In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

in this corner of the world J posterDepictions of wartime and the privation of the immediate post-war period in Japanese cinema run the gamut from kind hearted people helping each other through straitened times, to tales of amorality and despair as black-marketeers and unscrupulous crooks take advantage of the vulnerable and the desperate. In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni), adapted from the manga by Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kouno, is very much of the former variety as its dreamy, fantasy-prone heroine is dragged into a very real nightmare with the frontier drawing ever closer and the threat of death from the skies ever more present but manages to preserve something of herself even in such difficult times.

We first meet Suzu (Non) in December 1933 when, due to her brother’s indisposition, she’s sent to deliver the seaweed from the family business to the city. Observing pre-war Hiroshima with the painful tinge of memory, Suzu, her head in the clouds as always, gets herself completely lost and is eventually “rescued” by a strange man who puts her in a basket with another boy he’s “found”. Life goes on for Suzu, the tides of militarism rising in the rest of the country but seemingly not in this tiny rural village where she dreams away her days sketching fantasy stories to entertain her younger sister.

Despite a putative romance with a melancholy local boy, Tetsu (Daisuke Ono), Suzu is soon married off and travels to the harbour town of Kure to be with her new husband, Shusaku (the boy from the basket who carried a torch all those years, tracked her down and sought her hand in marriage on the basis of a single encounter). Always a dreamy girl and still only in her late teens, Suzu struggles with the business of being a wife and, though Shusaku’s family are nice people and welcoming to their new daughter-in-law, she constantly provokes the wrath of her widowed sister-in-law Keiko (Minori Omi) while striking up a friendship with her daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba).

The atmosphere in the cities may have been tense, but here in a traditional rural backwater, politics rarely rears its ugly head. Suzu and her family are just ordinary people living ordinary lives, yet they are literally on the fringes of the battlefield, gazing in wonder at the impressive array of giant battleships in the harbour including, at one point, the Yamato which becomes a kind of symbol of the nation’s hubris in its claims of invincibility. Shusaku, like his father, works as a clerk at the local naval offices which means he’s present (and as safe as anyone else), but this is otherwise a land of women alone, waiting for brothers, husbands and sons to come home or learning to accept that they never will.

Suzu’s troubles are normal ones for a woman of her age and time in learning to adjust to a new life she has not exactly chosen and which has meant cutting herself off almost entirely from everything she’s known. The severed connection with troubled childhood sweetheart Tetsu lingers but Suzu learns to make Kure her home, developing a deep love both for her husband (to whom she was fated, in an odd way, by their fairytale meeting) and for his family. A mildly conservative message is advanced as Suzu learns to become “happy” even in the midst of such anxiety while her sister-in-law Keiko’s attempt to forge her own future by becoming a ‘20s city flapper and marrying a mild mannered man for love has brought her nothing but heartbreak. Keiko pays dearly for her acts of individualism, suffering (the film seems to say) unnecessarily through allowing her sorrow to make her bitter, though hers is undoubtedly the most tragic of fates only offered respite by the growing community and interconnectedness of the little house in Kure.

Time moves on a pace as Suzu climbs ever closer to the climactic event she has no idea is coming, but has been on the viewer’s mind all along. The bombings intensify, the losses mount, and the future recedes but sooner or later it has to become not about what has gone or what could have been but what there is and what there will be. Suzu’s dream world colours her vision and ours as explosions in the sky become beautiful splashes of paint and raining fire bombs fireflies blinking out in the night sky. The more unbearable everything becomes the more her picture-book illustrations take over until one particular event becomes so painful, so difficult visualise that it is only possible to describe in abstract, black and white line drawings. The bomb is almost a peripheral event to Suzu, considering leaving her new home for the old one. A tremor, a flash, and a feeling of unidentifiable dread. Katabuchi’s aim not to show the direct horror of war (though there is plenty of that), but its effect on the lives of ordinary people just trying to survive in difficult circumstances not of their making. Filled with a sense of essential goodness, In This Corner of the World is a tribute to those who endured the unendurable and remained kind, determined to build a better world in which such horrors belong only to the distant past.


