The music of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

Originally published by the Glasgow Film Theatre in 2016

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) is one of legendary Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s last feature films, and also one of his most successful cinematic experiments. A retrospective British / Japanese collaboration looking back from the 1980s to the last years of World War II, the film (also known as Furyo – prisoner of war) deals with a difficult subject; to what lengths will honourable men go to uphold that honour in the horrors of war?

Set against the dramatic backdrop of a Japanese POW camp in 1942, the movie is an exploration of relationships: between jailer and jailed; ally and Axis; East and West.

It’s a deeply moving production of the struggles of a changing culture, which pits the traditional Japanese code of honour with the British POWs’ “shameful” desire to survive their internment and return home after the fighting. And its soundtrack, a seminal example of early electronica by Ryuichi Sakamoto, explores this agitated fusion of old and new in perfect harmony with the script.
Ryuichi Sakamoto himself is one of those rare people who are good at almost everything.

Ask a group of arts fans about him and they’ll likely say “oh, the writer?”, “ah, he’s the founder of synthpop, right?” or even “no, no the nuclear activist” and they’ll all be correct.

Sakamoto is a gifted composer, producer, writer, actor, dancer and activist. He’s dabbled in almost every genre, from classical to electronic to the medium of Japanese animation, and accidentally inspired a generation of early hip hop artists along the way.

But despite being a man of many talents, Ryuichi Sakamoto is probably best known for his impressive film scores. Debuting with the full soundtrack for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (in which Sakamoto also portrays the troubled young Captain Yonoi), he went on to compose intense, vivid musical accompaniments for movies such as the inimitable Last Emperor (1987) and more recently, American epic The Revenant (2015). This year, Sakamoto returns to his nostalgic roots, composing a poignant soundtrack for the film Nagasaki: Memories Of My Son, in which an aging woman is visited by the ghost of her son, who passed away in the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki. It’s a heavy, evocative score, and Sakamoto’s first musical endeavor since a bout of throat cancer last year. Singer-songwriter Roddy Frame perfectly sums up just what it is that makes Sakamoto’s soundtracks so compelling:

‘That’s when you realise that the atmosphere around his compositions is actually in the writing – it’s got nothing to do with synthesisers.’

And he’s right. Even as Sakamoto was a pioneering figure in the world of electronic composition, the score of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence goes beyond the newness of the instruments themselves to the emotions they can evoke from the listener. A shaky synthetic sound – like in the titular track – makes us feel all the uncertainty, sadness and tragedy of the film.

Also called Forbidden Colours, the theme song is an emotive composition of piano, synthesiser and classical Japanese melody. It’s been adapted, sampled, remixed and covered an impressive number of times, even giving rise to one of the most popular techno tracks (yes, really) of the late 90s: Watergate by Heart of Asia. And while it may be a little difficult to reconcile Sakamoto’s nostalgic take on traditional Asian melodies with this particularly Eurobeat-heavy track, when we think about his legacy as one of the fathers of techno, it does begin to make sense.

Of course, we can’t forget that fellow musical giant David Bowie stars in this film as the rebellious yet captivating Major Celliers, with whom Captain Yonoi develops an intense fascination despite himself. But perhaps surprisingly, Bowie didn’t have any input into the musical direction of the film. In an interview earlier this year, Sakamoto intimated:

“I also sort of hesitated to ask David to work with me on the music at the time, because he seemed very concentrated on acting…”

Just think: an already legendary soundtrack, augmented by the emergent musical legacy of early 80s Bowie – what would that have been? It’s a haunting thought.