from homosexuality in the modern Western sense. Nanshoku (the Japanese tradition of male-love), had two different parts: monastic and military. In case of the latter, the bonds between senior and junior soldiers, while erotic in nature, primarily served as institutions that served to maintain order by disseminating several social hierarchies, rather than serving as an act that was associated with perversion and deviancy. The decline of nanshoku occurred during the Meiji restoration, as a result of Western cultural influence and the breakdown of feudal structures. The Keikan Code criminalized sodomy and as a result, nanshoku moved to the fringes of society.
The arrival of Jack Celliers ignites an internal struggle inside Captain Yonoi, as he begins to spy on Celliers at night, constantly inquires about him, and wishes to promote him to the post of the PoW commander. After being disappointed with the behaviour of the British soldiers during a ritual suicide, Yonoi subjects the camp to observe a period of gyo (Japanese fasting technique to cure laziness). Celliers rebels by supplying the prisoners with rations. He survives an attack from Yonoi’s personal servant who suspects that Celliers has put a spell on Yonoi, and is later sentenced to solitary confinement for the possession of a radio, along with Lt. Col Lawrence.
While Yonoi is the man who wishes to preserve the honour that he feels he lost during the Feburary 26th incident, Celliers wishes to do away with any notion of honour. An extended flashback shows us Celliers standing up against bullies to protect his younger brother during his childhood. A few years later in high school, Celliers goes out of his way to avoid standing up for his feeble sibling, as he is tormented by older kids. Haunted by the incident for life, Celliers becomes overwhelmed with the guilt which originated from his absurd perception that nothing which belonged to his blood could have been so weak. The war provides Celliers with an inexplicable sense of relief and even better, a chance for him to rebuild his conviction of alleviating the needy. Celliers is christened as a ‘soldier’s soldier’, seeking redemption for his past failures by raging against Yonoi and the Japanese.
After learning that Sergeant Hara released Celliers and Lawrence since they were wrongfully imprisoned for the radio theft, Yonoi’s behaviour becomes more erratic. Obsessed with finding a weapons expert in the British camp and agitated with the Commander’s failure at not producing him with one, Yonoi summons a parade of all the soldiers. Even the sick ones, who are dragged out of their beds in their crutches. As Yonoi is about to execute the Commander for his non-cooperation, Celliers provides us with the most resplendent moment of the entire film. He walks upto Yonoi in defiance and kisses him on the cheek. Yonoi, wrestling with the offense afflicted upon his bushido honour code as well as his homoerotic fixation on Celliers, is unable to attack Celliers and falls to the ground.
Celliers’ final act of insubordination results him in getting buried with sand upto his neck, as Yonoi’s successor claims that he won’t be as sentimental as him. Late at night, Captain Yonoi goes to Celliers’ burial ground when there is no one around and cuts a lock of hair. Yonoi entrusts Major Lawrence with the task of dedicating Celliers’ lock of hair to a shrine in his village.
Celliers’ interlude in the symphony of Yonoi’s guilt-ridden military career also functions as a metaphor for the intrusion of modern Western culture in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century, the reluctance to accept it and the supposed delinquency of falling prey to these ideas, believing that they would erode true Japanese values. Similarly, Yukio Mishima was a man whose life was split between the past and the present. He constantly urged his countrymen to return to the samurai tradition, which he believed conveyed the spirit of a united Japan better than a modern army. However in his personal life, Mishima would embrace -the West by donning Western clothes, living in a house with lush Victorian architecture and by writing about a subject that had become outlawed in Meiji period Japan.
Nagisa Oshima’s simple central thesis is ultimately about how a cataclysmic event like the War crumbles innate notions of honour and society. But Oshima doesn’t ostracize this erosion as something evil. Rather he turns this into a grave plea for tolerance in the time of war. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is about how the unlikeliest of situations can lead a man to discover that a thousand year old honour code proves futile when you’re encountered with David Bowie and his blonde locks. Emotional repression is central to every tenet of the masculine gender and to question this, Oshima brings out the ugliest and the most pernicious thirst of mankind- war.
Yonoi and Celliers are consumed by the consequences of this thirst, but the freeze frame on Kitano’s Sergeant Hara, perhaps the most sanguine closing shot of any war film ever, gives us the optimism to believe that the corrosion of a deep-rooted internal idea isn’t necessarily decadent or twisted, but rather is a mirror into the dispositions that we let society take away from us, under the garb of normality.