When it came to making casting decisions for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, there was no doubt that Nagisa Ōshima took an unconventional approach. ‘Unlike most directors, I find it frustrating to have to cast only actors,’ he later declared. ‘I’m always on the look out for people from a different field…I simply don’t like established methods. There are six billion people on this planet, but I’m supposed to choose someone after looking through just twenty or thirty actors’ portraits. I’ve felt the same way since the beginning of my film career. And if I do things differently, perhaps I can stretch the horizons of my work. It’s something I think about every time I make a film.’
First there was the decision to invite Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano to play the role of tough military officer at the prisoner of war camp in Indonesia, Sergeant Gengo Hara. Whilst Kitano would go on to establish himself as both movie actor and eminent director, to this point he was well known in Japan as a comedian. His public image could hardly have been further removed from the enforcer he was asked to portray. ‘I had a gut feeling that he had natural acting ability,’ said Ōshima, ‘having worked with him in the past on several TV variety shows. In fact, I think it was during one of those shows that I asked him if he fancied acting in a film. He said straight away that he was a bit shy about it…I urged him to do it and gave him two pieces of advice. The first was not to settle for a minor role. I told him to go for a big part right from the start. The second was not to appear in a comedy, simply because he was already well known as a comedian.’
Similar intuition was at play in the casting of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto as the camp’s commander, Captain Yonoi. ‘I decided on Sakamoto without even meeting him. What happened was that I saw his portrait in a photo book called Fifty Representative Figures of Today, or something like that, in which I was also featured. I stared at it for ages, then suddenly, I just knew that I wanted him too. I said to myself, “Ok, that’s it!” Then I wrote to him…I was confident that both would do well, even though neither had any acting experience.’ (2009)
Co-starring with Sakamoto in the film as Major Jack Celliers was, of course, David Bowie. Whilst Bowie had previous experience in film and stage acting, he was by no means established in the profession. As with both Kitano and Sakamoto, he was enshrined in public consciousness in a completely different context. It would take a leap of imagination by the audience to accept such well-known personalities as credible representations of the protagonists from Sir Laurens van der Post’s The Seed and The Sower on which the screenplay was based. When the film was released in the UK in August ’83, Bowie was riding high on a wave of popularity following the release of the commercially oriented album Let’s Dance, its No1 single title-track and the follow up, ‘China Girl’.
There was a symmetry in the casting of two figures from the world of popular music in leading roles, one playing a character from the East and the other from the West. Like Bowie, Sakamoto was attracted principally because of the eminence of the director. Both were familiar with Ōshima’s previous work and honoured to be asked to work with him. Ryuichi’s membership of Yellow Magic Orchestra made him a well-known figure in Japan and beyond. ‘I had an interest in East meets West because before this film I was doing this band, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and I thought the band broke some kind of border between East and West. So, this subject is very realistic to me at that time – still now.’†
Bowie noted a difference between what Ōshima coaxed from the Eastern and Western actors. ‘It’s so inherently from a Japanese sensibility,’ he said of the film in Cannes for its premiere. ‘He’s got such a peculiar balance in the movie between the stylistic acting of the Japanese, which he has retained, and the neo-realistic acting of the Westerners, and kept them against each other to produce this almost dream state.’ Cast members recalled how Ōshima’s compatriots were given precise direction whereas Bowie and fellow actors Tom Conti (as Lt. Col. John Lawrence) and Jack Thompson (as Gp. Capt. Hicksley) were encouraged to improvise and evolve their own expression of the characters they portrayed.
Contrasting cultures are at the core of a production that was itself a co-creation between Jeremy Thomas as producer and Nagisa Ōshima as director. Many episodes expose the distinct codes of honour held to by soldiers on both sides, reflecting perspectives on death that were fundamentally at odds. John Lawrence, Conti’s character and based on the author van der Post himself, acts as a facilitator between the sides, and the soundtrack music to the film would in some way consolidate that role.
‘We never wanted David Bowie to write the score,’ said Thomas, ‘because it would have been a cliché for him to write the score and secondly, he didn’t want to do it. But also Ryuichi Sakamoto was always going to write the score for the film. He’s an enormous rock’n’roll star in Japan…Ōshima told him to write the score as if he was Captain Yonoi and he did.’
