Last night Dutch television VPRO channel broadcasted an odd movie on British soldiers in a Japanese POW (Prisoners of War) camp. At first I could not figure out why this movie (“Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence” (1983; also known in many European editions as Furyo (俘虜, Japanese for “prisoner of war”) was shown a few weeks after the yearly tsunami of those unbearable stupid & bad Christmas-time movies, as this certainly was not masterly cinema…
Then it transpired that one of the characters in the movie was David Bowie, so the movie was broadcast as a homage to the deceased. No great photography, no great plot, no great acting, odd yes, that it was. The movie, a British Japanese co-production directed by Oshima Nagisa, was of course 90% fictional and what was left of depiction of war reality of a Japanese POW camp, was meagre indeed. It does not even inspire me to check the two novels (merged into one) of the South African British writer Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) “The Seed and the Sower”, whose long and complicated life story is certainly more interesting than the the derived product of this movie which references Van der Post his own experiences as a British officer in Japanese custody on Java during WWII,
Interesting is to not that the fame of Laurens van der Post during his life time did get partly overcast by the discovery/disclosure of his real life after his death. Biographers found his trait to be ’embellishment of his own deeds’.
This fits well with the biography of David Bowie and the battalions of hagiographers that swarm our social media these days, glorifying his art of eclectic plagiarism (recognised by himself in his often quoted ‘bringing high art to the street’).
Maybe his role as a Prisoner Of War (POW) symbolises the relationship between Bowie loving individuals – conflated into a mass audience – that act like ‘camp commanders’ imprisoning and commanding “their” cult hero, forcing him to respond to their greed for ‘novelty’, thus burying him – when still alive.
Bowie was a ‘nipponophile’ early on. Kabuki theatre with it’s grotesque stylised forms of dance and make up is one of his inspirational sources. His role as an actor in a movie directed by Japanese author can thus be explained. Let me end with quoting the Dutch author – with a good Japanese education – Ian Buruma, writing about this movie and Bowie’s role in in it, as part of a review of the book “The invention of David Bowie” published in the New York Review of Books in 2013.
“Filmmakers used Bowie’s alien androgynous quality for their own purposes and enhanced his reputation for strangeness. Bowie’s best-known film is Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). In this science-fiction story, Bowie plays a man from another planet who lands in the United States to become first very rich and then an alienated alcoholic obsessed by television and imprisoned by government agents in a luxury apartment. What Roeg exploits is not Bowie’s acting ability, which is ordinary at best, but his image and his body language, his genius for posing.
Oshima Nagisa did something similar in his movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), based on a Laurens van der Post novella about the experience of a British army officer in a Japanese POW camp during the Pacific war. One way—the banal way—of doing this would have been to make it into a manly story of rugged endurance. Oshima’s idea was to cast Bowie as the officer and the Japanese pop/rock musician Sakamoto Ryuichi as the cruel camp commandant. Both pop icons are equally androgynous in their own ways—Sakamoto wears makeup. In the climactic scene of the film the British officer tries to disarm his enemy by planting a kiss on his lips, an act for which the blond hero then has to undergo some ghastly tortures. Again the acting is only so-so, but the posing, the “look,” is brilliant.”