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Sayonara

by Glenn Erickson Mar 30, 2024

This import shows what’s uniquely terrific about a Home Video disc done well — the combined audio commentaries tell us so much I didn’t know about a movie we thought we knew well. Sidestepping some of the conventions of its time, Joshua Logan’s movie is almost unique in the way it speaks truth to official army policy. It’s also one of Marlon Brando’s best and most committed performances … and what it does right far outweighs some outdated issues. James Garner, Patricia Owens and even Red Buttons are excellent — and Ricardo Montalban minimizes the damage of some real ‘what were they thinking?’ casting.


Sayonara
Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint]
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 147 min. / Street Date December 27, 2023 / Available from [Imprint] / au 179.95
Starring: Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Martha Scott, Miiko Taka, Miyoshi Umeki, Red Buttons, Kent Smith, Douglas Watson, Reiko Kuba, Soo Yong, Shochiku Kagekidan Girls Revue, Ricardo Montalban, James Stacy, William Wellman Jr., Harlan Warde.
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Production Designer:
Art Director: Ted Haworth
Costume Design: Norma Koch
Film Editors: Philip W. Anderson, Arthur P. Schmidt
Assistant film Editor Sam O’Steen
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Screenplay by Paul Osborn from the novel by James A. Michener
Produced by William Goetz
Directed by
Joshua Logan

This edition of Sayonara is being sold only as part of a set. together with The Fugitive Kind, One-Eyed Jacks, The Ugly American, Bedtime Story and A Countess from Hong Kong in the Film Focus: Marlon Brando – Volume One Imprint Collection.

Twilight Time issued a fine Blu-ray of Sayonara in 2017; we’re reviewing this release because its excellent audio commentaries add quite a bit to our understanding of Joshua Logan’s movie, which was nominated for Best Picture. The overarching theme of James Michener’s books is racial discrimination, and his Sayonara (1954) takes an exceedingly bitter look at institutionalized racism in the Army’s Occupation of Japan. A film adaptation of the interracial romance story Mr. Morgan starring Gary Cooper, from Michener’s other South Seas story collection Return to Paradise (1950) did not do well, but the 1957 Sayonara became a monster hit. It was almost immediately followed by an equally successful film version of the Michener-derived musical  South Pacific. Stage great Joshua Logan directed both.

 

Sayonara is probably the one Japanese word that Americans knew in the 1950s.

Michener’s story directly confronts a military Occupation policy that (according to a well-researched commentary) amplified retrograde U.S. laws that discriminated against Japanese immigrants. Cruel Army regulations were specifically aimed at punishing lawful marriages between U.S. servicemen and Japanese citizens. 1957 was a hotpoint year for Civil Rights in America, which makes Sayonara’s ‘romantic’ protest impressive — it dramatizes racist policies at a time when the word miscegenation was only beginning to be recognized as a term of white supremacist hatred.

The expensive, overlong Sayonara is padded with travelogue material and lengthy stage presentations. But it doesn’t let go of its progressive stance, and it doesn’t backtrack to nullify its criticism of the Army, as had the earlier From Here to Eternity. Of course, the biggest commercial draw was star Marlon Brando’s romantic role opposite an ‘exotic’ Japanese actress. Brando was personally interested in the story’s politics.

 

The action takes place in wartime 1951, with Japan re-armed as an American base of operations against Red aggression in Korea. Air Ace fighter pilot Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando) is reassigned from combat duty back to Tokyo. He discovers that the diplomatic but spineless General Webster (Kent Smith) has pulled strings as part of a plan by his wife (Martha Scott) to accelerate Lloyd’s engagement to their daughter Eileen (Patricia Owens). But Lloyd is not pleased with this favoritism. Although Eileen loves Lloyd, she is so humiliated by her mother’s action that she almost backs out of the engagement herself.