UK trailer

Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Yoji Yamada, 2015)

nagasaki-memories-of-my-sonAfter such a long and successful career, Yoji Yamada has perhaps earned the right to a little retrospection. Offering a smattering of cinematic throwbacks in homages to both Yasujiro Ozu and Kon Ichikawa, Yamada then turned his attention to the years of militarism and warfare in the tales of a struggling mother, Kabei, and a young a woman finding herself a haven from the ongoing political storm inside The Little House. Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Haha to Kuraseba) unites both of these impulses in its examination of maternal grief set amidst the mass tragedy of the atomic bomb and in the obvious reference hidden inside Japanese title (another Yamada trend) to the 2004 Kazuo Kuroki film The Face of Jizo (父と暮せば, Chichi to Kuroseba), itself based on a play by Hisashi Inoe. Whereas the young woman of Hiroshima found herself literally haunted by the image of her father to the extent that she was unable to continue living in the present, the mother at the centre of Nagasaki is approaching the end of her life but only now, three years after the bombing, is she ready to allow the idea of her son’s death to cement itself within her mind.

Nobuko’s (Sayuri Yoshinaga) son Koji (Kazunari Ninomiya) left as normal on that fateful morning, in a hurry as always, leaping onto the outside of a crowded bus that would take him to the university for a lecture on anatomy. That was three years ago and now it’s August again but in the absence of a body Nobuko has never been able to accept the death of her son, despite the picture on the altar and the two previous trips she’s made to the family grave on this date along with Koji’s girlfriend, Machiko (Haru Kuroki). Finally, Nobuko is beginning to feel it’s time to accept the inevitable, that her son is not lost somewhere and unable to find his way home but in some other world. This grudging acceptance of Koji’s death is the thing which returns him to her as the prodigal son suddenly appears one evening in spirit form to reminisce with his mother about the carefree pre-war days.

Kazunari Ninomiya’s Koji is, appropriately enough, a larger than life presence. A cheerful chatterbox, Koji blusters in to his old family home with the same kind of amusing energy he’d always lent it, laughing raucously to his mother’s polite but strange under the circumstances greeting of “have you been well?”. Reminiscences generally lean towards happier times but each time Koji becomes upset he suddenly disappears again, leaving his mother alone with all her sorrows. Nobuko lost both her sons to the war and her husband to TB and so she is quite alone now save for the kindhearted attentions of Machiko who continues to stop by and help her with house work or just keep her company.

The two women share an intense bond in their shared grief. Almost like mother and daughter Nobuko and Machiko help each other to bear the weight of their loneliness in the wake of such overwhelming tragedy. However, Nobuko is beginning to feel guilty in monopolising the life of this young woman who might have been her daughter-in-law or the mother of her grandchildren by now if things were different. Can she really ask her to sacrifice the rest of her life to a memory? Machiko swears that she has no desire to ever marry, preferring to remain loyal to her true love. “Shanghai Uncle” a black marketeer who brings Nobuko all the hard to find items not available through the normal channels, offers to set up an arranged marriage for the young woman but Nobuko is quick to turn it down on her behalf. In this new age of democracy, she says, young women ought to have the right to choose their own path whatever that may be. Nobuko respects Machiko’s choice, but after talking things over with Koji, urges her to consider letting the past go and honouring Koji’s memory by living fully while there is still time.

Interestingly enough, Machiko’s potential suitor, Kuroda – an injured war veteran and fellow teacher at the school where she teaches, is played by Tadanobu Asano who also played the shy researcher who began to reawaken the heart of the daughter at the centre of The Face of Jizo, Mitsue. Mitsue’s problem was more obviously one of survivor’s guilt, literally haunted by the friendly spirit of her genial father who continually urges her to embrace this last opportunity for happiness, to go on living even whilst others can’t. Nobuko’s journey is almost the reverse as she, essentially, attempts to cleave herself away from her life by ensuring Machiko is taken care of and knows that she has nothing to feel guilty about in seeking happiness even if it can’t be with Koji.

