From Japan, a harsh, provocative prison-camp drama

Japanese films and filmmakers have long been admired in the United States, finding loyal audiences and even picking up Oscars now and then. Such pictures as ''Rashomon'' and ''Gate of Hell'' are staples of the ''art theater'' repertoire; directors like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi have sturdy American reputations.

This speaks well for cinema as an international language. But it doesn't mean American viewers are eager to steep themselves in Asian culture and tradition. The appeal of Japanese movies for Westerners stems largely from surface qualities - their novel performing styles, their pictorialism - rather than some deep appreciation of Eastern values.

Thus the epic adventures of Kurosawa, such as ''The Seven Samurai'' and ''Kagemusha,'' find favor with audiences raised on action movies and frontier yarns. By contrast, the gentle domestic dramas of Yasujiro Ozu - often called the most Japanese of Japanese directors - win fewer followers with their fragile images and contemplative atmospheres.

The new Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence seems aimed squarely at Western viewers. The subject - clashing cultures and personalities in a prison camp - has proved itself in many a Hollywood opus. As directed by Nagisa Oshima, the story is long on aggressive action, short on meditative moods. The haunting delicacy of much Japanese art is never hinted at, with the possible exception of an odd flashback set in England. Even the film's bitter violence (there are graphic hara-kiri scenes) might be more a selling point than a liability in today's sensation-prone movie market.

It's for reasons like these, and because three English-speaking stars figure prominently in the cast, that Universal Pictures is promoting ''Mr. Lawrence'' in the US like a standard Hollywood release, not a challenging import by a daring director. Yet reviews have been lukewarm, and I doubt even the presence of David Bowie and Tom Conti will turn the movie into anything like a hit.

Why? Perhaps for all its Western-style characteristics, it's still too ambiguous and ambivalent for American tastes. Blunt and sometimes brutal as the action is, the film's ethical dilemmas may be too dense and complex for Hollywoodized audiences used to clear-cut issues and easy solutions.

The screenplay is based on a novel by Sir Laurens van der Post. The setting is a prisoner-of-war camp in Java, 1942. Conti plays an English liaison officer who mediates among British prisoners, Japanese captors, and Korean guards. Bowie's character is a captured soldier with enough spunk to annoy his jailers half crazy. The story pits these Britons against a pair of tradition-minded Japanese officers; the action becomes a contest of cultural values, all treated by the filmmaker with gravity and respect.

Though the situations of ''Mr. Lawrence'' seem firmly based on history, their extremity will disturb many viewers. Matters of life and death are literally so, and keen suffering can result from any struggle, whether of bodies or wills. The movie's most pervasive issue might seem abstract: the nature of guilt and shame, and the means of transcending those afflictions. But that theme takes on a harrowing physical dimension, since - while the British characters take a more benign and ultimately Christian view - Japanese mores of the period prescribe suicide as the only expiation.

In the end, director Oshima sides with the West on this. The climax finds Bowie's character standing up to a deadly situation with the only weapon left him - not the obliteration of suicide or futile struggle, but an affirmation of humility and self-sacrifice, as represented by a kiss for his worst enemy. After this, the ''Merry Christmas'' of the title assumes new meaning: not just a jovial remark by a Japanese officer in an unguarded moment, but a foreshadowing of the Western influence that will overtake Japan in the postwar period just beginning in the movie's last scene.

Oshima is not the first filmmaker, Japanese or otherwise, to deal with such philosophical and even religious matters in such baldly physical terms. What does seem specifically Asian about ''Mr. Lawrence'' is its refusal to state the issues directly, insisting that they emerge entirely from the action, of which they are an integral part.

It's possible that American viewers will warm to this approach, especially with the magnificently thoughtful acting of Bowie and Conti (and strong performances from all the supporting players) to guide them. But I suspect ''Mr. Lawrence'' will retire soon from first-run theaters to the art-house circuit, where - though attracting less attention for now - it will linger as a provocative contribution to world-class cinema.

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