Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Japanese: Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu (戦場のメリークリスマス? "Merry Christmas on the Battlefield"), also known in many European editions as Furyo (俘虜, Japanese for "prisoner of war")) is a 1983 Japanese-British film directed by Nagisa Oshima, produced by Jeremy Thomas and starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano and Jack Thompson. It was written by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg and based on Sir Laurens van der Post's experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II as depicted in his works The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). Sakamoto also wrote the score and the vocal theme "Forbidden Colours", featuring David Sylvian, which was a hit single in many territories.
The film deals with the relationships among four men in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War — Major Jack Celliers a rebellious prisoner with a guilty secret from his youth; Captain Yonoi, the young camp commandant; Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Conti), a British officer who has lived in Japan and speaks Japanese fluently; and Sergeant Hara who is seemingly brutal and yet humane in some ways and with whom Lawrence develops a peculiar friendship.
Just as Celliers is tormented with guilt, Yonoi is haunted with shame. Having been posted to Manchuria previously, he was unable to be in Tokyo with his Army comrades, the "Shining Young Officers" of Japan's February 26 Incident, a 1936 military coup d'état. When the coup fails, the young army officers were executed. Yonoi regrets not being able to share their patriotic sacrifice. Jack Celliers had betrayed his younger brother while the two of them were attending boarding school in New Zealand. Although Celliers confesses this only to Lawrence, Captain Yonoi senses in Celliers a kindred spirit. He wants to replace British RAAF Group Captain Hicksley (the ranking Allied officer and prisoner representative) with Celliers as the spokesman for the prisoners.
As Celliers is interned in the camp, Yonoi seems to develop a homoerotic fixation with him, often asking Hara about him, silently visiting him in the small hours when Celliers is confined. However, later on, Yonoi becomes enraged by Celliers' behaviour and has him and Lawrence thrown into the punishment cells under the charge of possessing a wireless. Celliers, who is known by the nickname of "Strafer" Jack (a strafer is a "soldier's soldier"), instigates a small number of rebellious actions, one of which is supplying the men with food after their rations have been suspended for two days for their actions during the seppuku, which Yonoi deems as "spiritually lazy". Yonoi's batman suspects the mental hold that Celliers has on Yonoi so he tries to kill Celliers but fails in the attempt. Celliers manages to escape his cell and rescues Lawrence, only to be thwarted by Yonoi unexpectedly. Yonoi challenges Celliers to single combat saying "If you defeat me, you will be free" but Celliers refuses, thrusting his prior assailant's bayonet into the sand. Yonoi's batman then commits seppuku in atonement after urging Yonoi to kill Celliers before Celliers can destroy Yonoi.
It is Christmas Eve and Sgt Hara is drinking heavily and orders both Celliers and Lawrence to be brought to him. Hara then advises them that he is playing "Santa Claus" and is ordering their release because a prisoner confesses having the radio. He then calls out in English for the first time "Merry Christmas Lawrence".
Sgt Hara is later reprimanded by Yonoi for exceeding his authority. The whole camp is paraded on Yonoi's order. All prisoners are prompted to form lines outside the barracks, including sick and moribund ones. The climax of the film is reached when Yonoi is ready to kill the POW's commander for not having all the men present for parade. Celliers breaks the rank and walks decisively in Yonoi's direction, between him and the man about to be executed and ends up resolutely kissing him on the cheek with a straight face. This is an unbearable offence to Yonoi's bushido honor code; he reaches out for his katana against Celliers, only to collapse under the conflicting feelings of vindicating himself from the offence suffered in front of his troops and his own feelings for Celliers. Celliers is then attacked and beaten up by the Japanese soldiers.
Captain Yonoi himself is then redeployed and his successor who declares that "he is not as sentimental as Captain Yonoi" immediately has Celliers buried in the ground up to his neck as a means of punishment and then left to die. Captain Yonoi goes to Celliers when there is no one around and cuts a lock of hair. He then pays his respects and leaves, and Celliers dies shortly afterwards.
In 1946, four years later, Lawrence visits Sergeant Hara, who has now been imprisoned by the Allied forces. Hara has learned to speak English whilst in captivity and reveals that he is going to be executed the next day for war crimes, stating that he is not afraid to die, but doesn't understand how his actions were any different from those of any other soldier. Lawrence tells him that Yonoi had given him a lock of Celliers' hair and told him to take it to his village in Japan, where he should place it in a shrine. Hara reminisces about Celliers and Yonoi. It is revealed that Yonoi himself was killed just before the war ended. Hara reminisces about that Christmas Eve and both are very much amused. The two bid each other farewell for the last time and just before Lawrence leaves, Hara calls out again, "Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence".
