Songbook

Ryuichi Sakamoto Finds a Melody for the Unnameable

Ryuichi Sakamoto Finds a Melody for the Unnameable

In the blue moonlight of a humid December night, an escape is underway. A man in army fatigues runs from an open-air cell with a rolled-up rug in one hand and a sword in the other, stolen from someone who just tried to kill him. Over and over, he calls out as loudly as he dares, “Lawrence!” 

A haunted arpeggio atop a bed of synthesized strings underscores the delicacy of the situation. This is the middle section of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “The Seed and the Sower.” It tells us danger is close, but there is tenderness to be found, too.

Much of what is communicated in director Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is unspoken. The film is set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Java, Indonesia, during World War II, and was inspired by the books of a former prisoner who had endured life in such a camp. The would-be escapee is Major Jack Celliers, a South African officer in the British Army, played by David Bowie. The POW camp is run by Captain Yonoi, an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, portrayed by Sakamoto in his debut role as both an actor and film composer. The movie hinges on the complex ways in which these two men see each other. 

In the scene in question, Celliers finds the man he was calling out for tied to a post and delirious. A fellow officer in the British Army, Lawrence (Tom Conti) speaks fluent Japanese and often acts as a bridge between the powers that be and the prisoners in the camp. Celliers frees him and says they’re getting out of there. 

“Jack, the tube line doesn’t come up this far,” Lawrence wryly mumbles. 

“It’s okay, everything’s all right,” gasps Celliers, as he hoists Lawrence over his shoulder. “Captain Yonoi gave me a Persian rug.” 

This quip scratches at the contradictions in the relationship between Celliers and Captain Yonoi. The reason Celliers is in the POW camp in the first place is because Yonoi saved him from a firing squad; something about Celliers’s defiant attitude stirred Yonoi to vouch for him. (“My past is my business,” snapped Celliers at one point during his trial.) Yonoi locked Celliers up for stealing food for the camp’s sick prisoners and wonders if he is an “evil spirit,” yet snuck him an expensive rug for his gravel-floored cell, which suggests he is concerned for Celliers’s comfort. There is something deeper at play that hangs in the air between the two characters. A physical attraction, yes, but more than that: a never-named mutual fascination with the other’s very being. 

It’s left to Sakamoto’s “The Seed and the Sower” to articulate what neither man can put into words. As Celliers staggers into a clearing, carrying Lawrence in his arms like a small child, he comes face to face with Yonoi. When their eyes meet, the track undergoes a complete transformation, bursting into life like a time-lapse spring flower. 

To appreciate the impact of such a transition, it is worth distinguishing between the three distinct movements of the song: first, agitated digital keys and strings that score the attempted murder of Celliers; second, the ominous yet hopeful middle section that speaks to the vulnerability of the prisoners during their breakout attempt; and finally, an exuberant melody that blooms the moment Yonoi and Celliers set eyes on each other. In one five-minute track, Sakamoto exposes the many conflicting layers that make such a reveal so thrilling.

One of the reasons “The Seed and the Sower” is such a sonic-cinematic triumph is that Sakamoto was in a unique position to give voice to the intricately woven threads of emotion that connect the protagonists. He had the opportunity, rare for a film composer, to inhabit one of the lead characters’ heads and witness his turmoil from the inside. And as a music artist, he was fresh from enjoying international acclaim, having found success as the keyboardist in the synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra. The way the Japanese trio used digital instruments in the late ’70s and early ’80s not only wildly expanded the possibilities of conveying a kaleidoscope of emotion through sound—influencing some of the pioneers of techno, electro, and hip-hop along the way—but also flipped the script on “exotica.” The mid-twentieth-century American music style used instruments from East Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean to create a fetishized and appropriative sound that pandered to colonial stereotypes. Yellow Magic Orchestra, on the other hand, was partly inspired by founder Haruomi Hosono’s reflections on how his country was seen by the rest of the world, which is something the group’s music simultaneously leaned into and away from.

