Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: A Christmas Tale for the War on Terror

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Directed by Nagisa Oshima, Screenplay by Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg
Based on The Seed and the Sower  and The Night of the New Moon by Laurens van der Post
Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson
Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto

It should be obvious that we won't preserve our environment or rid the world of nuclear weapons if the nations of the world don't start rebuilding a serious amount of lost trust and making up for lost opportunities. So for Christmas I depart from the usual topics and cover the classic war film from 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

One wouldn't expect to find a redeeming message for humanity in the 21st century in a tale about the horrors of life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, but if you've been listening to the new atheist intellectuals tell you that modernity is in a fight for its life against an unprecedented, barbaric and irrational ideology, this story serves as a good reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. The West's now friendly ally Japan was once seen an irredeemable fundamentalist death cult obsessed with suicide attacks, disembowelment and decapitation. Sound familiar?

That fundamentalist cult is still there under the surface. The current prime minister is a grandson of one of the leaders who was charged with war crimes after WWII, and unlike in Germany where it is taboo to deny Nazi atrocities, in Japan it is still taboo to admit to Japanese atrocities in China.[1] However, the point is that Japan reverted to a certain level of normality in its international relations, and other countries welcomed it back into the family of nations. If ISIS toned down its extremism a little and made political compromises with other nations, it is not inconceivable that it could transform itself into a legitimate state that is no more extreme than Saudi Arabia. And that says a lot about our acceptance of Saudi Arabia as a member of the international community.

The fictional film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was based on the writings of the POW camp survivor Laurens van der Post. The survivors of Japanese POW camps told of the brutality of their captors who ran the camps on the values of bushido rather than on the international laws of war and the Geneva conventions. That brutality is depicted in the film, but if that was all there was to it, there wouldn't be anything compelling to watch. What makes it worthwhile is the way the humanity of the captors bleeds out of them despite their best efforts to cover it with their shame and their ideology. At the same time, the allied prisoners are also seen to be victims of their own culture's hideous rituals and beliefs. Both sides share the toxic shame of having betrayed a brother or comrades while trying to live up to an ideal of manhood (women are completely absent in the story).

The camp commander, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), carries his shame and recognizes that one of the enemy captives, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), suffers from a similar affliction--a shame that resulted in a disregard for his own life, which comes across as apparent bravery and fearlessness. For Yanoi, this recognition remains subconscious, as it only triggers an erotic attraction which deepens the shame in his tortured psyche. He can explain it only as a demonic possession that his enemy has inflicted on him.

Another officer in the camp, Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), has no such delicate sentiments while he torments the prisoners with random beatings. But in all his interactions with Colonel Lawrence, a Japanese-speaking prisoner, his vicious sarcasm quickly settles into friendly teasing and banter, and it becomes obvious that in spite of himself, he wants to connect with these men whom he is supposed to hold in contempt. In the scene that gave the film its title, he gets drunk on Christmas day and commutes two death sentences, proclaiming himself to be "father Christmas."

The historical record shows that the fundamentalist death cult burned itself out and that it was never really in charge anyway. When it became obvious that a Soviet invasion was imminent, the capitalists who ran the country were ready to cut a deal and suffer an American occupation. The atomic bombings barely registered as a topic in the cabinet meetings in the last week before surrender.[2] It shouldn't be forgotten that the tribunals held by the victors sentenced minor figures like Sergeant Hara to death. Officers higher up the chain of command also received death sentences not only for allowing torture but for having failed to ensure it wouldn't occur. For America's "excesses" and "mistakes" in Iraq since 2003, the same standard was never applied.


[1] Tom Clifford, "Japan Rewrites War History at Yasukuni," Counterpunch, August 13, 2013. http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/13/japan-rewrites-war-history-at-yasukuni/ 

[2] Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Belknap Press, 2006).

Other Sources

John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (Norton & Company, 1999). 

Kurt Loder, "Straight Time," Rolling Stone, May 1983, (interview with David Bowie)

Richard H. Minear, Victor's Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971).

Douglas Valentine, The Hotel Tacloban (Lawrence Hill Books, 1984). More recent editions available from various publishers. This is a non-fiction memoir of the author's father's experience as a prisoner of war in Tacloban, Philippines during WWII.

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