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The Dostoevskian Poetics of 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence'

Shochiku Fuji

Editor's Note: The first Pride marches in Asia were held in Japan in 1994, more than 20 years after the ones held in the U.S.. Of course, “pride” is essentially a Western concept, so this isn’t to say that countries in the East were necessarily “slower” to celebrate queerness. On the contrary, as we hope to show with the films in The Asian Cut's Pride 2024 series, Asia has such rich, diverse, and complex queer histories, particularly when it comes to its many LGBTQ+ cinema industries. And while the handful of films in this collection could never adequately cover the vastness of Queer Asia, we are hopeful that they — and the insights our writers bring — will serve as a launchpad for your curiosity, your enthusiasm, and, at the very least, your love


When Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was 28 years old, he was arrested for his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle, a literary discussion group that was critical of tsarist autocracy and serfdom in Russia. Tsar Nicholas I, who was anxious and fearful of revolution, saw the group of intellectuals as dangerous convicts, as conspirators, and sentenced them to death by firing squad. On December 23, 1849, in Saint Petersburg, young Dostoevsky and his cohort of progressive-minded writers, teachers, and students were slated to be executed. Lined up in rows of three, they faced the firing squad; Dostoevsky was the third man in the second row. As they stood before death, awaiting the crack and boom of the guns at a moment swiftly rushing toward them, a cart rattled up. It was a stay of execution — the sentence was commuted and Dostoevsky spent the next four years in exile in Siberia at a hard-labour prison camp. 

To say that this incident, and the subsequent years in prison, deeply affected Dostoevsky might be an understatement. I wonder if it altered his soul, dislodged something cosmically, perhaps lodged something else spiritually in place. The monumental-ness of the events are explored literally and philosophically by the writer again and again.  The execution itself is something Dostoevsky is deeply preoccupied with in The Idiot, while the exile receives its exploration in the stunning and stark The House of the Dead, which, more than looks, glares incisively at the effects of a Siberian prison on convicts, through a narrator who is not exempt form the numbing violence of the prison coffin. It’s all so much waiting for death — Dostoevsky seems to say. What does a person do as they await that finality? 

In The Idiot, the protagonist is fascinated by the idea of the face of a man as he is led up to the scaffold to be executed: how many lives does he live in the mere seconds it takes for him to walk up to and await the blade? Does he not rejoice at every sign of life flowering around him as he walks to his own annihilation, does he not wax philosophical and poetic and artistic, experience all of his humanity, in the mere minutes before he loses it? Does he atone and meet god and kiss the ground — does he weep? does he lose his sanity? What does a man look like as he walks toward death, Dostoevsky asks, and he knows the answer. He experienced it. 

I bring up Dostoevsky because I couldn’t help but think of him and his works again and again throughout the 1983 war film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Directed by Nagisa Ōshima, the film takes place in 1942 in Java, Indonesia, then occupied by Japan, and is based on the autobiographical The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post. The story is visually and narratively sweeping even as it is so deeply confined, so much within the space of its frame — Java’s beauty is caged, and all the bodies, their potential, doomed. On a prisoner of war (POW) camp, Tom Conti’s John Lawrence, a corollary of van der Post, encounters an old comrade, David Bowie’s striking and haunted Jack Celliers, under the brutal watch of composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Captain Yonoi, the camp’s commander; Sakamoto also scores the glimmering synth score for the film, which won a BAFTA.

Conti’s Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence is a bridge of sorts between the British prisoners and the Japanese occupiers, elevated to the position of translator because he’s the only inmate fluent in Japanese. We learn that Lawrence spent a significant part of his life in Japan and has a considerable enough grasp on Japanese culture to elevate him to a position of empathy for the Japanese. The Japanese guards’ social currents are significantly informed by the bushido (“the way of the warrior”) code, a code of ethics, philosophies, principles, and practices informed by the samurai code of honour. Captain Yonoi is a strict adherent of the bushido code. To the British prisoners, themselves deeply embedded in English chivalric culture (stemming from Christian knighthood, its understanding of goodness and decorum), the Japanese and their cultural mores seem impregnable and confusing, while to the Japanese, the British seem likewise and equally confusing. For the Japanese, it is far better, for example, to die by honour than to be caught and killed at the hands of the enemy, while for the British, matters of the greater good and Christian-chivalric ideas around self-sacrifice always take sway before action.   

The culture clash is brought to a head when Bowie’s Celliers is captured and brought in as a prisoner. Yonoi becomes particularly fascinated by Celliers, all glittering and blond and statuesque, graceful and noble. An indignant witness to the new culture, Celliers riles up the prisoners against Yonoi’s commandments, informed as they are by the bushido code, which leads to further and immense brutality and chaos as punishment for the battered and hopeless prisoners. The film’s gift is its equalizing force, its ability to present the British and the Japanese on a levelled ground as they collide. Though the rational and contextual histories are different, both cultures are capable of immense violence and immense kindness. 

An erotic tension simmers throughout the story, one laced with a curious and tender love. A harrowing tragedy opens the film: a Japanese guard was found having sex with his Dutch prisoner, and as punishment, the guard must perform seppuku, or harakiri: suicide by disembowelment, performed in an effort to restore honour to the guilty person or their family. As the guard performs seppuku, the Dutch soldier, who has become grey and haunted, falls to the ground and wails, ultimately killing himself as the Japanese guard dies by biting off his own tongue and choking on it. The scene is rich even as it is ambiguous for all the Dostoevskian potentialities it raises: has it become evident that the event between the two was something more than sex, were they in love? Or did the act of witnessing another’s death move the Dutch soldier to death, too? How many lives did the Dutch soldier and the Japanese guard live in the moments before their deaths? This literal display stalks the film as a weeping ghost, frenetically humming beneath the surface as Yonoi observes and interacts with Celliers — is it obsessive love? 

Often Yonoi is angry with Celliers, for his insubordination, becoming violently indignant when Celliers’ British chivalric ways affront his bushido ways. The most unbearable event for Yonoi comes near the film’s end, when, in an effort to save another prisoner’s life, Celliers stands before Yonoi’s sword, staying it, and kisses Yonoi twice on the cheeks. The world-shattering indecorum of Celliers’ act is mirrored by the trembling of the film’s frames, as the event plays out in a kind of breathless slow motion to mirror Yonoi’s violently beating heart. Anger and love commingle in the moment, with honour and custom triumphing.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a complex and at times difficult to watch film. Bodies are hurt and beaten, slashed and whipped. All of the film contains the desolation and whirling madness of life that Dostoevsky wrote about so often — Lawrence and Celliers are heaped with punishment upon punishment, buried deeper and deeper within their already-suffocating confinement, and as they and their fellow prisoners await the death they have become certain of as swiftly arriving, they survey their pasts, rejoice in its joys and absurdities, weep at their shortcomings. They go through, in other words, the phantasmagoria Dostoevsky describes on the doomed man’s visage as he walks up to his scaffold in The Idiot

This film is a triumph for the ways in which it depicts not just the human spirit under duress, but also the ways in which custom and culture manage to confine us even as violence threatens to rend us, even as we stand on death’s doorstep. And as Dostoevsky managed to find, remark and ruminate upon, and celebrate humanity, regardless of its ugliness, I believe this film’s gift is a likewise celebration: the beauty of love — whether erotic, comradely, or poetic — coffined within the horror.


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