[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
What is “bravery?” Is it dying for one’s cause without hesitation, even if the sacrifice is ultimately fruitless? Or is it surviving by any means necessary, using wit and cunning to carry on the fight another day? This is the central theme of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a World War II drama that explores the conflict between the Imperial Japanese officers occupying the island of Java and the Allied POWs under their supervision.
As far as the tyrannical Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, pulling double duty as the movie’s star and composer) is concerned, the foreign soldiers in his charge are subhuman wretches, inherently unworthy of respect—that they allowed themselves to be captured is irrefutable evidence of their dishonor. Yet these “cowards” consistently refuse to be intimidated, enduring starvation, solitary confinement, grueling interrogation, and unimaginable torture in order to protect their comrades from accusations of espionage and subterfuge.
Major Jack Celliers (a positively angelic David Bowie)—who surrendered to enemy forces only after they threatened to slaughter innocent natives—is particularly vexing in this regard. His arrival throws the camp into utter disarray, his audacious insubordination and stoic defiance inspiring small acts of disobedience and rebellion among the ranks. When the men are denied food for some minor infraction, for example, he smuggles rations into the barracks; when the guards retaliate by raiding the medical tent, he encourages the patients to sing as loudly as possible, their voices drowning out the barked orders to submit to inspection.
Perhaps this selflessness is what attracts the deeply closeted Yonoi to Celliers. The major’s unwavering loyalty appeals to the captain, who secretly sees himself as a disgrace to the Bushido code for his failure to die alongside his fellow radicals during the thwarted 1936 uprising; this irresistible admiration, which directly contradicts his prejudices, consequently manifests as infatuation, obsession, and insatiable carnal desire—with tragic repercussions.
Beyond the obvious and frequently discussed queer reading of its narrative (which is, to be clear, a totally valid/inevitable interpretation of the material), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is ultimately about challenging the characters’ inflexible preconceptions. To quote the eponymous Colonel Lawrence, who serves as a mediator between the two opposing sides (albeit with limited success):
You are the victim of men who think they are right. Just as one day you and Captain Yonoi believed absolutely that you were right. And the truth is of course that nobody is right.
Indeed, both the Japanese and Westerners seem to consider “guilt” to be a relative and irrelevant term. Yonoi, for instance, is quite forthright about his policy of punishing arbitrarily-selected scapegoats as a warning to future saboteurs; the victorious Allies, meanwhile, are likewise perfectly content to incarcerate and execute only the lowest ranking military personnel for atrocities committed on the battlefield, all but pardoning their equally culpable superiors.
Such is the senseless nature of war, violence, and power.