Despite the innovative opening sequence featuring the cockpit and targeting system of the plane which eventually dropped the bomb and the chilling effects sequence as it takes hold, Yamada then reverts to a kind of classical stateliness which is never as effective as Kuroki’s eerie magical realism. Adding in the Christian imagery associated with Nagasaki, the film takes a turn for the mawkish during the final sequence which descends into a series of heavenly cliches from fluffy white clouds to angelic choirs. Warm and melancholy, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son is a poignant exploration of life in the aftermath of preventable tragedy but one which also makes the case for moving on, honouring the legacy of the past with a life lived richly and to the full.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kabei: Our Mother (母べえ, Yoji Yamada, 2008)

KabeiYoji Yamada’s films have an almost Pavlovian effect in that they send even the most hard hearted of viewers out for tissues even before the title screen has landed. Kabei (母べえ), based on the real life memoirs of script supervisor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, is a scathing indictment of war, militarism and the madness of nationalist fervour masquerading as a “hahamono”. As such it is engineered to break the hearts of the world, both in its tale of a self sacrificing mother slowly losing everything through no fault of her own but still doing her best for her daughters, and in the crushing inevitably of its ever increasing tragedy.

Summer, 1940. The Nogamis are a happy family who each refer to each other by adding the cute suffix of “bei” to their names. The father, Tobei (Bando Mitsugoro X), is a writer and an intellectual opposed to Japan’s increasing militarism and consequently has found himself in both political and financial difficulties as his writing is continually rejected by the censors. Eventually, the secret police come for him, dragging him away from his home in front of his terrified wife and daughters. After Tobei is thrown into jail for his “thought crimes”, the mother, Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is left alone with her two young girls Hatsuko and Teruyo (Hatsubei and Terubei in family parlance).

Though devastated, Kabei does not give up and continues to try and visit her husband, urging his release and defending his reputation but all to no avail. Thankfully, she does receive assistance from some of her neighbours who, at this point at least, are sympathetic to her plight and even help her get a teaching job to support herself and the children in the absence of her husband. She also finds an ally in the bumbling former student, Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), as well as her husband’s sister Hisako (Rei Dan), and her brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) who joins them for a brief spell but ultimately proves a little too earthy for the two young middle class daughters of a dissident professor.

The time passes and life goes on. The war intensifies as do the attitudes of Kabei’s friends and neighbours though the family continues its individual struggle, sticking to their principles but also keeping their heads down. By the war’s end, Kabei has lost almost everything but managed to survive whilst also ensuring her children are fed and healthy. A voice over from the older Teryuo calmly announces the end of the conflict to us in such a matter of fact way that it’s impossible not wonder what all of this was for? All of this suffering, death and loss and what has it led to – even more suffering, death and loss. A senseless waste of lives young and old, futures ruined and families broken.

Yet for all that, and to return to the hahamono, the Nogami girls turned out OK. Successful lives built in the precarious post-war world with careers, husbands and families. Unlike many of the children in the typical mother centric movie, Hatsuko and Teruyo are perfectly aware of the degree to which their mother suffered on their behalf and they are both humbled and grateful for it. Kabei was careful and she kept moving to protect her children in uncertain times. Seen through the eyes of a child, the wartime years are ones of mounting terror as fanatical nationalism takes hold. Bowler hatted men seem to rule everything from the shadows and former friends and neighbours are primed to denounce each other for such crimes as having the audacity to wear lipstick in such austere times. In one notable scene, the neighbourhood committee begins its meeting by bowing at the Imperial Palace, until someone remembers the paper said the Emperor was in a different palace entirely and they all have to bow the other way just in case.

Though the tale is unabashedly sentimental, Yamada mitigates much of the melodrama with his firmly domestic setting. We see the soldiers massing in the background and feel the inevitable march of history but the sense of tragedies both personal and national, overwhelming as it is, is only background to a testament to the strength of ordinary people in trying times. An intense condemnation of the folly of war and the collective madness that is nationalism, Kabei is the story of three women but it’s also the story of a nation which suffered and survived. Now more than ever, the lessons of the past and the sorrow which can only be voiced on the deathbed are the ones which must be heeded, lest more death and loss and suffering will surely follow.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dr. Akagi (カンゾー先生, Shohei Imamura, 1998)

Dr AkagiA late career entry from socially minded director Shohei Imamura, Dr. Akagi (カンゾー先生, Kanzo Sensei) takes him back to the war years but perhaps to a slightly more bourgeois milieu than his previous work had hitherto focussed on. Based on the book by Ango Sakaguchi, Dr. Akagi is the story of one ordinary “family doctor” in the dying days of World War II.

As Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) puts it, much of the the life of a family doctor involves running. If he breaks one leg, he’ll run on the other, if he breaks both legs, he’ll run on his hands, but he’ll do whatever it takes to get to his patients. Some of the villagers have branded him as a quack and nicknamed him “Doctor Liver” because his most frequent diagnosis is for hepatitis. Doctor Akagi is convinced that there really is an epidemic of contagious hepatitis plaguing the population and even has the evidence to back his theory up but with the war in crisis and so much else going on he’s having trouble getting anyone to listen to him. Nevertheless, Akagi fearlessly tries to find out what it is that’s causing this deadly disease to spread and hopefully put an end to it for good.

Imamura strikes an oddly comic tone here. Though the above synopsis may sound overly serious, for the vast majority of its running time Dr. Akagi is the story of a small fishing village going about its everyday life with the war just simply background. The town narrowly escapes being bombed by an American raid because it’s known that there’s prisoner of war camp nearby filled with allied soldiers and red cross personnel and there are certainly a lot of troops on the ground more or less running the show. However, despite the obvious hardships – lack of food being the biggest one, the townspeople are getting on with things in a fairly cheerful way.

Following a spot of pastoral care, Dr. Akagi ends up taking in a local girl as his assistant and housekeeper after her father has died leaving her to support her two younger siblings. Though a married woman with a husband away at the front, Sonoko (Kumiko Aso) has been making ends meet through prostitution with the rather unwelcome result that one of her regular customers wants to marry her (she does not reciprocate and after all already has a husband). Akagi doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the idea of prostitution or of openly expressed sexuality, but accepts that society does object to these ideas and takes Sonoko in so that she won’t have to sell herself (though she actually didn’t really mind very much and still finds herself called upon to provide her “services” even after she’s officially given up).

Akagi’s other supporters include a fellow doctor, Tomomi, who has become addicted to morphine after his wartime service and a drunken and lecherous buddhist monk who proves an essential ally when it comes to body snatching a recently buried corpse. Akagi gets himself into even more trouble when he takes in and treats an escaped Dutch POW who bears the scars of extreme torture by Japanese forces who are paranoid about possible spy action. Imamura is never afraid of raising the spectre of wartime brutality as his soldiers flit between righteous zealots committed to the letter of the law and bumbling idiots who can’t see that each of their actions is entirely counterproductive to their cause.

The most surprising moment comes when Akagi has a dream about his son who is an army doctor serving in Manchuria. After Akagi and his friend have conducted an autopsy to gain a fresh liver sample, Tomomi starts talking about his time in the army and a rumour about a group of doctors doing live dissections and possibly researching chemical weapons. Akagi is aghast and horrified but recounts his dream in which he stood before his son whose bloodied hands are extended towards him with a living patient writhing below. Akagi reminds him that he is a doctor and urges him to stop this barbaric practice but the nightmarish vision of this gloomy, blood-soaked room persists.

At the end of the film Sonoko and Akagi unwittingly end up viewing the giant mushroom cloud which arises after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. Not knowing what it is, Akagi predictably sees it as a giant infected liver and wonders if the donor for his liver sample is angry with him but then thinks again and says the cloud is a representation of everybody’s anger towards this war. Akagi loses himself a little in the quest to solve the hepatitis question and after it leads him to neglect a patient he begins to question himself over his true motives and whether there’s really any point to what he’s trying to do. However, Dr. Akagi is a good and a kind man and eventually remembers what his true calling is – as a family doctor, running from one emergency to the next but always making sure his patients are well looked after. War or no war, life goes on – people get sick and they need to know there are men like Akagi out there that can always be relied upon to do the very best they can.


Dr. Akagi was originally released in the US by Kino Lorber but seems to be out of print. The good news is that the region free Korean disc comes with English subtitles.

Unsubbed trailer:

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)

phoenixIn late June of 1945, one woman is escorting another through a US checkpoint in Berlin. The young American soldier is somewhat cocky and feigns an officious sort of suspicion that causes him to demand the bandaged woman reveal her face – just to be sure. The obvious agony she feels just beginning to unwind the various layers which hide her identity is enough to convince him that he’s made a cruel mistake and he lets the pair pass.