There are echoes of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s synthesized subversion in Sakamoto’s first film score. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is set in the early 1940s, more than a decade before exotica hit the postwar American airwaves and just shy of forty years before YMO refracted it back. The digital music that Sakamoto created for the movie speaks in a language that would not have been possible in the period it depicts, neither musically nor culturally. “The Seed and the Sower” imagines the internal dialogue of Yonoi and Celliers, lending shape to feelings that could only have been vocalized had they lived in a different time or setting. Given that pop is a space in which boundaries are often transgressed, it’s also notable that Oshima cast Sakamoto and Bowie as his star-crossed leads in the first place. While their art is grounded in different worlds, what the two icons have in common is their challenge to the rigidity of mainstream masculinity and an endless desire for creative exploration. That frisson is baked into their portrayals of Yonoi and Celliers, and it’s also echoed in the mutating progression of “The Seed and the Sower.”

“I presume,” pants Celliers to a transfixed Yonoi as the track reaches its exhilarating climax, “you’ve come for your carpet.” 

He carefully places Lawrence on the ground and feebly holds out his sword. In silence and with ceremony, Yonoi directs his own at Celliers. The two men hold each other’s gaze as the undulating keys, strings, and xylophone of the song’s big reveal work to imply an implosion of feelings on both sides. In this charged moment, there is a sense that the pair see one another’s humanity, each recognizing the same complexity that he feels in his own heart. In a wartime setting, this is an act of transgression in itself. 

As if confronting that very truth, Celliers breaks out into a curious grin and sticks his blade in the ground. Yonoi is bewildered: “Why will you not fight me?” he shouts. “If you defeat me, you will be free!”

The standoff between Yonoi and Celliers ends when the camp’s Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) and the guards arrive. Incidentally, Hara has his own complicated friendship story with Lawrence that runs parallel to the central storyline. Hara pulls out his gun to shoot Celliers, but Yonoi steps into his line of sight. 

“Jack,” says Lawrence from the ground, “I think he’s taken a bit of a shine to you.” 

The melody fades to a shadow of its former self as reality hits: this love story is not a love story. This is wartime, and everyone is traumatized. Yonoi previously told Lawrence that his comrades in the Imperial Japanese Army rebelled in Tokyo some years earlier, but he was unable to join them because he’d been stationed abroad. This is a reference to an actual event. In February 1936, the young members of a nationalistic faction of the Imperial Japanese Army rose up in an attempt to wrest control back from the west-facing majority faction. The coup failed and the young soldiers were executed. Had Yonoi been there, he would have died with them. That he didn’t is a source of shame that colors everything he does in the film.

Yonoi’s interest in Celliers, then, runs deeper than just physical attraction—he is also intellectually and spiritually stimulated by the actions of the British Army major. Perhaps in Yonoi’s eyes, Celliers is doing what he could not: standing up for his comrades and putting his life on the line for them.

What Yonoi does not know is that Celliers is also motivated by shame. As a teenager, Celliers betrayed his younger brother, a choir boy with a curved spine, by allowing him to be submitted to a cruel school initiation that he could have stopped. After that day, his brother never sang again. Our experiences live on inside of us, influencing how we move in the world. The way Celliers treated his little brother sowed something in both of them. Seeking brotherhood is one way the adult Celliers attempts to atone.

Yonoi and Celliers are men haunted by their past, and by how they perceive themselves and one another. Time and time again, the way they look at each other leads to something unusual in the course of warfare. Celliers refuses to fight Yonoi. Yonoi protects Celliers. The music blooms.

The climax of “The Seed and the Sower” is reprised twice in the film, in later scenes that also pivot on the humanizing gaze the pair share. “Sowing the Seed,” a subtler yet no less poignant version of the original, unfurls when Celliers breaks rank to kiss Yonoi on both cheeks just as he is getting ready to execute a British officer. This leads to Yonoi collapsing under the weight of his conflicted emotions: he cannot—will not—strike Celliers down for his act of tender rebellion.

There’s also a one-minute version of the song’s hypnotic peak, wrought in a ghostly ambience. Simply titled “The Seed,” it plays near the end of the film when Yonoi and Celliers regard each other for the very last time.

While the bright and shiny chords of the film’s titular theme are more famous, it is “The Seed and the Sower” that does the lion’s share of the soundtrack’s emotional work. A hidden theme for a never-realized relationship, the triptych of a track brings to life the interiority of the two men in ways that their dialogue does not, could not. Who is the seed and who is the sower? Yonoi and Celliers both plant ideas in one another, yet their circumstances deny them their day in the sun. In Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Oshima and Sakamoto remind us of what it takes to really see someone—and how feeling seen can alter one’s path forever.


A series of films scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto, including Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, is playing on the Criterion Channel now through September 30, 2020.

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