Drifting about with a new friend, Army Captain Bailey (James Garner), Lloyd is instead attracted to an unapproachable celebrity stage performer named Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka). He connives to meet the professionally ‘cloistered’ actress, and shows up every day to smile at her as she walks from her dormitory directly to the theater. Meanwhile, Eileen gravitates romantically toward her own Japanese theater star, the handsome and cultured Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban). Lloyd also becomes closely involved in the dilemma of one of his airmen, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons). The enlisted man is persecuted by the Air Force for his romance and eventual marriage to Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). Taking Kelly’s side earns Lloyd the ire of the brass. A spiteful staff Major retaliates by ordering Kelly to return to the States immediately, denying that race has anything to do with his decision. ‘For Lloyd’s own protection,’ General Webster puts Hana-Ogi off limits as well. Lloyd has played along with every indignity, but now decides to commit himself.

Americans knew so little about Japan that Sayonara’s frequent excursion to theaters for variety revues and traditional drama were taken as fascinating glimpses at an alien culture. It’s rather odd that Hana-Ogi is meant to be a highly skilled dancer and actress, but we mostly see her twirling umbrellas in glamour close-ups, etc. Is it her supposedly high-class dance troupe that forms up on a Minsky-like Burlesque runway to show off their legs?  Americans can’t have been expected to understand any of Nakamura’s highly stylized performances, wearing fantastic traditional costumes and makeup. Lloyd is clearly bored by an elaborate puppet show, of a traditional romantic ‘double suicide’ play. That is of course the format of Sayonara in a nutshell — intolerable conditions lead an idyllic couple to do away with themselves.

Five years after American rule officially departed, this is definitely an Occupation-minded movie. There are almost no speaking parts for Japanese, outside of potential romantic partners. That, and the way Eileen and Lloyd fall into sincere, open relationships with unapproachable Japanese celebrities perhaps explains why Sayonara was not popular in Japan. How dare the Americans behave so disrespectfully, and how unusual it is for ‘exceptional’ Japanese to set aside traditional reserve. Added to that cultural barrier are animosities about a war not 6 years passed. We give the filmmakers credit for minimizing these unlikelihoods, even with all the traditions of romantic melodrama backing them up. The writing is excellent in the scene in which Hana-Ogi, out of the blue, apologizes for her unreasoning hatred of Americans. She’s barely exchanged 50 words with Lloyd. Did she overcome her anti-U.S. resentment just by staring at him from afar, every time she crossed the bridge back to the performers’ dormitory?

 

To the victor belong the spoils.

Hollywood movies normally presented our troops’ fraternization with foreign women in escapist terms — often inferring that French, Latin, and South Seas ladies dreamed of meeting some handsome American serviceman. A pointedly serious drama about fraternization in immediate postwar Germany, George Seaton’s The Big Lift, is a very different story. In one of his first movies, Montgomery Clift’s sincere G.I. falls in love with a Berlin Fräulein, only to discover that she’s using him to get to the states and reunite with her husband, who was a prisoner of war. Sayonara is an all-out ‘lovers versus the military’ tale, that throws no shade on its romantically virtuous couples.

Marlon Brando seems fully committed to his role, a hotshot jet Ace with personal principles. Hollywood had previously lauded a Korean War ace in The McConnell Story, implying that the military ‘straightened out’ potential juvenile delinquents by finding a use for killer talent. Dick Powell’s exciting The Hunters treated fighter pilots as the 20th-century equivalent of Knights of the Round table — jet combat over Korea was perhaps the last gasp of one-on-one, pre-push button single warrior combat. The Hunters’ pilots Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner are also equated with western gunslingers — their squadron leader Richard Egan even wears a pair of 6-guns. Brando’s Major Gruver is the only one of these screen pilots not to define himself as a warrior-killer. Remember that a couple of our Mercury astronauts had been Korean War fighter pilots.

