Sunday, May 13, 2012

Oshima Post

It's been a couple weeks since my last Sunday screen shot post - the reason is, maybe predictably, the World War II class I have been taking - it's paper time... I was writing about prison camp movies (mostly) - and giving pride of place to this one: Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. More precisely, I suppose, I was writing about the depiction of the enemy - and face to face interaction between enemies - a theme given rich opportunities for development in prison camps.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is pretty much about just that - it's about seeing the other side from the other side: it is close to unique, a Japanese film, with a famous Japanese director, made from a book by a South African, co-written and produced by Englishmen, that's committed to looking at both sides, from both sides, and from outside as well. Digging into the political and social divisions on both sides of the war, exploring all the perspectives. Including on outside, analytical perspective - look at all those long shots, high angles - dispassionate and objective, though always alongside explorations of what the characters perceive. I know people sometimes compare Oshima to Godard - that may not be as helpful as it sounds, but this they have in common - an approach that tries to move back and forth between seeing things from inside, as their characters see them - and outside, analytically, "objectively" - and putting these perspectives on film.

Oshima is also one of the great political filmmakers - he never lets us forget who holds the whip - or how power is exercised up and down the system. Individuals are swallowed, and individuals fight back, and individual desires and psychology constantly interfere - his films do all that, and keep it in a real, analytical setting in the world. So we see the Japanese hierarchy - the officers, a bunch of cultured arrogant brutes, lording it over their non-coms - who lord it over the privates - who here, get to lord it over the Koreans, as well as the prisoners. It's certainly consistently with Oshima's work, his interest in the treatment of Koreans - here, the film starts with a Korean guard being beaten, an act that touches off the whole series of actions...

That's relatively common in Japanese films about the war - at least the ones I've seen, mostly from New Wave directors like Oshima. I mentioned it regarding Fires on the Plain - the amount of divisiveness you see in Japanese war films, far more than I think usually appears in other country's films. A lot of these films - Fires, as well as Fighting Elegy, or Kobayashi's The Human Condition - date from the late 50s and 60s, a particularly fractious time in Japan; Oshima's films, all of them, are particularly steeped in the chaotic politics of the 1960s. But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is just as interested in the divisions among the allies - the main officers there - Colonel Lawrence, Group Commander Hicksley, Major Jack Celliers - are as different as Captain Yanoi is from Sergeant Hara (the main Japanese characters.) Hicksley as rather ridiculous, by the book, regular military type; Celliers a heroic, flamboyant and a bit self-destructive free spirit (played by David Bowie as something of an alien - at least as seen by Captain Yanoi)

...and Lawrence as a kind of Easternized westerner - a world traveller who speaks Japanese, and spends the film trying (it seems) to explain the Japanese to the British and the British to the Japanese. It never really works - the Japanese have guns, they don't have to listen; the other officers - well - Hicksley doesn't understand him; and Jack is too determined to get himself killed.

Yanoi is interesting enough himself, a Shakespeare quoting radical aesthete, who survived the February 26th incident, and Hara, played by Beat Takeshi, his first film role, but already the kind of performer who can hold his own with David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto - a salt of the earth professional who dreams of Merlene Deitrich and kills like a machine.

And Oshima does a superb job of making them all count - Lawrence is the center of the film, the pivot - everyone interacts through him... And Celliers is the engine of the plot - he comes to the camp and turns everything upside down. He's a fascinating character - an overt Christ figure, with his initials, and his otherworldliness and martyrdom - though also Judas, specializing in betrayal and destroying Yanoi with a kiss.

But - in a film full of religious imagery - churches, hymns, Christian allusions (Jesus and Judas), as well as Buddhism, direct and indirectly portrayed -

- it's Hara who is the one genuinely religious character. He's the one chanting sutras for the dead; he's shaven headed in his cell at the end, with his prayer beads and monk's composure.

And he is Father Christmas, giving life to the others:

And so.... I've found that every time I see an Oshima film, I have liked it more - the more I see his work, think about his work, the more impressive he becomes. I suppose some of that is the political nature of the work - it can be hard to process the first time through - and maybe distracts from the rest of what he does. There's no denying what a beautiful filmmaker he is. And how clever he is - this one manages to work in in-jokes about his other films ("did she cut it off?"), its stars (Bowie wishing he could sing), other films - it's a joy. And he knows how to use the stars he has, exploiting Bowie's charisma, Sakamoto's presence, and Takeshi's face...

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