Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence poster Japanese.jpg
Original Japanese poster
Directed byNagisa Oshima
Produced byJeremy Thomas
Screenplay byNagisa Oshima
Paul Mayersberg
Based onThe Seed and the Sower
by Sir Laurens van der Post
Music byRyuichi Sakamoto
CinematographyToichiro Narushima
Edited byTomoyo Oshima
Recorded Picture Company
Oshima Productions
Distributed byPalace Pictures (UK)
Shochiku (Japan)
Release date
  • 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$2.3 million (US)[3]

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"),[4] is a 1983 British-Japanese war film. It was directed by Nagisa Oshima, written by Oshima 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 Japanese prisoner of war during 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.[5] 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 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 seemingly brutal and yet humane in some ways and with whom Lawrence develops an unlikely 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 failed, 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 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 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. 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 a seppuku of a Korean guard, which Yonoi deems as "spiritually lazy". Yonoi's batman (personal servant) 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.

A transmission radio was previously discovered in the possession of the POWs by the Japanese when Celliers deliberately broke the ration suspension. Yonoi has Celliers and Lawrence forced to take the blame. Thrown into nearby holding cells, the two men reminiscence about their pasts before their planned execution. During Christmas Eve, a drunken Sergeant Hara orders both Celliers and Lawrence to be brought to him. Hara then tells them that he is playing "Father Christmas" and orders for their release due to another prisoner confessing to having been responsible for the radio. As the men leave, he then calls out for the first time in English, "Merry Christmas, Lawrence!"

Although Yonoi is shocked at Sergeant Hara's release of Celliers and Lawrence, Hara is only mildly reprimanded by Yonoi for exceeding his authority and is to be redeployed elsewhere (with some of the prisoners) to oversee the construction of an airstrip. Hicksley, constantly worried that Yonoi wanted to replace him as the POW camp commander, then demands an explanation.

Furious that Hicksley pressed for an answer (and at the same time consistently denying Yonoi the information that he seeks), 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 Yonoi on each cheek with a straight face. This is an unbearable offence to Yonoi's bushido honour 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 by the Japanese soldiers.

Captain Yonoi himself is then due to be 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 while 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 implicitly agrees, saying that Hara was a "victim of men who think they are right". After referencing his time in the POW camp he said "we are all wrong". He then tells Hara 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 executed after 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; Lawrence says, with his voice breaking, 'there are times when victory is very hard to take', and just before Lawrence leaves, Hara calls out again, "Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!"



David Bowie was cast as Jack Celliers after director Nagisa Oshima 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 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."[6] 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."[7] Bowie thought his performance in the movie was "the most credible performance" he had done in a film up to that point in his career.[6]

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 pool, 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.[8]

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.[6]


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".


Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence a 79% approval rating and rating average score of 6.2 out of 10 based on 19 reviews.[9]

The New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote a favourable 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, Maslin 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."[10]


  1. ^ "LUMIERE : Film: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence".
  2. ^ Combs, Richard (May 1983). "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". Monthly Film Bulletin. British Film Institute.
  3. ^ "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) - Box Office Mojo".
  4. ^ "Furyo - WordReference Forums". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  5. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". Retrieved 15 June 2009.
  6. ^ a b c Loder, Kurt (12 May 1983). "Straight Time". Rolling Stone. No. 395. pp. 22–28, 81.
  7. ^ Campbell, Virginia (April 1992), "Bowie at the Bijou", Movieline, vol. 3 no. 7, pp. 30–36, 80, 83, 86–87
  8. ^ "Radio with Pictures - David Bowie Television (Excerpts) – 1982". Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  9. ^ "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  10. ^ 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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