Finally Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) delivers the wounded Nelly (Nina Hoss) to a specialist hospital. A survivor of Auschwitz, Nelly was at some point shot in the head and left for dead. Though she miraculously survived, her face is ruined – missing nose, shattered cheekbones etc. She will need extensive reconstructive surgery. “Who would you like to be?” her doctor asks her, but Nelly only wants to be herself – exactly as she was. The doctor advises against it – it can never be exactly the same and the uncanniness is something not everyone can get over plus it can be an advantage to be given the opportunity to start all over again with a new face, a new identity newly shed of all the scars of a traumatic past. Nelly, however, is insistent.

Returning to the city with Lene, she learns that her entire family and many of their mutual friends have been killed though others turned out to have been nazi sympathisers. Nelly repeatedly asks about her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but Lene is reluctant to talk about him. Roaming the streets alone at night she tracks him down to a seedy cabaret club, Pheonix, in the American sector where he now clears tables rather than playing the piano. When she calls him by his former name he barely reacts and fails to recognise her. Later he tracks Nelly down and makes her a very odd proposition – pretend to be his deceased wife to claim the inheritance then split the proceeds.

“I no longer exist” exclaims Nelly at one point. Robbed of everything apart from her breath, Nelly has been erased and replaced by something with no clear history. She wants to go back, to reclaim the life she led before exactly how it was but her home no longer exists – her city is in rubble, most of her friends are dead and the husband that she’s made the anchor of her survival may have been the very one who betrayed her.

Meeting Johnny (now “Johannes”) again and moving into his back room she studies for the role of a lifetime – once again inhabiting her former self, stepping into the shoes of a soulless ghost. Nelly pleads with him silently to remember – recall her from the abyss, recognise her living form as the woman who was taken away in October 1944. Johnny, however, cannot bear to think about the past. He’s convinced himself his wife is dead and is only interested in claiming her money to make a new life in the post-war world. No matter how the coincidences mount up as “Esther” not only looks like “Nelly” but also has her handwriting, voice and movement, Johnny refuses to recognise her or acknowledge their shared tragedy.

Operating like an inverted Vertigo, Phoenix is an extremely rich character drama which not only deals with one woman rebuilding herself from the ashes but also with her nation’s sense of guilt as it resolutely refuses to look the victims of its crime in the eye. Nelly needs to remember and have her existence acknowledged in order to reclaim her identity, but Johnny cannot bear to look, his guilt is so great that it would shatter his sense of self irrevocably. They dance around each other caught between past and future but both trapped, their passage blocked by the symbolic checkpoints that exist all around them in their now ruined city.

Just as the doctor told her, it can never be exactly the same. At the end of the film, Nelly’s transformation is complete, her selfhood restored though somehow different from before. Lene wanted to run away to Palestine, create a new world for her people free from fear and persecution, Johnny wanted to forget and Nelly needed to remember (and be remembered) in order to become herself again but in the end nobody gets quite what they wanted. Only Nelly by meeting her former self head on is able to evolve, finally pulling away from us, out of focus.

Petzold serves us ghosts of several varieties including those of our cinematic pasts by imbuing his melodrama with the gloomy allure of the film noir mixed with the uncomfortable psychology of the Hitchcockian thriller and the uncanny horror of Eyes Without a Face. Probing questions of identity which extend from the individual to the national it asks us to consider a post-war world of guilt and recrimination in which everyone is engaged in rebuilding an idea of selfhood which can take account of wounds suffered or inflicted. Difficult and complex yet beautiful too, Phoenix is anchored by the extremely accomplished performance of its star Nina Hoss and proves a hauntingly melancholy exploration of all it means to be alive.


Phoenix is currently available in the UK on blu-ray, DVD and VOD courtesy of SODA Pictures and is available in the US as part of the Criterion Collection.