Sakamoto said that his aim was that the music ‘should have no territorial borders. It is neither Japanese nor Western, but it nevertheless has some oriental quality about it. It should sound oriental to both the Japanese the West. I suppose exotic would be a better word.’ In a fascinating later exposition of the film’s memorable theme he described how the higher register notes used in the melody are ‘a little bit Japanesque, or like gamelan music…it has a somewhat oriental or Asian style sound.’ But for the ‘lower part, the chords are distinctly in the European style, and they support the whole sound.’ (2011)
It was Ryuichi’s debut soundtrack just as it was his inaugural acting role. Quite a double-first in a film directed by one of Japan’s foremost directors and starring a world-famous rock star. ‘I started off very lucky because Mr. Ōshima trusted me completely. He gave me total creative freedom – and that was my first score. I wondered, “Is he okay?” I was an amateur in acting and in film scoring. No one told me how to write film music at that time, so I didn’t know how to start. I wanted to have some kind of compass, so I asked the producer, Jeremy Thomas, to give me one example to refer to for film music, and he said Citizen Kane. I like the work of Bernard Herrmann a lot and respect him, but that music wasn’t so impressive to me. So I had to create my own method.
‘This was my very first experience acting in a film. When we went to see the rough cut, I hated my acting so much. I thought it was so ugly and so bad. When I started writing the music, I said to myself, “Okay, let’s put beautiful music on top of my bad acting scenes.” I am half-joking but half-serious…’ (2017)
It wasn’t just his own performance that troubled him when he first saw the results of the scenes shot during weeks spent on location on the remote island of Rarotonga. ‘There was a considerable gap between what I pictured in my mind from reading Laurens van der Post’s novel and the script and what then appeared on the screen when I first saw the rushes,’ Sakamoto remembered. ‘Initially the film didn’t quite carry the power I had in my mind to start with. So I tried to get that power back with the music. From a more classical film viewpoint the music might stand out a little too much, at least some people might see it that way. But I felt the film necessitated such a soundtrack.
‘I wasn’t responding to the atmosphere of the film with regard to what was on the screen, but I was trying to create a greater atmosphere than what was coming from the screen.’
The film theme itself is imprecise not only in terms of place but also in time: its sound does not take us to a specific period of history. ‘Looking for timelessness is part of my nature. I wasn’t very conscious of that when I wrote that specific melody, but I realise that it is naturally inside of me. With that song, it was a very strange experience. I had read the script and knew the story, and I thought about how to come up with a special Christmas song that’d be played in a tropical Asian island. That’s a strange concept in itself. And then you add in war. But anyway, I was thinking logically about it for weeks. One afternoon I was sat in front of the piano looking for an appropriate melody. I was unconscious for a while. Then the melody was written. Right in front of my eyes.’ (2018)
It’s an interesting insight that the tune was envisaged as being appropriate for Christmas. We are so familiar with this melody rendered as in the movie’s theme in synthesised gamelan-inspired sound, but imagine for a moment that line in the sound of bells and it could well capture something of the church-bell call to worship at a rural English parish. The interpretation of the melody-line for the track ‘Father Christmas’ on the soundtrack album certainly has a seasonal sparkle.
‘Once the main theme was approved by the director, I went on writing some themes, in other words the leitmotifs, for several important relationships between the characters, let’s say Captain Yonoi and David Bowie, or Mr. Lawrence and ‘Beat’ Takeshi and so on. It took me three months working in the studio. Mr. Ōshima came to the studio to listen to what I was doing only once in the three months!’†
In developing these compositions for important inter-relationships between the characters, Sakamoto sought to represent the psychological aspects of the events portrayed. ‘It was those elements I was dissatisfied with in the film, those parts which couldn’t really be explained. So, to make up for that, I tried to put over certain moods in musical terms.’
As much as the film’s subject matter is the clash of cultures between two continents, it is equally concerned with these relationships in the camp and in particular about two people: Yonoi and Celliers. Sakamoto: ‘This story is also about two men, two individual men, and their love. So it’s not [just] about two regions of the planet but it’s also two individual men, so it’s very broad. That’s what I was interested in so much.’† As Bowie put it: ‘The relationship that Yonoi has with Celliers, it’s not really apparent if it’s sexual or whether it’s a spiritual recognition of each other’s strength. Probably both.’
