Release Date: December 25th, 1957 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Joshua Logan Actors: Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Miiko Taka, Miyoshi Umeki, Red Buttons
hotographed on actual Japanese locations (with cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks), “Sayonara” (which means “goodbye”) is a sharp looking, superbly acted, politically forward film, featuring “Romeo and Juliet” tragedy paired with expected Hollywood-influenced standards of happiness. The dialogue is natural and smoothly executed, adorning the film with a bigger slice of realism, even if the moral agenda is clearly forced and the running time is wearily padded. Unusual for the era, this romantic drama braved concepts of racism and intolerance instead of the commonplace wartime strife of army wives and love interests.
In 1951 Korea, Air Force hero Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) is being transferred to Kobe, Japan for a convenient marriage to General Webster’s daughter Eileen (Patricia Owens). Lloyd initially believes he must do what is expected of him; he’s in love, but unstably. When Eileen and her family pressure him into a union that he’s always been reluctant about, he quickly gravitates even further away.
One of Ace’s men, Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons), is intent on marrying a local Japanese woman (Miyoshi Umeki), which is strictly against military regulations. Gruver is instructed to discourage this unapproved wedding with an indigenous female, but ends up serving as best man instead at the unromantic paperwork event. Lloyd doesn’t particularly advocate Kelly’s decision or the odd customs of Japan, but during his time there he becomes obsessed with the beautiful dancer Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka), a proud woman who refuses to speak to Americans. He confronts her every day on the bridge she must cross to her nightly performances, and eventually she gives in, agreeing to see him – even though both the military and her heritage prohibit their interaction. The two gradually fall in love, but are uneasy with sacrificing their social standings and comrades for a secretive romance.
“Sayonara” is a post-war exercise in re-humanizing the Japanese that can be conversely criticized for its questionable depiction of timid doll-like housewives and their idyllic Zen-garden paper-wall dwellings (some scholars accuse it of portraying Japanese women as utter prostitutes). Based on the James Michener novel (and featuring music by Irving Berlin), the controversial typifications are occasionally alleviated by Brando’s pre-“Godfather” improvised drawl and relaxed acting, both of which are largely believable. It’s most interesting to see his unhurried 360-degree attitude adjustment and flawed beliefs on surrendering his Army status for a woman equally engrained in her cultural standings. A role by James Garner is also worthwhile (though one by Ricardo Montalban as an Asian is more dubious), as are the appearances by Buttons and Umeki, who each took home a 1957 Oscar for their supporting roles. “Sayonara” was additionally honored with Best Picture and Director (Joshua Logan) Academy Award nominations, though those nods seem representational of the United States’ embracing of pertinent themes rather than filmmaking or storytelling excellence.
– Mike Massie