Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence poster Japanese.jpg
Original Japanese poster
Directed byNagisa Ōshima
Produced byJeremy Thomas
Screenplay byNagisa Ōshima
Paul Mayersberg
Based onThe Seed and the Sower
by Sir Laurens van der Post
Music byRyuichi Sakamoto
CinematographyToichiro Narushima
Edited byTomoyo Ōshima
Recorded Picture Company
Oshima Productions
Distributed byPalace Pictures (UK)
Shochiku (Japan)
Universal Pictures (US)
Release date
‹See TfM›
  • 10 May 1983 (1983-05-10) (Cannes)
  • 25 August 1983 (1983-08-25) (United Kingdom)
Running time
123 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
New Zealand[2]
Box office¥990 million (Japan rentals)[3]
$2.3 million (USA)[4]

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Japanese: 戦場のメリークリスマス, Hepburn: Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu - "Merry Christmas on the Battlefield", also known in many European editions as Furyo (俘虜, Japanese for "prisoner of war"),[5] is a 1983 British-Japanese war film. It was directed by Nagisa Ōshima, written by Ōshima and Paul Mayersberg, and produced by Jeremy Thomas. It stars David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano and Jack Thompson.

The film is based on Sir Laurens van der Post's experiences as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War II as depicted in his books The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). Sakamoto additionally wrote the score and the vocal theme "Forbidden Colours", featuring David Sylvian.

The film was entered into the 1983 Cannes Film Festival in competition for the Palme d'Or.[6] Sakamoto's score won the film a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.


The film deals with the relationships among four men in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War — Major Jack Celliers (Bowie), a rebellious South African British officer with a guilty secret from his youth; Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto), the young camp commandant; Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Conti), another British officer who has lived in Japan and speaks Japanese fluently; and Sergeant Hara (Kitano), who is brutal, yet humane in some ways and with whom Lawrence develops an unlikely friendship.

Just as Celliers is troubled by guilt, Yonoi is haunted with shame. He was unable to be in Tokyo with his Army comrades, the "Shining Young Officers" of Japan's February 26 Incident, an attempted 1936 military coup. When it failed, the young officers were executed. Yonoi regrets not being able to share their patriotic sacrifice. Jack Celliers had betrayed his younger brother while they were at boarding school in South Africa. 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) with Celliers as spokesman for the prisoners.

In the camp, Yonoi seems to develop a homoerotic fixation with Celliers, often asking Hara about him, silently visiting him in the night while Celliers is asleep. Celliers, known by the nickname of "Strafer" Jack (a "strafer" is a "soldier's soldier"), instigates a number of rebellious actions, including supplying the men with food after their rations are withheld two days for their actions during the seppuku of a Korean guard, whom Yonoi deemed "spiritually lazy". Yonoi's batman (personal servant) surmises the hold Celliers has on Yonoi and tries to kill Celliers but fails. Celliers escapes from his cell and rescues Lawrence, only to be unexpectedly confronted by Yonoi. Yonoi challenges Celliers to 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 destroys him.

When a radio is discovered after Celliers circumvented the rations suspension, Yonoi forces Celliers and Lawrence to accept the blame and imprisons them pending execution. The two men reminisce about their pasts. However, on Christmas Eve, a drunken Sergeant Hara orders Celliers and Lawrence to be brought to him. Hara then tells them he is "Father Christmas" and orders their release as another prisoner confessed responsibility for the radio. As the two men leave, Hara calls out in English, "Merry Christmas, Lawrence!"

Although Yonoi is angry that Sergeant Hara released Celliers and Lawrence, he only mildly reprimands him for exceeding his authority. He is then assigned to oversee (with some of the prisoners) the construction of an airstrip.

