Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?
With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
This final entry is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch. To paraphrase David Ehrlich on an episode of the CriterionCast, this isn’t even a Christmas movie. Apart from its title, very little in Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has anything to do with the Christmas holiday. Set in wartime Java in the mid-1940s, his is a picture filled with death, depression, and isolation. Through the struggles in a British POW camp however, Ôshima teases ideas of nostalgia and memory, neither of which exclusively belong to Christmas but both of which are indelibly part of it.
In the midst of World War II, Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) and a camp of British POWs are at the mercy of Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto). Turning himself over to Japanese forces in Java, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) arrives with a chip on his shoulder and plenty of fighting spirit, rebuking mercurial Sergeant Gengo Hara (Tikeshi Kitano) and the kangaroo court set to sentence him for his surprise attack on surrendered forces. Rebellious to a fault, Celliers injects instigation and fire into the hearts of the prisoners, forcing Colonel Lawrence’s middling empathy for both sides into partisanship.
Even given its tropical climate and palm trees, Ôshima coaxes a cold atmosphere out of sterile Japanese officers, cool nighttime blues, and incessant suffering. Figures hunch over in pain, whether from defeat, guilt, or in extreme cases, because of seppuku. When not directly fighting, the Japanese and British continue to battle through differing codes of honor. Hara and Yonoi preach the virtues of suicide in defeat, citing the way of the Samurai and bushido code. True to his pacifying tendencies, Lawrence understands this cultural divide, even as Celliers elects to stow dissent whenever possible. His antics indirectly frame Lawrence for smuggling in a radio to the camp. On Christmas Eve with both men on the brink of execution, they are exonerated by Hara. Hara, played with mirth by Kitano, fashions himself as a kind of “Father Christmas,” granting the two a pardon while drunk on charity and saké in good measure. Hara delights in wishing the two POWs yuletide greetings, and his added stay of execution is like a bitter present for the both of them.
It’s from Hara’s parting words that Ôshima takes his title, advancing four years past the surrender of Japanese forces to 1946, with Hara now facing his own execution for war crimes. Like Sakamoto’s fantastically anachronistic musical motif, Hara’s execution is a double mirror of Celliers and Lawrence’s own prior circumstances. Unlike Ôshima’s indulgent sequences exploring Celliers’ past — the flashbacks with Bowie, while evocative don’t match the rich colors in their emotions — Hara’s Christmas greeting is a recurring gesture, a sentimental au revoir tinged with respect and a longing simpler for divisions beyond hypocritical punishment.
Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)
Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)
Way #5: Jingle All the Way
Way #6: Santa’s Slay
Way #7: Scrooged
Way #8: The Ref
Way #10: Rare Exports
Way #11: Meet Me in St. Louis