Miiko Taka is gorgeous, poised, and delivers her speeches beautifully. Red Buttons underplays the persecuted Kelly with quiet dignity. Second-billed Patricia Owens is handed the thankless role, but one with uncommon depth. There are suggestions that Eileen Webster might actually enter a romance with the charming Nakamura, a subplot that isn’t played out. Hollywood’s Production Code was stuck back in the racist-Puritan ’20s: American soldiers overseas had license to sleep fraternize with ‘dusky dames,’ but the idea of a white woman having sex with a black or an Asian man was unthinkable. It could only happen in a marginalized foreign import, or a picture made by a break-the-rules maverick like Samuel Fuller.

 

Sayonara’s lavish production values show in every scene. The first Hollywood movies filmed in Japan focused on travelogue views, and filmed everything they could on sound stages back in America. Thanks to excellent (Oscar-nominated) art direction, this movie gets away with some very impressive ‘cheats.’ We learn from the commentary that one impressive hotel exterior is actually Yamaguchi, a Hollywood restaurant not a thousand yards from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. With spotty cooperation from Japanese companies, the production had to invent a fictitious theater company for Hana-Ogi, and the producers committed a faux-pas when they inquired if an authentic Japanese stage actor could double for Ricardo Montalban.

The two leading Japanese actresses were hired in America. Miiko Taka was an American Nisei born in Seattle. Miyoshi Umeki was Japanese-born, but by 1950 was recording records for Americans in Japan. She moved to the U.S. in 1955 and was a regular on TV shows, promoted with condescending remarks about her cute ‘little porcelain doll’ appearance. They are still distinguished as types — the delicate Oriental doll and the elfin pixie.

It would be twenty years before our culture listened to complaints about Anglo actors wearing ‘yellowface’ makeup to play Asians. The Mexico-born Ricardo Montalbán overcomes a seemingly impossible role, as the only non-Japanese in the cast playing a Japanese. Although the talented Montalbán manages a very good imitation of the highly stylized stage work, his presence can’t help but be extremely distracting. Today’s film industry activists would likely declare Sayonara invalid over this issue.

 

Former comedian Red Buttons excels in his plum part, and earned an Academy Award; the commentary tells us that Buttons’ TV career had crashed and burned, making Sayonara a major show biz comeback story. Kent Smith again offers the unlikable persona he solidified way back in  The Fountainhead, and we tag his General character a thoughtless dolt from the get-go. Martha Scott’s Ugly-American shrike of a villainess isn’t even given a first name. It’s a shame that this is Ms. Scott’s most-screened movie; her performance seventeen years earlier opposite William Holden in Sam Wood’s film version of  Our Town is truly transcendent.

The show was something of a debut for James Garner, and he comes off as star material playing Major Gruver’s Best Bud. Garner was already being groomed by Warners; we’re told that upon returning from Japan, he immediately set to work on starring in Maverick. Garner’s Captain Bailey serves another function as well — his presence keeps the movie from looking like a total condemnation of the U.S. military. If James Garner likes the Army, it must have good qualities.

 

Perhaps Brando has finally found out what he’s rebelling against.

Marlon Brando seems energized; perhaps this project stimulated his activist tendencies. His Major Lloyd Gruver begins with no particular beef against the military. Neither is he particularly progressive in racial awareness, even making a crack about Japanese ‘slant eyes.’ Although Lloyd plays it cool, he isn’t amused by the petty politics and hypocrisy of being pulled from duty with an unspoken prompt to propose to a general’s daughter. He goes into resistance mode, not only to defend airman Kelly, but to resist letting favoritism ‘groom him for a top spot in The Corporation.’  By the finish he’s a candidate for open rebellion. The film reverses the downbeat ending of Michener’s book. Lloyd opts ‘to split from the whole program,’ figuratively repeating Gary Cooper’s ‘Star In The Dust’ final gesture at the end of High Noon.

Our great lovers leave together with their future as vague as the nutty youngsters at the end of  The Graduate. Where are they going to go, and what kind of life can they have?  Both Lloyd and Hana-Ogi have each been bred for a single career path. Gruver’s fellow Southerners will consider his marriage a crime of miscegenation. Poster boy flying Aces need spotless records to climb the promotion ladder: no Major Lloyd Gruver, Astronaut. But grand romantic gestures are always appreciated, and Sayonara likely had a positive impact on the American acceptance of mixed marriages. As square as it may seem, this is a radical picture. What other ’50s Hollywood film ends with a U.S. soldier thumbing his nose at the whole system and exiting, stage left?

