Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983 – Nagisa Oshima)


The search for grace – love, freely given, without expectation.  In a moment.  Cinema is graceful.  Beauty is given to us as the viewer, and for a moment, we are lost within it.  Everything ordinary slips away, and we live within the flicker of the silver screen.

He loves him from the moment he sees him.  Yonoi (played by Ryuchi Sakamoto) only has eyes for him.  The film revels in what will happen to men once women are removed from their lives (for there is not one woman in this film).  Every moment of this movie drips with homoeroticism as the Japanese struggle with the ease at which the British public school officers accept the buggery and affection of other men.  To these officers, even queerness as an abstract concept fails to capture the necessary companionship they find in these same sex relationships.

But to Yonoi, these emotions are upsetting, and pierce his very soul.  He cannot understand the intensity he feels for one he is meant to oppress.  Aren’t all acts of love confrontational?  Don’t they challenge our notions of our independence and resilience?  No man is an island…

Desperate to rid himself of this beautiful English officer, he begs Celliers (David Bowie) to fight him, as if the penetrative act of stabbing will rid him of his desire.  But Celliers will not give him that satisfaction, for he will not let anyone down.  Haunted by his inaction to defend his younger brother as a child, he convinces himself that his every inaction is a choice.  He chooses not fight.  The great defiance, to turn the other cheek, kids himself that this is an act of strength.   That eating flowers is a disruption to the rules of nature and the camp.

Bowie, the man who more than any other felt like living fiction plays the part of Celliers with a serenity that few actors could possess.  His attractiveness is undeniable.  It’s enough to make a man crumble.

Yonoi cannot stand it.  With increasing futility and desperation he performs petty acts of cruelty upon the prisoners under his care.  He raises his sword to murder Hicksley.  Hicksley makes a guttural, prehistoric cry that men can only make when they know something terrible is about to happen to them.  Sakamoto’s score kicks in, reminding us Cellier’s failure to act in the past.  The camera sweeps into Bowie, the impish grin gone, and a man determined onscreen.  He walks toward Yonoi, sweeping his sleeve, buttoning his breastpocket, straightening his hat – the final acts of freedom from a deeply passive life.  He stands, implacable, unmoving.  A forbidden kiss between Celliers and Yonoi that shudders and corrupts the movement of film through the shutter.  Yonoi, desperate for his touch, finally receiving it, is neutered, castrated by a love that beguiles and repulses him.  Is there anything worse than self-loathing love?

Oshima presents us with a great act of grace, one that replays through my mind on the train, on the walk home from work.  Received wisdom has this casually dismissed as a pedestrian example of foreign filmmaking, but it is beautiful, queer and deeply, deeply moving.

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