The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Masato Harada, 2015)

bbc56b4fff657dfc4fcc0499f8be9741How exactly do you lose a war? It’s not as if you can simply telephone your opponents and say “so sorry, I’m a little busy today so perhaps we could agree not to kill each other for bit? Talk later, tata.” The Emperor in August examines the last few days in the summer of 1945 as Japan attempts to convince itself to end the conflict. Previously recounted by Kihachi Okamoto in 1967 under the title Japan’s Longest Day, The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi) proves that stately events are not always as gracefully carried off as they may appear on the surface.

By the summer of 1945, it’s clear that the situation as deteriorated significantly and Japan can no longer cling to any kind of hope of victory in the wider scale. Tokyo has been firebombed almost out of existence leaving only the Imperial Palace untouched – even the Emperor and his wife have been reduced to eating gruel. Everyone knows it’s time for a solution, but no one is quite ready to say it. In the wake of the atomic bomb, the situation becomes ever more desperate and even if the Emperor himself advocates a surrender, he needs the approval of his advisors. The Prime Minister, Navy and other officials are in favour but the Army, represented by General Anami, is committed to fighting on to the last man. Eventually, Anami comes around to the Emperor’s point of view but some of his men prove much harder to convince…

It might seem like a strange time to make a film about grace in the face of defeat given the recent political troubles stemming back to Japan’s wartime activities, but director Masato Harada is not lamenting the course of the war or trying to advocate for any rightwing agenda so much as trying to make plain the final absurdity of recognising when the battle is over. The civilians and even the Navy might be in favour of accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and ending the war as quickly as possible but a soldier is a soldier and the Army wants to go down fighting. They aren’t alone, of course, there are ordinary people who feel this way too but the writing is well and truly on the wall here.

The bulk of the film takes place within the palace, debating halls or army buildings all of which have escaped major damaged but every time we venture outside we’re shown a scene of utter desolation. A great, gaping hole where once there was a city. Anami’s wife undertakes a four hour walk to try and get in contact with a man who knew their son and can tell them how it was that he fell somewhere in Manchuria. She sees people fleeing, some thinking the enemy are about to descend any minute or that Tokyo will be the next target for an atomic bomb, and walks on through a barren, eerie landscape emerging soot covered and, finally, too late.

Closer to home, the situation among the soldiers is reaching boiling point. Originally committed to rejecting the terms of the treaty, Anami is now in favour of a surrender (with a few caveats) and is desperately working against the threat of an internal coup. Though the top brass have seen enough of warfare to know when it’s time to put down your weapons, the young hotheads have not yet learned the value of pragmatism. Seeing themselves as a second incarnation of the February 26th rebels, a cadre of young officers breaks ranks to try and stop the Emperor’s message of surrender from hitting the airwaves, hoping instead to spread the false message that the Russians have invaded and it’s all hands on deck. Needless to say, they don’t fare any better than the young officers of 1936 and if anything their bullheaded refusal to see sense becomes a microcosmic allegory for the years of militarism as a whole.

In the midst of all this chaos, the real heart of the film is Koji Yakusho’s conflicted general who feels his era passing right in front of him. Grieving for his fallen son yet also clinging to his military duty which dictates no surrender, no retreat he finally sees each of his ideals crumbling and comes to the realisation that the only way to save Japan is to abandon the military. Making a sacrifice of himself, he ensures the safe passage of his nation along a road on which he cannot travel.

The Emperor is a sympathetic figure here, gentle, soft, wanting the suffering to end for everyone but being more or less powerless to effect it despite his title. All he can do is advocate and try to convince his council that surrender is the right course of action as his country burns all around him.

