Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 15

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

I first heard about “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” in a article about the odd ways Japan has absorbed the Western tradition of Christmas. The article, which revolved around the rumors that a crucified Santa Claus was once seen in a Japanese shop window, claimed that a movie called “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is often shown on Japanese TV around December. Despite the title, it's a bleak war movie with little to do with the holiday, another example of how the country doesn't totally understand Christmas. After looking the movie up, I was surprised to see it starred David Bowie. I hadn't seen the film sooner because it was out-of-print for years, though Criterion eventually pick it up. Considering Bowie's passing still hangs over 2016, this Christmas seems like the year to finally watch the movie.

During World War II, four men share a strange connection inside a Japanese prisoners of war camp. Mr. Lawrence, an English soldier fluent in Japanese, tries to keep peace between the prisoners and the guards. Sergeant Hara inflicts cruel punishments on the Allies soldiers but remains oddly friendly towards Lawrence. Major Jack Celliers arrives in the camp and immediately sets about challenging the rules of his captors. Captain Yonoi, the overseer of the prison, develops an obsession with Celliers, equally intrigued by him and determined to break his spirit. As Christmas approaches, the conflict between the four men come to a head.

Any time a film is made about the atrocities of World War II, there's always a concern the story will become “misery porn.” As in an overly maudlin movie that shovels on tragic events to depress the audience, usually in the service of some life affirming moral. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” takes a more even-handed approach. Yes, there is brutality in the film. In the opening scene, a prisoner is struck. Vicious canings happen repeatedly throughout the film. Characters are often dragged off-screen to be beaten. A Korean soldier is forced to commit seppuku. Those that displease the warden are left to freeze in snowy pins. Yet there's a nonchalant presentation to the violence. It's not lingered on or exploitative. Instead, the cruelty occurs suddenly and quickly, as in real life.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” focuses more on the internal turmoil of its protagonists then on their physical agony. Regrets hang heavily in the air. Jack Celliers is haunted by memories of abandoning his little brother to be attacked by school bullies. He could have intervene but intentionally did not. In his dreams, he still visits his brother, apologizing for what he did. Captain Yonoi, meanwhile, was nearly a part of February 26 Incident. His entire military career has been motivated by missing that chance to die in shining glory. The movie carries a tone of regret, of memories and hopeless speculations about what could have been. The haunting atmosphere hangs over the viewer even after the film ends.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is about war, in the sense that it's about conflicts between different cultures. Lawrence, as a translator, attempts to bridge the differences between the English and the Japanese. Yet communication often breaks down and, more then once, it results in someone getting hurt. It's heavily implied throughout the film that Yonoi's obsession with Celliers is romantic in nature. When Jack calls the captain on this, Yonoi has a breakdown. Homosexuality is a reoccurring theme in the film. Early on, a Korean man and a Dutch prisoner are punished for sleeping together. As the Korean dies, he cries out for his lover. Hana condemns such relationships, which is interesting considering the history of homosexuality in Japan. At the end, Hana and Lawrence are reunited, their situations switched. Only then can they admit they're friends. The film seems to be saying that most conflicts could be resolved if people talked openly and actually said what they were really feeling.

The film balances a tricky number of concepts but its cast goes a long way of grounding the loftier ideas. Though Bowie gets top billing, Tom Conti stars as Lawrence. Conti is very good at projecting a sense of calm while making the storm inside apparent. When those emotions boil over, it has an effect on the audience. Bowie is well-cast as a mysterious man observant of people's secrets, wants and flaws. Yet the film also gives him some surprisingly vulnerable moments, which the rock legend is equally good at playing up. Bowie isn't the only pop star in the film. Ryuichi Sakamoto, better known as an electronic musician, plays Yonoi. Sakamoto gives an intentionally mannered performance, playing a military man strict in every way, even his passions. Takeshi Kitano, a well-known face to fans of Japanese cinema, is very good as Sergeant Hara, a man who can crack jokes one minute and turn incredibly violent the next. Kitano humanizes the character with his sense of humor.

Sakamoto also provides the film's score, a haunting collection of songs powered by chiming piano notes and a churning electronic background. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” doesn't seem to be director Nagisa Oshima's most highly regarded film, as he also made the controversial “In the Realm of the Senses.” I, however, found it be an interesting and frequently powerful experience. For the record, two of the film's most important scenes take place around Christmas, though it's still probably not ideal holiday viewing for most folks. [8/10]

Batman: The Animated Series: Christmas with the Joker

I've written before about how Batman and Christmas are irrevocably linked in my mind. I'm not the only one. Though “Batman Returns” is the most prominent example, plenty of other stories have contrasted the holly jolly holiday with Gotham's grim dark knight. Such as “Christmas with the Joker,” the second produced episode of “Batman: The Animated Series.” Dick Grayson is trying to get Bruce Wayne to unwind on Christmas, urging him to stay home and watch “It's a Wonderful Life.” Bruce is reluctant, knowing that crime never takes a holiday. He's right. The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum and broadcasts a twisted Christmas special to the whole city. He's kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, Det. Bullock, and some other lady, threatening to kill them all unless Batman can stop him.

Here in 2016, “Batman: The Animated Series” has become one of the most highly regarded versions of the character. The show's high quality animation and sharp writing was unexpected for a Saturday morning cartoon in 1992. The series' art deco artwork and character designs would be highly influential, yet still remains distinctive. As good as “Batman: The Animated Series” was, one must still remember that it was, deep down, a kid's show. The plot for “Christmas with the Joker” is simple. A villain kidnapping some victims, forcing the hero to play his twisted games, is a standard superhero plot. Construction wise, “Christmas with the Joker” isn't much more then a series of action scenes, Batman and Robin encountering different traps before confronting the Joker.

I'm not necessarily complaining. Sometimes simple is good. “Christmas with the Joker” fills its half-hour with small, but distinctive, character moments. Such as Dick's urging that even criminals take it easy on Christmas. Or Batman admitting he's never seen “It's a Wonderful Life” because he couldn't get pass the title. Both of these moments pay off nicely, when Batman prepares to stop a mugging before realizing it's actually an act of kindness. After watching the Frank Capra classic, Wayne reluctantly admits that it is occasionally a wonderful life. Batman claims, and the Joker later points this out, that he has no fondness for Christmas because he hasn't had a family in years. Yet, when he gathers around the TV with Grayson and Alfred, it becomes apparent he does have a family of sorts.

Clever writing aside, the real reason to check this episode out is the titular villain. Mark Hamill's Joker remains my favorite incarnation of the infamous bad guy. Hamill and “B:TAS'” writing team get the Joker. He's not a determined agent of chaos or a Hot Topic scene kid. He's the Clown Prince of Crime, who alternatively commits mischievous or horrifying acts simply because they amuse him. In “Christmas with the Joker,” he nearly murders three people, blows up a bridge, converts a conservatory telescope into a cannon, and attacks Batman with giant robotic tin soldiers. And what is the villain's final objective? To throw a cream pie in Batman's face. This balance, between the psychotic and the absurd, is what makes the Joker such a great adversary. Naturally, Hamill's vocal performance is amazing, his crazy laugh still unmatched twenty-four years later.

Hamill isn't the only iconic casting choice, as Kevin Conroy's Batman is equally pitch perfect. The action is sometimes goofy but endearing in a comic book kind of way. This is the first time I've watched this episode in years but, I've got to say, “Christmas with the Joker” holds up pretty well. It's ideal seasonal viewing for any fan of superhero shenanigans. [8/10]

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