|David Bowie||Maj. Jack 'Straffer' Celliers|
|Tom Conti||Lt. Col. John Lawrence|
|Ryuichi Sakamoto||Capt. Yonoi|
|Takeshi Kitano||Sgt. Gengo Hara|
|Jack Thompson||Group Capt. Hicksley|
|Alistair Browning||De Jong|
|James Malcolm||Celliers' brother|
|Chris Broun||Celliers aged 12|
|Yuya Uchida||Commandant of military prison|
|Ryunosuke Kaneda||Colonel Fujimura, President of the Court|
|Takashi Naitô||Lt. Iwata|
|Kan Mikami||Lt. Ito|
David Bowie was hired for the role of Jack Celliers after director Nagisa Oshima saw him in a production of The Elephant Man on Broadway. He commented that Bowie had "an inner spirit that is indestructible." While shooting the movie, Bowie was amazed that Oshima had a two- to three-acre camp built on the remote Polynesian island of Rarotonga, but most of the camp was never shot on film. He said Oshima "only shot little bits at the corners. I kind of thought it was a waste, but when I saw the movie, it was just so potent - you could feel the camp there, quite definitely." Bowie noted how Oshima would give an incredible amount of direction to his Japanese actors ("down to the minutest detail"), but when directing him or fellow Westerner Tom Conti, he would say "Please do whatever it is you people do." Bowie thought his performance in the movie was "the most credible performance" he'd done in a film up to that point in his career.
Contrary to usual cinematic practice, Oshima shot the film without rushes and shipped the film off the island with no safety prints. "It was all going out of the camera and down to the post office and being wrapped up in brown paper and sent off to Japan," Bowie stated. Oshima's editor in Japan cut the movie into a rough print within four days of Oshima returning to Japan.
All compositions are by Ryuichi Sakamoto except "23rd Psalm", which is traditional. Lyrics are written and sung by David Sylvian on "Forbidden Colours". Sakamoto won the 1983 BAFTA Award for Best Film Music for the film's soundtrack.
The track listing is as follows:
- "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence"
- "A Hearty Breakfast"
- "Before the War"
- "The Seed and the Sower"
- "A Brief Encounter"
- "Ride, Ride, Ride (Celliers' Brother's Song)"
- "The Fight"
- "Father Christmas"
- "Beyond Reason"
- "Sowing the Seed"
- "23rd Psalm"
- "Last Regrets"
- "Ride, Ride, Ride (Reprise)"
- "The Seed"
- "Forbidden Colours"
There is a 12" vinyl Italo disco cover version on the Italian record label Discomagic named "Clock On 5 - Theme From Furyo" which was released in 1984. In 2000, a re-mix of Ryuichi Sakamoto's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence called "Heart of Asia" was released in Europe by dance group Watergate, and it reached #3 on the UK Singles Chart. In 2004, Croatian pianist Maksim Mrvica included a piano remix of "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" on his third album, Variations Part I&II.
In 2008, a cover version of "Forbidden Colours" is included on Hollywood Mon Amour,a collection of songs made famous by their inclusion on soundtracks of movies made in the 1980s, rearranged by Marc Collin of Nouvelle Vague with Nadeah Miranda providing the vocals. Also in 2008, UK Hardcore producer Orbit1 remixed this song and called it Heart of Asia - named after the 2000 Watergate remix. It came out on the Hardcore Nation 2009. In 2009, British teen singer Faryl Smith recorded a version of the song for her album Wonderland, entitled "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Somewhere Far Away)".
Part of the song is also pastiched in the theme song to the video game International Karate, written by Rob Hubbard. Japanese post-hardcore band Fact recorded a track by the title Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence on their self-titled album. Tokyo Brass Style, a Japanese Big Band recorded a cover of the title theme for their fifth album, 'Brass Style Xmas'
The film has a 79% Critic Rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 82% Audience Rating.
New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote a favorable review, saying that David Bowie 'plays a born leader in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and he plays him like a born film star. Mr. Bowie's screen presence here is mercurial and arresting, and he seems to arrive at this effortlessly, though he manages to do something slyly different in every scene. The demands of his role may sometimes be improbable and elaborate, but Mr. Bowie fills them in a remarkably plain and direct way. Little else in the film is so unaffected or clear.' On the film's Japanese actors, she writes that "the two main Japanese characters who have brought him to this understanding are Sergeant Hara (Takeshi), a brutal figure who taunts Lawrence while also admiring him, and Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), the handsome young camp commander, who has a fierce belief in the samurai code. Both of these actors perform at an obvious disadvantage, since their English is awkward and the motives of their characters are imperfectly revealed. However, they are able to convey the complex affinity that exists between captors and prisoners, a point that is made most touchingly in a brief postwar coda."
- Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence at the Internet Movie Database
- Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence at the Japanese Movie Database (Japanese)
- Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence at AllMovie
- Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence at NZ On Screen
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