Harada manages to keep the tension high even though a lot of the film comes down to a group of men discussing the proper wording for a treaty. A timely and beautifully photographed exploration of the last days of a war, The Emperor in August is another much needed reminder that decisions which will affect millions of lives are made by handfuls of men in tiny, closed up rooms that most people will never get to see.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of The Emperor in August includes English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Merry-Christmas-Mr-Lawrence-images-832f3814-1564-403a-a98a-313c5bb99deOf all the post-war Japanese filmmakers, the one who liked to twist the knife the most was surely Oshima. No subject too taboo, no pain too raw – he liked to find the sore spot and poke at it a little, if only in the hope of encouraging an accelerated healing, albeit one which would leave a scar to remind you that once you suffered. With Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Senjou no Merry Christmas) he takes an unflinching look at the treatment of Japan’s prisoners of war and contrasts the Japanese forces with the different attitudes of the (mostly) British soldiers held within the walls of the camp.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Laurens Van der Post, The Seed and the Sower, much of the action takes place in a prisoner of war camp run by the Japanese in Java in 1942. The titular Lawrence (Tom Conti) is one of the British prisoners here but unusually speaks fluent Japanese as he lived in Japan for a time before the war. The camp is run by Captain Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto who also composes the music for the film) but largely ministered over by the more sadistic Sergeant Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano in an early straight acting role and billed here solely as “Takeshi”). Things kick off once Yonoi is called away to help preside over a military trial for a “difficult” prisoner who refuses to talk. However, Yonoi is somewhat taken aback by the upright soldier he discovers there. Celliers (played by David Bowie) is sentenced to death only to have the firing squad deliberately miss before he’s transferred to Yonoi’s camp.

As expected the conditions at the camp are not particularly pleasant. The first scene we’re treated to is Lawrence being called to witness an altercation where a Korean/Japanese soldier is accused of raping a Dutch internee. Hara taunts both of them with homosexual slurs and berates the Dutchman for not having resisted strongly enough. Kanemoto, the accused man, has obviously been badly beaten and is eventually ordered to commit seppuku which he eventually tries to do at that very moment by impaling himself on a bayonet. Seppuku is not something to be taken so lightly though so he’ll be patched up now for a ritual suicide later to be witnessed by the wronged parties (whether they wish to watch or not). Homosexuality, or more precisely, homosexual acts, are not to be tolerated among prisoners even if Hara later protests that samurai are not afraid of “queers” whilst insinuating that the majority of Englishman are gay anyway.

Latent homosexuality continues to be an ongoing theme throughout the film. The attraction between Yonoi and Celliers passes beyond simple admiration or even fascination. There don’t seem to be any other particular reasons for Yonoi to continue trying to protect Celliers as he does when he saves him from the firing squad and later allowing him a greater degree of freedom than other prisoners. Both men feel themselves prisoners of their respective social systems – Yonoi as the cold hearted samurai, efficient and unfeeling, yet with an intellectual core and a conflicted heart, and Celliers as a man desperately trying to atone for having once betrayed someone he deeply cared for in a misguided attempt to fit in. That said, both men are on opposite sides of a war and in any case that kind attraction stands against both of their countries’ current social customs. Again, a man is betrayed by a kiss and another man pays an extraordinarily high price leaving the other powerless to save him.

As Lawrence says there are no winners here, wars are just men doing what they thought was right at the time even if they really know that every one of them is wrong. The Japanese are rigid, repressed and anxious whereas the British are obsessed with honour in other ways and lean more towards the side of pragmatism when the going gets tough. A Japanese soldier may prefer to die, even going so far as to commit suicide, rather than subject themselves to the humiliation of having been captured alive. A British soldier will accept becoming a prisoner but largely because he believes he has a duty to live on and serve to the best of his capacity. Once captured, his duty is to try and escape to return to fight and die for King and country until the bitter end.

What both sides have in common is the dehumanisation of its troops. When it comes down to it one man is as good as another. If a radio has been smuggled into the camp someone must be punished for that action, the exact identity of the perpetrator becomes almost an irrelevance. Likewise, if a war has been lost, someone must pay for wrongful acts committed by the losing side even if his actions are no worse than those of any other soldier.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence proves a beautifully sad condemnation both of the rigidity of war, of men who think they’re acting in righteousness when the very idea is the one which causes them to act unjustly, and of repressive social systems in general. Lawrence acts as the voice of reason whilst all the while admitting that he himself is also “wrong” and forced into certain actions and modes of behaviour with which he does not necessarily agree. Both of these empires are on the verge of crumbling, all this death and cruelty will prove to have been for nothing. War is a fruitless tragedy in which there are no winners, only losers on every side. “There are times when victory is very hard to take”, victors too need to abide by their own sense of decency without being swayed by vengeance masquerading as righteousness.


Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is available with English subtitles on blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection in the US (and was previously released on blu-ray in the UK from Optimum/Studiocanal but appears to be currently out of print).

(That final voice over is needlessy creepy, isn’t it?)