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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

May. 28,1983
| Drama History War

Island of Java, 1942, during World War II. British Major Jack Celliers arrives at a Japanese prison camp, run by the strict Captain Yonoi. Colonel John Lawrence, who has a profound knowledge of Japanese culture, and Sergeant Hara, brutal and simpleton, will witness the struggle of wills between two men from very different backgrounds who are tragically destined to clash.


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In truth, there is barely enough story here to make a film.

Portia Hilton

Blistering performances.


Watching it is like watching the spectacle of a class clown at their best: you laugh at their jokes, instigate their defiance, and "ooooh" when they get in trouble.

Staci Frederick

Blistering performances.


Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is, as the title would suggest, about as far from your typical old-fashioned prisoner-of-war movie as it can get. This film is about Allied officers in a Japanese prison but instead of being about escape attempts, as so many films in this genre are, it's instead a treatise on the human condition that explores the nature of warfare and the human spirit in its fight for justice and honour. The film I would most liken it to is HELL IN THE PACIFIC.Essentially this is a film about four men whose lives intertwine as the sometimes shocking events in the camp play out. Tom Conti is the straight man through whom we experience the film; he's good, but he has his thunder stolen by the others. Ryuichi Sakamoto has the toughest role as the camp commander driven by old-fashioned ideals and conflicted by personal desire; he also contributed the film's unusual, effective score. David Bowie is the headlining character and makes his role charming with seeming effortlessness. Best of the bunch is the great Japanese Yakuza actor 'Beat' Takeshi, playing an unusual and ambiguous character; he gets the final scene to himself, which just so happens to be the film's most moving moment.


« Senjo no Merry Christmas »"Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence" is a sentence used twice in the movie in the middle and at the end, in fact during key times. "Furyo" is the European name of the movie; it refers to the Japanese "war prisoners".Story: The story takes place during World War II in a prisoner camp in Java Island (Indonesia), the camp is led by the Japanese, English and American soldiers are prisoners. Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is the director of the camp. He's authoritative, nobody can bear him and all fear him… he embodies the traditional Japanese way of mind, which will be totally jeopardized by a new captive, Jack Celliers (David Bowie) an English soldier. Celliers will defend himself and is state of mind all along the movie. During the movie we follow this total clash of culture between the two soldiers, a clash which will approach them. The two guys… We can notice another duo ,with colonel Jonh Lawrence (Tom Conti) who is able to talk Japanese and sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), they are in good term but the war create a gap between them…Characters: 1-David Bowie is major Jack Celliers… I think it's true to say that it is Bowie's best role on screen , however he ranks under the performance of Conti… moreover it's a bit pity that he didn't take part in the film music just because he thought it could discredit his performance…2- Ryuchi Sakamoto is captain Yonoi, Sakamoto was then considered in Japan as Bowie in the West, he did the soundtrack of the movie. Through him we see all the complexity of the samurai tradition; he doesn't know what to do when facing other customs, there is a part of love and a part of fear; he is already a round character. There are some stereotypes about the Asian performance (for example: the overplay) but here these ones are inexistent he suits the character without any kind of artifact…3- Tom Conti embodies colonel Lawrence, thanks to this movie Conti received an award for the best actor by the National Board of Review, and I think its nothing for such a good performance …4- Takeshi Kitano is Sergeant Genjo Hara, he is the one who says "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" , he is the only Japanese who has something… I don't know… human? First we imagine that he is a flat character (mostly because he drinks a lot) but we realize it's wrong, he is a key character in the storyThere are many more characters but these ones are the most important. However it's a shame that Conti and Kitano don't appear on the European cove because they are as interesting as Bowie and Sakamoto!The soundtrack: In this movie you cannot forget to talk about the soundtrack! First: because there are two pop stars in the movie: David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto…and because it's just wonderful. Sure Bowie didn't take parts of it but whoa! I'm just breathtaking by so much emotion just in a song…Personal opinion :Sure everything is clever, the actors performance, the different scenes with many long shots which are great, and the soundtrack, sorry The soundtrack! But I don't want to watch it again … I don't know why , I was not so impressed


Set in a Japanese POW camp on Java in 1942 this film primarily focuses on four men. These are Lt. Col. John Lawrence, a British officer who lived in Japan before the war and speaks fluent Japanese; Major Jack Celliers, a recent arrival who somehow captivates the camp commandant; Capt. Yonoi, the commandant and Sgt. Hara, a man who can be brutal at times but at other times was surprisingly friendly, especially to Lawrence. The film isn't really about plot; it is all about the characters; the various incidents serving to reveal more about them. It is clear that in some ways Yonoi and Hari are just as much prisoners as Lawrence and Celliers; they are prisoners of a culture that demands obedience and can't comprehend how the Allied prisoners don't kill themselves from the shame of their situation.When I first watched this I was surprised to learn that it was primarily a Japanese production as it doesn't attempt to sugar coat the fact that there was brutality in the camps but also because it fundamentally questions the Japanese psyche at the time. Director Nagisa Ôshima did a great job getting fine performances from all of the protagonists; Tom Conti is nicely understated as Lawrence; a voice of reason in and insane situation; David Bowie as an ethereal quality as Celliers, Takeshi Kitano manages to make Sgt. Hara a sympathetic character despite his sometimes brutal action and Ryûichi Sakamoto is fine as the conflicted Yonio. Sakamoto didn't just put in a fin acting performance he also composed the film's hauntingly beautiful score; a score that I could still hum years after I last saw the film! There are of course some fairly disturbing scenes; these include several beatings, a couple of men committing Seppuku and the sight of dying prisoners being forced to turn out for parade. The scenes away from the camp where we see Celliers as a youngster may seem a distraction but they are needed to explain why he is the man we see in the camp. Without giving too many spoilers I will also say that the ending is quite tragic and had me in tears! If you haven't seen this I heartily recommend watching it; just don't expect a happy, festive movie!


I have not read the novel, though I may very well do so. This is the first film by Ôshima that I watch, but I intend to try to find other of his works. I understand that this is the first he did in English, and it doesn't show or in any way detract from it. This does not feel like there was ever a communication problem between the crew on this. It's nice how they speak Japanese when that is appropriate, and those of us who do not understand that get subtitles. That is exactly how it should be, in my opinion. I had not seen Bowie act before, and I have to admit, he left me positively surprised. Every role is well-cast. This is engaging and interesting, and it's always nice to see such an excellent movie that deals with something so different to what we usually see in features. The cinematography and editing are expertly done. For being over 25 years old, this does not feel dated, and the subject remains relevant, and this continues to be a poignant viewing experience. There is disturbing and unsettling content in this, as well as some violence. I recommend this to anyone mature enough for it. 8/10