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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.

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