Directed by the highly acclaimed Japanese auteur Nagisa Ôshima (Realm of the Senses, Taboo, The Ceremony, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Pleasures of the Flesh) who writes, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.” In his continued thumbing of all systems westerners love about Japan he goes on to construct a merciless portrait of Japanese warring classes in this film at once brilliant and reprehensibly violent. The Japanese are forever mulling over the love of all things Japanese, as is America. Samurai…love! Swords?….Awesome! Ôshima sees those things, the beauty and austerity of the wooden floored dojo and looks past any syrupy nostalgia for the real motive that is behind these old military customs and martial arts. Fear.
So! Deep in the steamy heart of the Javian jungle lies a Japanese military outpost ruled with a bamboo switch and a plethora of shiny Kitana’s on the eve of 1942. Irresistible British army recondite Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is captured by the Japanese and about to be executed at a military tribunal when lo and behold one of the presiding judges, poised, bronze, Captain Yonoi, is struck dumb by Celliers’ (beauty, wit, recreant mischievousness? pick one) and decides not to execute, but just to torture a bit. See what he’s made of.
Captain Yonoi, ever ashamed he wasn’t killed along with his battalion in a famous battle in China, (“Shining Young Officers” of Japan’s February 26 Incident,) sees a match in Celliers aristocratic bearing and intellectualism. As Celliers continues his one man rebellion of sarcasm followed by beatings, Yonoi becomes even more obsessed as he fails to break him, and instead, becomes ever enthralled into his power. Celliers friend, British Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Conti) is the sweetly learned prisoner-peacemaker. He continually (almost annoyingly saintly) runs interference on the various beatings and sexual assaults taking place therein on behalf of the prisoners against the Japanese, a language he speaks fluently. Despite his learning’s and his courtly manners, Lawrence himself is not spared the rod, especially when Major Hato(Takeshi Kitano) is on duty. Sadistic yet humane, they develop an unlikely repartee that leads to his ultimate freedom.
The director continuously, effectively and fortuitously doles out violence as means not necessarily of control, but of out of embarrassment of the infidels (British) lack of manners. How dare they offer witty repartee? How dare Celliers kiss Honoi on the cheek! Horror! Honor besmirched – must be met with more violence, punishment. Violence and self-sacrifice ultimately the cause of valor in Japanese military as was seppuku – suicide as a means of recovering some honor….by disembowelment. Make a mistake; seppuku. Have indiscreet homosexual relations with a prisoner, seppuku.
Oshima comments on the extreme brutality in Japanese society not only with the seppuku, but with random acts of violence against those who might besmirch the bushido code. Saving face by beating and torturing a prisoner for a crime he didn’t commit is just so much more appropriate to these Japanese than investigating who the real perpetrator of contraband was. As long as SOMEONE is punished. As long as order and rank and prestige resumes. As long as half-naked budo practice can continue unabated – then everything is fine! This can be said for American and British military systems as well but the difference is, in Japan at this time, saving face was outwardly the way to go. And of course, if all else fails, seppuku!
Celliers continues to disrupt this moralistic bushido code and consistently serves as whipping boy for the whole POW squadron. Yet his relishment of the torture is in fact a balm to deal with his guilt for something that happened a long time ago….in England…in the country side. A faint blustery memory against the hordes and tropical heat of the camp but one that drives him into continued defiance of the Japanese command. The film is epic, the score is amazing if slightly dated and the acting is absolutely top drawer. You can feel Bowie completely as a soldier’s soldier…slightly above and beyond the pale of most of the men there, of Mr. Lawrence and certainly of Yonoi. Celliers’ character is his own man and finally leaves the camp when he is ready, in one way or another. Truly an excellent film and one I wish I had encountered earlier.