The Bottom Line
A lavish pictorial of Japan disguised under a love story between a Southern gentleman soldier and a beautiful Japanese actress, hounded by bigotry and tradition. Brando. Michener. Berlin. Montalban. What more could you ask for?
The Rest of the Story
Based on the award-winning novel by James Michener, Sayonara is a tale of forbidden love, its consequences, and the power of its defiance. Our hero is Korean War ace fighter pilot Major Lloyd Gruver (Brando), genteel, humble, and loyal. The son of a great Army general, he's engaged to be married to the daughter of his own commanding officer, a girl he's known all his life (but isn't quite sure he loves.)
Standing opposite him is the young Airman Kelly (a fresh-faced Red Buttons in his first movie role) who has his sights set on Katsumi, a Japanese girl he met while touring around Osaka (Miyoshi Umeki, of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" fame.) Unfortunately for Kelly, the law prohibits him from bringing his bride home to America, and the Army prohibits any fraternization with Japanese women. But Kelly won't be denied - even if it means discharge or worse - and his friend Gruver agrees to be his best man.
Upon arriving in town, Gruver is met by his fiancee and the two visit a kabuki theater featuring Nakamura (the ever elegante Ricardo Montalban.) Gruber is a bit underwhelmed, but wonders what more Japan might have to offer. Later, Kelly takes him to Matsubayashi to watch their famous song and dance revue. It's there that our pilot meets Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka), a fragile goddess and head performer at the show. Instantly smitten, Gruver proceeds to woo and win her.
Soon, though, Gruver and his new girl face all of the prejudices and principles that stand against them. Gruver's commanding officer is disappointed in Gruver for throwing away "what he was born for"; the Army makes any fraternization with Japanese women forbidden; and Hana-ogi's own family and culture dictate that she should stay within her own race. It finally comes to a head when Kelly, Gruver, and a number of other soldiers with Japanese wives are set to be shipped back to the United States, while Hana-ogi is being forced to take the lead role of the Matsubayashi in Tokyo. Will Gruver and Hana-ogi follow their hearts, or their duties? Will society accept their love for what it is? What sacrifices would you make for love?
First off, from a technical standpoint, the movie is simply gorgeous. Long holds of the beautiful shores and sights of Japan look like finely pressed woodcuts, and the cherry blossoms have never looked so beautiful. For many Americans, this was their first real glimpse of Japan, and director Joshua Logan and DP Ellsworth Fredericks were both rightly nominated for Oscars for their work. Along the same lines, the Oscar-nomianted art direction and set decorations of the kabuki and the Matsubayashi, the traditional houses, the rustic and the urban settings, all capture the beauty and mystique of Japan. It is an undeniably gorgeous movie.
The acting, of course, is superb (both Buttons and Umike won Oscars for their roles, and James Garner and Patricia Owen provide excellent support), and Brando is his brooding, smoldering, mumbling self. He plays the character with such an easygoing humility and warmth that when he finally displays his passion and desire for Taaka in the climax, it is as real a moment as he ever performed. A special mention should go to Montalban, who studied for several months on proper kabuki performances, and delivers a wonderfully understated performance (although the attempts to make him look Japanese are mediocre at best.)
The movie itself is fairly slow and lush by design, to capture the exotic locale in as much detail as possible. The set up is well-worn, but for 1957, the issues of racism and bigotry (and particularly miscegenation with the Japanese, our enemies just 12 years prior) were still highly salient, and the movie addresses them frankly and without resorting to trite cliches. The embarrassed but indignant look on the CO's face when he tells Garner he can't bring his Japanese date to the officer's club speaks volumes about the times in which the picture was made, and Buttons' wife's attempts to have corrective surgery to Americanize her eyes make for touching scenes.
If the movie has any major missteps, I can't find them. A great screenplay, great acting, great direction and photography, great art and sound, a lovely vignette of a title song by the great Irving Berlin, and all around a great tribute to the culture and people of Japan.
My Rating: 10 out of 10. Go check it out ASAP.
Trivia: Fans of old Westerns can catch glimpses of several of their favorite stars in this movie: Garner played "Maverick", of course, but there's also James Stacy of "Lancer" fame as a reporter, Harlan Warde (of "The Rifleman") as the American consul, and Peter Brown (Deputy McKay on "Lawman") and Dennis Hopper (just off of The Gunfight at O.K. Corral and Giant) as MPs.
James Michener (novel)
Paul Osborn (screenplay)
Marlon Brando ... Maj. Lloyd 'Ace' Gruver, USAF
Patricia Owens ... Eileen Webster
James Garner ... Capt. Mike Bailey, USMC
Martha Scott ... Mrs. Webster
Miiko Taka ... Hana-ogi
Miyoshi Umeki ... Katsumi Kelly
Red Buttons ... Airman Joe Kelly
Kent Smith ... Lt. Gen. Mark Webster
Ricardo Montalban... Nakamura