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of Sayonara is a very attractive item. It isn’t billed as being remastered, but the widescreen presentation is still very attractive. The color is terrific throughout, and only optical scenes like the title sequence show a slight degradation in quality.

Giving the image its edge is the optically superior oversized format Technirama, essentially squeezed Vistavision. Even when printed down to anamorphic 35mm, the image easily bests CinemaScope in sharpness and clarity. Good prints of Vistavision and Technirama films always blew us away on the big screen:  Night Passage,  The Big Country,  The Vikings,  Zulu.

The disc package says ‘LPCM 2.0 Stereo,’ but the track doesn’t go in for big separation effects. [Imprint] has carried over Twilight Time’s Isolated Music + Effects track. Franz Waxman’s romantic music score was a big hit in 1957, but the actual title song was written several years earlier by Irving Berlin, when the book was being written as a musical play. Even with its ersatz Japanese flavor, Berlin’s song is undeniably beautiful.

 

The big draw for this disc is its twin audio commentaries. Matthew Asprey Gear’s commentary discusses the film’s background quite well, going over much of the careers of James Michener, Joshua Logan and Marlon Brando. The second commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV is outstanding. The Japan-based film writer is fully informed about the context of this Hollywood-goes-to-Japan production, and uses his track to address its every aspect. Galbraith has something to say about most of the film’s locations. The account of the film’s preparation and production is fascinatingly detailed, much of it from new research. The track details when the Japanese cooperated with the producers, and when they didn’t.

The movie was originally written to begin with Major Gruver in air combat, a scene dropped early on. Galbraith also suggests that Sayonara took the quaint visual of Hana-Ogi’s dance troupe crossing a bridge to their dormitory not from real life, but from a confected scene in the Cinerama travelogue Seven Wonders of the World.

Galbraith’s talk doesn’t shy away from political issues, yet it also has no axe to grind, and lets us draw our own conclusions about various culture clashes. The track gets specific when citing the military’s fraternization policy. The research offers that military rules did change during the Occupation. American soldiers in Europe only had bureaucratic red tape to slow down their wedding plans, but the rules applied in Japan were heavily influenced by American laws forbidding the mixing of races. As shown in the movie, for a big part of the Occupation, a soldier wishing to marry a Japanese citizen could be blocked by any number of superiors, in a military culture that was anything but liberal.

Galbraith presents this information in an impressively even-handed way. He has two guest speakers on his track. Filmmaker Yayoi Winfrey discusses the War Bride issue (and her documentary film), focusing on the denial of acceptance often suffered by the offspring of the mixed marriages, both here and in Japan. Galbraith notes that the romantic movie doesn’t bring up the unglamorous, often tragic issue of Japanese women abandoned with mixed-race children, in a society much more concerned with ‘racial purity’ than our own.

Galbraith’s other guest speaker is John Waxman, the son of the film’s composer, who offers several minutes of interesting stories about his father and the success of his Sayonara score. And singled out for special commendation is the exacting research work of Phil Hansen, at the USC-Warner Bros. Archive.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Sayonara
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
New audio commentary by cinema author & critic Matthew Asprey Gear (2023)
New audio commentary by film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, including interviews with John Waxman, son of composer Franz Waxman, and Yayoi Winfrey, writer-director of War Brides of Japan (2023)
Isolated Score and Effects Track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 28, 2024
(7102sayo)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Ken

Miyoshi Umeki who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress , is barely mentioned in your review and she gave the most touching and memorable performance in the film.

Barry Lane

The American military must have done more than one thing right, because all these years after the war the Japanese are loyal allies and even played baseball. MacArthur knew what he was doing. Yes?

Bill Huelbig

Sayonara was a very big hit, but Martha Scott had two even bigger ones, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.

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