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
Screenplay byNagisa Ōshima
Paul Mayersberg
Based onThe Seed and the Sower
by Sir Laurens van der Post
Produced byJeremy Thomas
CinematographyToichiro Narushima
Edited byTomoyo Ōshima
Music byRyuichi Sakamoto
Recorded Picture Company
Oshima Productions
Distributed byPalace Pictures (UK)
Shochiku (Japan)
Universal Pictures (US)
Release date
  • 10 May 1983 (1983-05-10) (Cannes)
  • 28 May 1983 (1983-05-28) (Japan)
  • 25 August 1983 (1983-08-25) (United Kingdom)
Running time
123 minutes
CountriesUnited 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 Japanese-British 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 also wrote the score and the vocal theme "Forbidden Colours", which features 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.


In 1942, Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto) is the commander of a POW camp in Japanese-occupied Java. A strict adherent to the bushido code, his only sources of connection to the prisoners lie in the empathetic Lt. Col. John Lawrence (Conti), the only inmate fluent in Japanese, and the abrasive spokesman Gp. Capt. Hicksley (Thompson), who repeatedly resists Yonoi's attempts to find weapons experts among the prisoners for the Japanese army's interests. Lawrence has befriended Sgt. Gengo Hara (Kitano), but remains at odds with the rest of the staff. Summoned to the military trial of the recently-captured Major Jack Celliers (Bowie), Yonoi is fascinated by his resilience and has him interred at the camp. After the trial, Yonoi confides with Lawrence that he is haunted with shame thanks to his absence during the February 26 Incident, believing he should've died alongside the rebels and implying that his focus on honor stems from this. Sensing a kindred spirit in Celliers, Yonoi's fascination grows into a romantic obsession: he treats him specially, watches him sleep, and repeatedly asks Hara about him in private.

When the inmates are made to fast as punishment for insubordination during the forced seppuku of a guard (Okura), Celliers sneaks in food. The guards catch him and find a smuggled radio during the subsequent investigation, forcing him and Lawrence to take the blame. Yonoi's batman, realizing the hold Celliers has on him, attempts to kill Celliers in his sleep that night, but fails after he wakes up and escapes, freeing Lawrence too. Yonoi catches Celliers and challenges him to a duel in exchange for his freedom, but Celliers refuses; the batman returns and commits suicide for his failure, urging Yonoi to kill Celliers before his feelings overpower him. At the funeral, Lawrence learns that he and Celliers will be executed for the radio, despite the lack of evidence, to preserve order in the camp; enraged, he trashes the funeral set and is forced back into his cell. That night, Celliers reveals to Lawrence that as a teenager, he betrayed his younger brother, long bullied for his hunchback, by refusing to spare him a humiliating and traumatizing initiation ritual at their boarding school. Confronting his own ableism, he describes the lifelong shame he felt towards his actions, paralleling Yonoi's predicament. During their conversation, the pair are released by a drunken Hara, as a different prisoner confessed to delivering the radio. As they leave, Hara calls out in English, "Merry Christmas, Lawrence!" Although Yonoi is angry at Hara for exceeding his authority, he only mildly reprimands him.

Hicksley, realizing that Yonoi wants to replace him with Celliers as spokesman, confronts him. The two argue over their withholding of information from one another before an enraged Yonoi orders the whole camp to form up outside the barracks, including the sick bay's ailing patients, resulting in one's death. Hicksley, who refused to bring out the patients, is punished for his insubordination with an on-the-spot execution. Before he can be killed, however, Celliers breaks rank and kisses Yonoi on each cheek, choosing to save Hicksley's life at the cost of his own. Caught between a desire for vindication and his feelings for Celliers, a distraught Yonoi collapses and is ultimately relieved from duty. His more rigid replacement (Murota) has Celliers buried in the sand up to his neck and left to die. Before leaving, Yonoi sneaks into his pen and cuts a lock from his hair, moments before his passing.

Four years later, Lawrence visits 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. Expressing confusion over the harshness of his sentence given how commonplace his actions were among both sides of the war, he and Lawrence both conclude that while the Allies officially won, morally "we are all wrong." The two reminisce on Celliers and Yonoi, the latter of whom was also executed after the war, before bidding each other goodbye. As he is leaving, Hara calls out, "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]



Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence an 82% approval rating and an average rating of 6.40 out of 10 based on 22 reviews.[10]

The New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote a favourable review,[11] 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 [Lawrence] to this understanding are Sergeant Hara, a brutal figure who taunts Lawrence while also admiring him, and Captain Yonoi, 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 can convey the complex affinity between captors and prisoners, a point that is made most touchingly in a brief postwar coda.

The Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa cited Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as one of his favorite films.[12][13]


  1. ^ "LUMIERE : Film: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  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. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  5. ^ "Furyo". WordReference Forums. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  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". NZ on Screen. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  10. ^ "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  11. ^ Maslin, Janet (26 August 1983). "Movie Review - Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence - DAVID BOWIE IN 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'". The New York Times. p. 10.
  12. ^ Lee Thomas-Mason. "From Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese: Akira Kurosawa once named his top 100 favourite films of all time". Far Out. Far Out Magazine. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  13. ^ "Akira Kurosawa's Top 100 Movies!". Archived from the original on 27 March 2010.

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