A few weeks ago, I revisited by favorite film featuring David Bowie. 1983’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is an underrated gem of British and Japanese cinema. Unfortunately, it isn’t a film that is often mentioned when I hear people talk about David Bowie’s work in film. While people’s nostalgia factor always leads the discussion towards Labyrinth, even his lesser known films such as The Hunger and The Man Who Fell to Earth, I find, get more attention. Never really a great actor, Bowie has managed to carve his own niche into each role and elevated the film in some way. You’re drawn to him. There is a power and magnetism there that makes you connect with his character’s story. Where he lacks acting ability, his presence make sup in pure charisma. And Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is the best example of this.
In the film, Bowie plays Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers. Recently captured by the Japanese military during World War II, he is subjected to a Japanese tribunal and sentenced to be imprisoned in a POW camp. Celliers becomes ill in the camp and is tormented by dark secrets from his childhood. As he recovers and is cared for by other prisoners, Celliers becomes a point of fascination for Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) who oversees much of the camp’s operations. Yonoi develops a homoerotic fascination with Celliers which include visits with Celliers at night, extra care when Celliers is sick, and asking many questions about Celliers to his superior officers at the camp. As Celliers becomes more rebellious and challenges Yonoi’s authority through demonstrations and possessing wireless equipment, Yonoi asserts his authority in increasingly brutal and punitive ways.
I feel the film is beautiful on all levels, but it has some inherent flaws. The acting at times is stiff and the performances by some of the actors aren’t executed well. While much of the film is beautifully shot, many of the scenes appear dull and muted colors. The story, with it’s themes on homosexuality and brotherhood, is intriguing but often times deviates from the narrative. None of these aspects of the film are exceptional by any means but when they come together, the product is stunning, raw, and emotional.
Despite many of the flaws with the film, it does have one flawless element; the music. In addition to playing Captain Yonoi, Ryuichi Sakamoto also composed the score for the film. Sakamoto relies on his Japanese heritage’s penchant for minimalism and crafts a beautiful score featuring a fusion of electronic and experimental music. The signature piece from the film’s score is opening piece from the film. Simply entitled “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” this track serves as the main theme for the film and features a hypnotizing melody that is rearranged in various pieces throughout the rest of the soundtrack. The repetition in the track is key. Embracing those few bars and repeating them, Sakamoto seamlessly blends minimalism in music with contemporary sounds and production. Subtle changes occur throughout and the listening experience is dreamy and captivating.
The score to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and it’s main theme, is truly the best part of the film and almost serves as a character in of itself. Despite it’s flaws, everything comes together well to tell a story that is filled with nuance, subtlety, and passion. It’s a film that addresses tough moral questions with a theme ahead of it’s time. The soundtrack also stands alone. I find that some soundtracks are not as good without the context of the film. However, with this score, that is not case. The experience of listening to Sakamoto’s complex yet accessible score is remarkable. While this film doesn’t get much attention for being one of Bowie’s best films, the score deserves to be recognized as one of the best ever.