Ryuichi’s musical theme for Celliers and Yonoi appears in closely related compositions interspersed throughout the movie, beginning with ‘Germination’ when the two men first lay eyes upon one another in the court-room where Celliers appears before a panel on which Yonoi serves. The theme is dramatically developed for ‘The Seed and the Sower’, a composition whose twists and turns chronicle an attempt on Celliers’ life by a guard in the cells, his escape with Lawrence, and then an encounter with Yonoi where Celliers refuses to fight the Captain and where Yonoi prevents Celliers from being shot by Hara. Later, when a new senior officer has been appointed by the Japanese to oversee the camp, as Yonoi leaves he cuts a lock of the dying Celliers’ hair, the scene backed by Ryuichi’s track ‘The Seed’. Both titles and music trace the thread of the film’s key relationship. As Lawrence says in the film’s final scene, ‘It was as if Celliers by his death sowed a seed in Yonoi, that we might all share in its growth.’
Recording a vocal version of the main theme of ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ for the soundtrack album was not something done at the behest of the movie production team to aid publicity and boost box-office sales. The 2020 Blu-ray re-release of the film comes with a host of additional content including an archive interview with Sakamoto in which he describes the background. ‘To make the vocal version or pop version of the main theme was entirely from me. So, I didn’t have any pressure for that. I really wanted to work with David Bowie, so I asked him to sing on this but he didn’t want to. He said that he wanted to focus on this project just as an actor, purely as an actor. I understood, so then I asked another of my friends, David Sylvian, to work on this and he said yes. He did it beautifully. We all liked the result. It was a big thing for him and for me as you know.’†
In February 1983 Sylvian flew to Japan to spend a couple of days at Onkio Haus studios in Japan to record his part, supported amongst others by engineer Seigen Ono. ‘The film, the music, everything was completely finished when I arrived in Japan,’ he told David Jensen in one of his appearances on the DJ’s show on BBC Radio One. ‘I even wrote the lyrics without seeing the movie, so the lyrics don’t have that much to do with the movie directly. Ryuichi just really wanted to do a vocal version of that song. It was his idea. I don’t think many people involved with the film were that interested in it because they didn’t want a vocal version actually appearing in the film, which it doesn’t, it only appears on the soundtrack album. It’s really Ryuichi’s project.’
Sylvian attributed a slight change in the timbre of his vocal to being a little under the weather at the time of recording. ‘I had to put this vocal on and I had an awful cold and could barely sing. It took an afternoon to put it together and I remember Onkio Haus being a nice studio to work in. Ryuichi works there a great deal and when I haven’t actually been working with him I’ve visited him there many times. I’m not a technical person. I don’t relate to technology when I walk into a studio, I relate to the atmosphere and that’s important, almost more important than the equipment in the place. Onkio Haus was a complex of four studios, but the main room, the main studio, was very well equipped and had a very good atmosphere to it.’ (1987)
The song’s title came from Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name which Sakamoto had suggested to Sylvian as appropriate reading for the project. The lyric seems relevant to the inner turmoil caused by the mysterious attraction that Yonoi developed towards Celliers as well as to some of Sylvian’s own spiritual struggles between faith and doubt at this time. Such a questioning of belief systems is also pertinent to the movie with the cultural and religious differences between the Japanese and British juxtaposed in the crucible of the POW camp. The producer, Jeremy Thomas, has often pointed out that the initials of Jack Celliers – J.C. – prompt a relevant comparison with Jesus Christ.
It was this track that helped pave the way for Sylvian’s first solo album, Brilliant Trees. ‘I guess after the band had broken up, I wasn’t sure what direction I was going to move in. I didn’t write anything for a period of time, which was unusual for me. And then Ryuichi gave me ‘Forbidden Colours’ to work on and it opened the doors for me a little bit. Suddenly the flow of writing began to really just open up and new material began arriving.’ (For more detail see the sister article ‘Forbidden Colours (version)’.)
Sylvian was delighted to develop a vocal line for Sakamoto’s composition. ‘I thought it was beautiful. I mean, sonically it was incredible. I loved all the samples that he was using. And we were so very much into sound design at the time, between Yellow Magic Orchestra and what we were doing at that point in our evolution. So sound design was a big part of it for us, and what Ryuichi as producer did was extraordinary with that particular piece of music. And the melody itself was outstanding. Originally – I don’t know if he told me afterwards or before my writing the lyrics for the track – Ryuichi expected me to write a melody along with his written melody, to sing the melody that he had written. But I had found that that was impossible and undesirable. So it was counter to the melody. I tried to find something that would work with it, but it was a counter-melody that sat comfortably with the original melody that he had created.’ (2012)
When the single was released in the UK it reached a creditable No 16 in the charts, supported by a promotional video directed by Godley & Creme of 10CC fame. The pair had become established in the emerging music video business and would also create films that year for songs by The Police, Elton John and Culture Club. The concept for ‘Forbidden Colours’ was to intersperse scenes from the film with Sylvian’s performance of the song, each transition being cleverly achieved by the singer recreating a gesture by one of the actors. It worked well, placing the song firmly in the context of the film and achieving international airplay.
