I think the first time most people in the West saw Kitano "Beat" Takashi was in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Of course that is assuming that they saw the film at all. It was the first real acting job that Takashi had out side of comedy and its part that made be both laugh and cry, and I do mean cry, the end of this film makes be cry uncontrollably every time I see it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is the story of Mr Lawrence, played by Tom Conti, a British soldier being held in a Japanese Prison camp during the Second World War. Lawrence is respected by the Japanese because he knows their language and customs. A friend of his is the guard played by Beat Takashi, with whom he has serious discussions about life and other subjects. Into the camp comes Jack Celliars, played by David Bowie, a commando who becomes an obsession of the camp commandant played by Oscar winning musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. What happens once the pot is stirred is the film.
Based on an autobiographical novel by Laurens Van der Post, the film took a great deal of flack in some circles since the filmmakers “refocused” the story on the camp commanders obsession with Celliars at the detriment of the rest of the film. I don’t think the film is overly focused on the lustful relationship, I just think its simply one factor in a film that tries to deal with how men try to cope with the horrors of war, even when the war is being fought elsewhere.
I have a deep affection for this film. I saw it when it originally came out in 1983 and it was one of only three films on my ten best list for that year. It was a year so bad that one of the best films was actually from 1926, Giorgio Moroder's re-scored Metropolis. It may have been a bad year for movies, but the ones I loved, I really loved. Lawrence is film that has stayed with me over the decades. It is in its way part of me. I have had several variations of the musical score (by Sakamoto) which is never far from my CD player. And the end of the film can reduce me to tears by the simple act of thinking about it.
This is a film about men and war and what happens. Actually it's a film that is really about the characters. What breaks my heart at the end of the film is not what happens but a sense of sadness for the characters. In that moment there is happiness but very much tinged with sadness. It is a sadness that comes from the characters and what we have felt for them over the course of the film.It is a feeling that the film earns.
For me one of the joys of the film was that I got to discover Beat Takashi. There were several articles about one of Japan's biggest comedians taking on a serious role. I didn't know him from a hole in the wall, however his performance won me over and I've been following his career ever since. Not only is now a great dramatic actor, but he also is one of my favorite directors turning out films that run the gamut from action to comedy to drama. If for no other reason other than being a gateway to a great artist I hold this film in high regard.
Truthfully you just need to see this film. Its a film that in writing up I find I can't be brief or concise about, there is just too much to say. See if you can find yourself a copy (I don't think its out on US DVD however I know its out elsewhere since I have a UK copy)
ADDENDUM 6/16/10: Criterion announced a two DVD release for the fall.
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