Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
It isn’t a “pretty” film, so to say, but Criterion’s transfer still manages to present a rather striking picture. Colours are limited primarily to browns, grays, and greens, but they’re all presented incredibly well and the greens can actually look bright at vibrant in some spots. And other than a few soft moments that I’m sure are related to the source materials the image remains sharp with excellent detail and definition. Film grain is present, and can get heavy during a few moments, primarily darker or nighttime sequences but it looks fairly natural. The print also presents very little damage, just a few minor marks here and there. All things considered, from the general look to the age, it looks very good. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion packs in a few hours of supplements, which are actually surprisingly insightful and enjoyable.
First is 1983 featurette about the film called The Oshima Gang, with footage from its showing at Cannes, including portions from interviews with Bowie, Conti, producer Jeremy Thomas, and author Laurens van der Post, along with others (there’s only a small amount of footage with Oshima unfortunately.) There’s some discussion form the English actors about the unusual shoot and some of the surprises, the biggest being how Oshima would only do one or two takes usually. There’s a little bit about why Bowie was ultimately cast (the key reason seeming to be it was “unusual”) and there’s a little discussion about the sexual repression presented in the film and the attraction between the characters played by Sakamoto and Bowie. I feared it would be your usual, fluffy PR piece but it actually has some teeth. Most of the material is covered in more detail in other features on this disc, but it’s worth viewing solely because this is the only place where Bowie appears.
The next supplement is a new interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg on the screenplay. It’s a surprising 28-minutes and incredibly in-depth, with Mayersberg covering the whole process of writing the screenplay starting from when he first joined. At first it sounds like he was called in to clean-up the screenplay written by Oshima, which was a whopping 190-pages. Mayersberg made severeal suggestions to tighten it and also make it a little more “suspenseful,” which meant changing the opening, and surprisingly Oshima was quick in accepting them all. Oshima also seemed to appreciate a more Western view coming in as he had originally written the English characters in a more Japanese way. Mayersberg mentions the book but states he never read it until afterwards, giving a very thoughtful reason as to why. He expands on a lot of the characters, the relationship between the two characters played by Bowie and Sakamoto, and how the actors took on their roles. There’s also mention here of a deleted scene, a flashback with Conti’s character (which is mentioned elsewhere on the disc, but unfortunately the scene itself never made it.) I was rather surprised by it in the end, with it again coming off incredibly insightful into the themes of the film. This alone actually makes up for a lack of an audio commentary.
On Location is a feature presenting more interviews, new ones recorded with Bill Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Jeremy Thomas, all of whom have been recorded separately. This 40-minute segment covers a lot of ground, from the beginnings of the project to its eventual release. A lot is covered about the casting (with the surprising fact that Robert Redford was originally considered for what would become Bowie’s role) and then the directing style of Oshima. Conti is the most amusing of the three since he had probably the most reservations about the film (some of which may have had to do with the fact he had just seen In the Realm of the Senses before shooting began, and was fearful when he discovered he had his own love scene, which was eventually cut) with Sakamoto coming off as the most grateful for the experience (he had apparently been a fan of Oshima’s work years before he worked on this film.) They all offer their surprises from the filming, Sakamoto just being generally surprised by how much effort goes into a film (this being his first acting job) and the other two just shocked by Oshima’s style of directing (or Japanese filmmaking in general.) Offering more behind-the-scenes information it also expands on the differences in filmmaking between Eastern and Western cultures, which makes it worthwhile (along with the fact that Conti is a delightful interviewee.)
Ryuichi Sakamoto also gets his own interview with segment entitled On the Music, where he talks specifically about doing the score for the film. With this being his first score (he would go on to do scores for other films like The Last Emperor, Snake Eyes, and Femme Fatale) he admits he was unsure what to do and sort of guessed his way along. He also managed to get a bit of a break: most Japanese scores are done in a week, just before the film opens, but he managed to get three months for it. He talks about some of the films he watched to pick up how the rhythms of a score work (Citizen Kane being a top one, suggested to him by Thomas) and he goes into detail about how he came to use the sound he does and the instruments put in place. It’s quite fascinating and a very breezy 18-minutes.
The final disc supplement is a 55-minute, 1996 documentary called Hasten Slowly about Laurens van der Post, the author of the book on which Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is based.This great supplement is made up primarily of interview footage with van der Post, talking about his family in South Africa (his grandparents apparently met after a Zulu attack) and his early fight against apartheid. He then talks about his move to Japan, the war, being imprisoned in a POW camp, and then his life after the war, specifically a television program about the Kalahari Bushmen, the documentary even featuring clips from said program. Mixed in are interviews with his daughter and men who were imprisoned with him in the Japanese POW camp. It’s an absolutely fascinating documentary, easily the best feature on here, and if one was to only watch a single supplement on here I would direct them to this one, though they’re all strong and incredibly thorough.
The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer running about 3-minutes, which does give away a few key moments in the film.
The provided booklet includes a few pieces starting with an excellent analytical essay by Chuck Stephens on the film and how it fits in Oshima’s filmography. Criterion also reprints a 1983 interview between film scholar Tadao Sato and Oshima, where Oshima talks about the origins of the project, casting, what interested him, making a World War II film as someone who was on the “losing” side, and working with Western actors. There’s also a great reprinting of a 2010 interview with comedian/actor/director Takshi Kitano on Oshima. Together it’s another great booklet from Criterion.
I’m disappointed Conti’s mentioned deleted scene didn’t make the cut but what is offered is quite compelling, beautifully covering what is really a fascinating project. 9/10