Japanese Song of the Day – “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto was part of the group Yellow Magic Orchestra, who I mentioned a few days ago. This time, I want to focus on him specifically.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was a 1983 film directed by Nagisa Oshima about prisoners in Japan during World War II, examining how soldiers from Japan and from the West deal with feelings of guilt and shame. It is a fascinating but extremely sad movie that I highly recommend you see if you haven’t yet (but get some tissues ready first). It stars not only the film’s composer, Sakamoto (in a major role), and actor/director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, but also western rock mainstay David Bowie and legendary Japanese guitarist Yuya Uchida in a small role.

The haunting theme song is one of the most often covered and sampled melodies in Japanese music.

David Sylvian of the band Japan provided vocals for the song, resulting in the single “Forbidden Colours.”

Here are some notable samples and covers of the song that are worth checking out. This melody will ring in your head for pretty much the rest of the day, just to warn you.

Anggun – Hymne a la Vie
The French singer (one of my favorite vocalists of all time) samples the melody in an uptempo R&B track that heavily borrows the melody in the chorus as well.

The very good English version, “Seize the Moment,” for those interested:

Watergate – Heart of Asia
This is basically just a more or less solid trance cover that utilizes a ton of traditional asian instruments. As a trance track it’s quite good, but the cartoonishness of the Asian instrumentation is a bit… well, cartoonish.

Utada – FYI (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence)
Japanese-American singer/songwriter Hikaru Utada sampled the song for her track FYI, appearing on her second English album, “This Is the One.” Like Anggun, she took it in an R&B direction, but this is much more chill and is closer to Sakamoto’s original tempo.

Here, to close it out, is Sakamoto performing a piano & string version of the song in concert:

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