Moral Imagination, Mr. Lawrence

If you haven’t seen Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, go watch it, because it’s great, and there are some spoilers below. If you want a full plot refresher, Wikipedia’s isn’t bad.

The film concerns four men in Tanjung Priok POW camp on Java. Or it might be Bicycle Camp. Or it might be a place that creator/director Ôshima made up. Regardless, it’s December 1942, about nine months after Java ceased to have white men in power and started having Japanese men in power instead. (The Javanese, alas, wouldn’t have any power until the end of the war. Empires, man.)


The four men are

  • Colonel John Lawrence (British Army) escaped Singapore ahead of the Japanese invasion, was captured at Java’s fall in March 1942. Having spent time in Japan pre-war, he feels he’s familiar with the Japanese mind and serves as liaison officer between the Allied prisoner administration and their conquerors.
  • Captain Yonoi (Japanese Army), commandant of the camp.
  • Major Jacques “Straffer” Celliers (British Army), sent from India to Java after the island’s surrender; almost executed as a guerrilla before Yonoi intercedes.
  • Sergeant Hara (Japanese Army), a bluff, impulsive everyday supervisor of the prisoners.Conti.Oshima.Sakamoto

Director Ôshima (center at right) cast in these parts one professional actor (Tom Conti as Lawrence), two rock stars (Ryuichi Sakamoto as Yonoi and David Bowie as Celliers), and a stand-up comedian (Takeshi Kitano as Hara). It turned out to be a stroke of mad genius, throwing into heightened relief the freighted relationships among these characters.

Casual commenters tend to focus on the homoerotic plot thread between Captain Yonoi and Major Celliers. But much as I love Bowie and find this his finest film turn, it’s the other story axis that intrigues me: the broken, wavy line between Colonel Lawrence and Hara gunso.

When we meet them, Lawrence and Hara have known each other uneasily for some time. They’re juxtaposed because Hara speaks only Japanese and Lawrence is fluent in it, yet each finds the other irritating, immoral, and incomprehensible. As they cautiously circle the burning eyebeams between Celliers and Yonoi, Lawrence and Hara warily ally, though Hara is equally happy to up and smack Lawrence without provocation.


British prisoners and Japanese guards: each side knows and respects its own culture. Just as certainly, the other side is an opaque, inscrutable mob, those foreigners over there whose behavior and values are just wrong at every turn. Group description is the only kind possible, and collective blame is the name of the game.

HARA: You are not soldiers, you are prisoners! So you lack discipline and you beg favors.

LAWRENCE: They were a nation of anxious people, and they could do nothing individually. So they went mad en masse.

When a contraband radio is discovered among the POWs, Yonoi singles out Lawrence to take the blame. Why torture and kill the one Brit with a chance of comprehending his captors? Deep down, it’s because Lawrence comprehends too much: he knows what’s in the boss’s hot glances at Celliers, and Yonoi knows he knows. On the surface, though, it perfectly satisfies wartime Japanese justice.

YONOI: We must punish someone.
LAWRENCE: …You mean I’m to die because you think if there’s a crime, then it must be punished, and it doesn’t matter who is punished? You’re not by any chance a Gilbert & Sullivan fan, are you? No – you’re not very funny, really…..So I’m to die to preserve your sense of order.

Several sordid episodes later, a sake-drenched Sergeant Hara snatches Lawrence and Celliers from death row and restores them to the regular prison population.

HARA (in Japanese): Tonight, I’m Father Christmas!
CELLIERS: What’s he saying to us?
LAWRENCE: …He thinks he’s Santa Claus.

Hara reaches out of his genial cups with a cross-cultural reference, perhaps the only one he knows. In Java, the white men used to be in power. Now the Japanese are in power. But in this one act of grace, Hara’s power becomes that of St. Nick, swooping down the chimney with the gift of survival.

Screenshot 2016-07-21 19.33.06

The film’s coda, four years later, finds the white men busy preserving their sense of order by executing brutal guards like Sergeant Hara. Since that fateful Christmas of 1942, Hara’s learned enough English to say

HARA: I’m ready to die. [But] I don’t understand. My crimes were no different from any other soldier’s.
LAWRENCE: You’re the victim of men who think that they’re right – just as, one day, you and Captain Yonoi believed absolutely that you were right. And the truth is, of course, that nobody’s right.

All the awe and awfulness of human relations come out in Tom Conti’s delivery of this line.

The truth is, of course, that nobody’s right: Lawrence isn’t trashing accuracy. The Japanese guards did find a radio in the barracks. Hara was a violent, abusive guy.