Hicksley worries that Yonoi wants to replace him as spokesman for the POW's and confronts him, demanding an explanation. Furious at Hicksley's impudence (while at the same time denying Yonoi the information he seeks), Yonoi orders the whole camp to form up outside the barracks, including the sick and disabled. When Hicksley refuses to assemble the sick, an enraged Yonoi prepares to kill him. At this point Celliers breaks rank and walks up to Yonoi, between him and Hicksley, and kisses him on each cheek. Yonoi reaches for his katana, only to collapse under the conflicting feelings of wanting vindication for the offence suffered in front of his men; and his feelings for Celliers. Celliers is then attacked and beaten by the Japanese soldiers.

Captain Yonoi is immediately replaced as commandant and his successor declares, "I am not as sentimental as Captain Yonoi!" He has Celliers buried in the sand up to his neck and left to die. Before leaving, Captain Yonoi goes to Celliers at night when no one is around and cuts a lock from his hair, then bows and leaves. Celliers dies shortly afterwards.

In 1946, four years later, Lawrence visits Sergeant Hara, who is now a prisoner of the Allies. Hara has learned to speak English and reveals he is to be executed the following day for war crimes. He states he is not afraid to die, but doesn't understand how his actions were any different from those of any other soldier. Lawrence implicitly agrees, saying that Hara is a "victim of men who think they are right". After referencing his own time as a POW, Lawrence says, "We are all wrong." He then tells Hara that Yonoi gave him a lock of Celliers' hair and asked him to take it to his village in Japan and place it in a shrine. Hara then reminisces about Celliers and Yonoi. It is revealed that Yonoi too was executed after the war. Hara asks Lawrence if he remembers the Christmas Eve he had him released, and both are amused. The two then bid one another goodbye; Lawrence, his voice breaking, says, "There are times when victory is very hard to take." As he is leaving, Hara calls out: "Lawrence!!! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!"



David Bowie was cast as Jack Celliers after director Nagisa Ōshima saw him in a production of The Elephant Man on Broadway. He felt that Bowie had "an inner spirit that is indestructible". While shooting the film, Bowie was amazed that Ōshima 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 Ōshima "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."[7] Bowie noted how Ōshima 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."[8] Bowie thought his performance in the film was "the most credible performance" he had done in a film up to that point in his career.[7]

The boarding school sequence was shot on location at King's College, a private high school in Auckland, New Zealand. In a shot of two students playing billiards, another boy in the room can be seen wearing a King's blazer. Other scenes were filmed in various locations around Auckland including Auckland Railway Station.[9]

Contrary to usual cinematic practice, Ōshima 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. Ōshima's editor in Japan cut the movie into a rough print within four days of Ōshima returning to Japan.[7]


The score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto won the 1983 BAFTA Award for Best Film Music for the film's soundtrack. David Sylvian contributed lyrics and vocals on "Forbidden Colours", a vocal version of the main theme, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence".


Chart (1983) Peak
Australia (Kent Music Report)[10] 40


Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence an 80% approval rating and an average rating of 6.33 out of 10 based on 20 reviews.[11]

The New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote a favourable review,[12] saying that David Bowie

plays a born leader in Nagisa Ōshima'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, Maslin wrote 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.


  1. ^ "LUMIERE : Film: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence".
  2. ^ Combs, Richard (May 1983). "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". Monthly Film Bulletin. British Film Institute.
  3. ^ "邦画フリーブッキング配収ベスト作品". Kinema Junpo (in Japanese). Kinema Junposha (1984年(昭和59年)2月下旬号): 115. 1984.
  4. ^ "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) - Box Office Mojo".
  5. ^ "Furyo - WordReference Forums". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". Retrieved 15 June 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Loder, Kurt (12 May 1983). "Straight Time". Rolling Stone. No. 395. pp. 22–28, 81.
  8. ^ Campbell, Virginia (April 1992), "Bowie at the Bijou", Movieline, vol. 3 no. 7, pp. 30–36, 80, 83, 86–87
  9. ^ "Radio with Pictures - David Bowie Television (Excerpts) – 1982". Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  10. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 283. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  11. ^ "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  12. ^ Maslin, Janet (26 August 1983). "Movie Review - Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence - DAVID BOWIE IN 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 March 2012.

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