It surely can’t be a coincidence that none of the scenes used in the video feature David Bowie. Whether this was a contractual issue or a sign of Bowie’s antipathy towards the idea of a vocal theme is unknown.
The popularity of the theme-tune was such that Sakamoto ceased to perform it for a period of about a decade in the years following the film’s release. He later relented, telling a journalist that it was seeing Carole King and James Taylor play their chart hit ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ in concert at the Budokan concert hall in Tokyo that changed his mind. ‘I realised what it is when everyone wants to hear the biggest hit,’ he said. (2017)
Similarly, Sylvian moved on from the sentiments he expressed about faith in the lyrics, performing only a fragment of the song for his 1988 In Praise of Shamans tour before diving into the doubt of ‘Backwaters’. Later the song would feature in full for the retrospective Everything and Nothing performances in 2001/2.
‘I feel quite removed from it in many ways emotionally. It doesn’t resonate with me as much as it did obviously when I wrote the piece. I’ve covered a lot of ground since then in whichever sense you’d like to take that, whether it’s philosophically, spiritually, emotionally – certainly as a musician.’ (2010)
‘Although I’ve performed the song live in recent years I’ve had increasing trouble connecting with the piece on a profound level. I believe this is attributable to (a) the Christian symbolism of the piece which no longer holds any real significance for me and (b) the issues that arise in my practice are no longer to do with a lack of faith. The notion of a distance from the divine ‘a lifetime away from you’ doesn’t hold true for me at all as I know that the divine is available to us in the here and now. It isn’t something attained at the time of death etc., etc.’ (2003)
The final scene of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and featured in the ‘Forbidden Colours’ video sees the tables turned. Gengo Hara is now the captive, about to be executed for his actions in the war. He is visited by John Lawrence, whose voice breaks with compassion as he declares, ‘There are times when victory is very hard to take.’
Sir Laurens van der Post was asked what he hoped the audience might take away from seeing the movie on its release. ‘I hope that their understanding will be enlarged. I hope their suspicion of judgement and justice will be heightened. And seeing that, important as justice and judgement are, there are values that transcend those and these are the ones that the modern world wants: understanding, compassion, mercy, forgiveness.
‘There’s a deeper understanding necessary if we are ever going to have a brotherhood of men.’
Ryuichi Sakamoto – all music; David Sylvian – vocal.
Composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto, from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Virgin, 1983
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Download links: ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ (Apple), ‘Germination’ (Apple), ‘The Seed and The Sower’ (Apple), ‘The Seed’ (Apple), ‘Forbidden Colours’ (Apple)
Physical media: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Amazon)
All artist quotes are from interviews conducted in 1983 unless otherwise indicated. Ryuichi Sakamoto quotes marked ‘†’ are from the archive interview included on the 2020 Blu-ray re-release of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, precise date unknown but believed to be c. 2004. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
The Blu-ray of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence featuring Sakamoto’s interview can be purchased here.
‘Obviously I tried to reflect my interest and also the subject onto the music I was writing. It’s not simple to just put East part on West part and put them together. It’s not like that. The music I wanted to write was something very far from both West and East, as if it comes from nowhere. In other words it must sound very nostalgic – at the same time very exotic – for both Western people and Eastern people, Asians. It wasn’t easy.’ Ryuichi Sakamoto†
this sister article looks deeper into the lyric, the re-recording of the song during the Brilliant Trees sessions, and more…
3 thoughts on “Forbidden Colours”
Forbidden Colours ‘sonically it was incredible’ and Forbidden Colours (version). Many thanks VB, for such terrific coverage of the subject matter, including the music and visuals within.
Ryuichi Sakamoto / David Sylvian, at their best. The track was much stronger than No.16 in the UK following release and today, that doesn’t matter at all.
Emotionally packed, on musical, lyrical and historical levels.
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It really is a wonderful song. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Thank you David, very interesting
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