The truth is, of course, that nobody’s right: Lawrence isn’t endorsing nihilistic relativism. Some options are better than others. He’s spent half the film badgering someone toward wiser, less harmful choices.

In their extraordinary final encounter, Hara and Lawrence don’t become friends. If the war were ongoing they’d be shooting each other. But in this brief exchange, they see each other as people: singular, culture-bound, fucked-up, foible-filled, precious people. If there is any ultimate truth, people are never equipped to know it, much less wield it against others. Even with the brightest minds and the best intentions, success will always be incomplete. Justice will always be partial. There is no completely right right. Lawrence and Hara forgive each other for being, in their own personal ways, only human.


David Bromwich’s book Moral Imagination provides a term for these two enemies’ achievement:

Moral imagination…the power that compels us to grant the highest possible reality and the largest conceivable claim to a thought, action, or person that is not our own, and not close to us in any obvious way. The force of the idea of moral imagination is to deny that we can ever know ourselves sufficiently to settle on a named identity that prescribes our conduct or affiliations.

Oliver Burkeman refers to something similar as

[a] kind of muscular compassion for your foes.

In a TEDxOxbridge talk, Henrietta L. Moore, William Wyse Chair in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, says:

The ethical imagination is what saves us from our certainties. It’s what saves us from stereotypes that come with unthinking difference. It allows us, very importantly, to connect to other humans as equals, to extend equality to those we do not know and will probably never know….

But the ethical imagination is not about compassion and tolerance, although those things are very important. The ethical imagination is about disruption. It’s about disrupting your own way of thinking. About seeing things differently, imagining the possibility of connecting to other people in a different way.

Applying Moore’s terms to people who committed recent terrorist acts, Morwari Zafar elaborates:

Society should focus on cultivating understanding and empathy – not peace.

The basic principle of having an ethical imagination is an honest pursuit of understanding and tolerance; of recognising and mitigating personal biases, and simply but sincerely being kind. It may sound terrifically facile. But it is humanity’s one legitimate hope against bloodshed over differences by people who bleed the same.

Sean Blanda writes on Medium:

…you have to recognize that the Other Side is made of actual people.

But I’d like to go a step further. We should all enter every issue with the very real possibility that we might be wrong this time.

In the article ‘The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons,’ Elaine Scarry declares, “The action of injury occurs precisely because we have trouble believing in the reality of other persons.” Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy glosses her conclusion thus:

A common response here is that we  should try harder to feel for others….[But we] are not psychologically constituted to feel toward a stranger as we feel toward someone we love.

[Scarry] notes that someone who relies on empathy will focus on individuals with the goal of making their lives weighty, of making their joy and suffering and experience matter as much as one’s own. This sounds noble, but we are not good at it….

Scarry suggests that we do the opposite. Don’t try to establish equality and justice by raising others up to the level of those you love. Don’t try to make them more weighty. Rather, make yourself less weighty. Bring everyone to the same level by diminishing yourself.

The truth is, of course, that nobody’s right.

Michael Bess’ Choices Under Fire adds:

Strengthening the edifice of peace, in this sense, requires from each of us a kind of ongoing reeducation of our emotional impulses: learning how to recognize within ourselves the reflex of abstraction that leads to dehumanizing other people – and countering it with an active effort of empathy and humane imagination, remaking the other back into a person once again.

Only learn that that horde opposed to you is made up of fallible, valuable, singular humans. Any group you claim is made up only of the same. Find someone you can see the way that Hara and Lawrence see each other. Read a first-person narrative by someone alien to you. Converse though translation is awkward. Even if you oppose everything that person stands for, you can recognize a singular human being there. Then convince someone else on ‘your’ side, not with slogans, mockery, or triumphalism, but with the deep knowledge that, in the biggest picture, nobody’s right.

Or, as another holiday tale puts it:

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence remixes novellas by Laurens van der Post. The book’s Lawrence vows this separate peace:

We may not be able to stop and undo the hard old wrongs of the great world outside, but through you and me no evil shall come….Thus between us, we shall cancel out all private and personal evil, thus arrest private and personal consequences to blind action and reaction, thus prevent specifically the general incomprehension and misunderstanding, hatred and revenge of our time from spreading further.

In an interview at the time of the film’s release, van der Post said,

I hope that [people’s] understanding will be enlarged. I hope their suspicion of judgment and justice will be heightened – [I hope they] see that, important as judgment and justice are, there are values that transcend those, and these are the ones that the modern world wants [i.e. lacks]: understanding, compassion, mercy, forgiveness.


This is a slight update of a post from my David Bowie crash course. Here’s the next bit of Bowie blogging.

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