The web of relationships between English and Japanese is too schematic in its polarisation of characters, Oshima's handling of the narrative is not so much elliptical as awkward, and Bowie's performance is embarrassingly wooden.
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From Oshima’s later career (after one stroke, he made 1999’s Taboo; after two strokes, it’s unclear whether he’ll direct again), most notable is this bilingual, end-of-WWII tearjerker about forgiveness and understanding between cultures, which could have been dubbed The Man Who Fell to Java.
As an exploration of cultural discord, Nagisa Oshima's film is pretty thin stuff, despite its reputation. Bowie is a potent irritant, but Tom Conti is solid in support and Sakamoto's mesmerising score sparkles anew.
Oshima, the director who was once celebrated for the elaborately scandalous eroticism of In the Realm of the Senses, is here merely impenetrable -- though whatever it is that Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is about, Oshima does seem to mean it. [30 Sep 1983, p.D2]
The elliptical narrative centers on the unspoken erotic attraction between Sakamoto and Bowie, and Oshima appears to be treating ideas of elegantly transmogrified, purified emotions, yet the context and frequent incontinence of the execution bring the film uncomfortably close to the pseudophilosophical bondage fantasies of Yukio Mishima.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is closer to a curiosity than to a triumph, though its conception is certainly ambitious.
The less-than-original theme is illuminated with grace and insight, with sensuality and spirituality, and Oshima stumbles only twice. Unfortunately, the missteps are major. [16 Sep 1983]
Ultimately, the attempt to over-deliver on themes leads to a serious under-delivery of dramatic impact. This is a disjointed film, inexplicably a classic for some, that fails to engage with modern audiences.
It's awkward, not because of the subject matter, but because of the contrasting acting styles. Here are two men trying to communicate in a touchy area and they behave as if they're from different planets.