Back when interracial marriage was a shady topic (are those dark days coming back?) the U.S. military had some adjustment issues. Full integration of the ranks didn’t remove the anti- Japanese bigotry. James Michener’s novel has been transformed into a big-scale romance, with Marlon Brando coming to terms with a split in loyalty between the flag and his private life. The big shock is that the Paul Osborn’s screenplay doesn’t let the military off easy.
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 147 min. / Street Date November 14, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Martha Scott, Miiko Taka, Miyoshi Umeki, Red Buttons, Kent Smith.
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Film Editors: Philip W. Anderson, Arthur P. Schmidt
Production Design: Ted Haworth
Original Music: Irving Berlin, Franz Waxman
Written by Paul Osborn from the novel by James Michener
Produced by William Goetz
Directed by Joshua Logan
Among the lengthy, historically fastidious novels of the prolific James Michener are a couple of shorter books that expressed disdain for the state of affairs during the Korean War — The Bridges of Toko-Ri and 1954’s Sayonara. Both take a rather bitter look at the state of race discrimination in the Army’s occupation of Japan. Racial intermarriage had already been a main theme of Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, and his screenplay for the 1953 film Return to Paradise. The 1957 film of Sayonara almost served as a placeholder while the country waited for a film version of the Michener-derived musical South Pacific. Stage great Joshua Logan directed both.
Sayonara is probably the one Japanese word that American knew in the 1950s. The occupation was a political success, even if organized crime and business corruption flourished in Japan’s swift recovery from utter devastation. Michener’s book attacks the racism of the time, when a majority definitely felt that any race mixing was a bad idea. American soldiers and sailors used Japan’s port cities as a giant brothel, yet the military wouldn’t recognize any marriages that came about.
To everyone’s surprise, this expensive film does exhibit a progressive attitude toward these issues. It also doesn’t let Army attitudes off the hook. It is overlong, padded with travelogue banalities and lengthy stage presentations. Of course, the biggest commercial draw was seeing the star Marlon Brando in a romantic role opposite an ‘exotic’ Japanese actress. Brando seems to have been personally interested in the story’s message.
The action takes place in 1951, with the ‘police action’ in full swing; Japan has become an armed camp and a base of operations for the American military. General Webster (Kent Smith) yanks Air Ace Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando) from fighter duty over Korea to come to Tokyo. Webster’s order is completely personal: it’s part of a plan by his wife (Martha Scott) to accelerate Lloyd’s engagement to their daughter Eileen (Patricia Owens). But Lloyd is having discouraging thoughts about the way the Army and his future in-laws are officially/unofficially railroading him onto a military success track. Lloyd becomes concerned when one of his airmen, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) is persecuted by the Air Force for his romance and eventual marriage to a Japanese woman, Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). Sympathizing with Kelly earns Lloyd the ire of the brass, and thanks to Mrs. Webster’s pushy attitude, the engagement to Eileen falls apart. Drifting about with a new friend Army Captain Bailey (James Garner), Lloyd instead finds himself pulled into a relationship with a celebrity stage performer named Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka). The persecution of Joe Kelly becomes intolerable — the Air Force refuses to acknowledge the enlisted man’s marriage and orders him to return to the States alone. ‘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.
Sayonara was a big deal in my family. When the war broke out my mother was an Air Force wife living in Japan; I was born there, which makes me a genuine Korean War baby. My mother read Michener and took me with her to Sayonara when I was just five. She didn’t see many movies so this one must have been important for her to drag me along with her. I remember only the music, and the very wide screen. For her it was recent history – everyone on base had known of situations like that of Katsumi and Sgt. Kelly. My mother thought Sayonara was a good romantic drama, but thought that Major Gruver’s easy access to a ‘special’ person like Hana-ogi was highly unlikely. It wasn’t difficult for a serviceman to meet a Japanese workingwoman who knew some English, and some of those did indeed seek a relationship with an American as a way out of economic woes. (For a rather harsh look at the same thing happening in West Berlin in 1948, see George Seaton’s The Big Lift.) But six levels of formality would stand between Gruver and Hana-ogi, despite their both having celebrity status. The simplest interaction required a formal introduction. A rare American that spoke Japanese or had established connections with the nationals might have a different experience, but most U.S. personnel stayed separate from the culture. The Gruver/Hana-Ogi romance isn’t impossible, but . . .
Hollywood didn’t know its way around Japan, that’s for sure. As David Lean discovered too late, famous Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, a Hollywood veteran since the silent days, could not speak English lines. Imagine finding that out after setting up a movie deal for months and then shipping Hayakawa to Ceylon for the filming – Lean had seen Hayakawa in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo without realizing that the actor’s voice had been fully dubbed, by the Chinese-American actor Richard Loo. Bamboo was the first postwar American film made in Tokyo, and 20th Fox also took no chances with the main roles. Fuller found an Americanized Japanese actress living in New York, Yoshiko ‘Shirley’ Yamaguchi. If you can take a really complicated story of national identity confusion in wartime, read her Wikipedia entry.
The one really dated aspect of the show is of course the casting of Mexico-born Ricardo Montalbán as a famous Japanese Kabuki star, Nakamura. It’s a typical Hollywood ploy, to go halfway around the world for realism and still stick a yellow-face actor screen center. The production likely wasn’t interested in an unfamiliar Japanese actor because too many uncontrollable variables were involved – even if the actor spoke good English, would there be difficulties directing him? Montalbán is of course professional in the part, and even wears the strange eye makeup appliances that Americans think make a person look ‘Oriental.’ Although not the cosmic cultural calamity represented by Mickey Rooney’s comic Japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Montalbán’s casting does major damage to Sayonara’s credibility.
More to the point is the nearly absurd way that Nakamura’s unlikely introduction to Eileen Webster leads to more one-on-one meetings and heart-to-heart talks: the cultural and national barriers were much too strong. Sure, airmen might attend high-class theatrical events, although most would be bored to death by formal Japanese theater arts. Other than that, all my mother said was that all those picturesque Tokyo neighborhoods weren’t as pleasant as they looked. Kelly’s house is far too big and lavish — everything my mother saw was tiny and cramped. That beautiful canal where Red Buttons’ Airman Kelly lives would have had a horrible stench. No plumbing, you see; just exposed outdoor sewers. Remember firebombing had leveled huge sections of Tokyo just six years before. The recovery that would build a much-improved city had just begun.
For all its PC problems Joshua Logan’s film is really exceptional for the way it takes on the U.S. military; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pentagon revised its rules after seeing this show. Hollywood had routinely bent over backwards to cheerlead for the Armed Services with patriotic enlistment boosters, but the film versions of respected James Michener books had other aims in mind. Instead of waving the flag of victory, the film version of The Bridges at Toko-Ri ended with an unhappy Admiral asking ‘where do we get such men (to lay down their lives for so little purpose)?’ I can say that within the military, there was also a credibility push-back against the bowdlerization of the film version of James Jones’ From Here to Eternity — not so much the dropping of the book’s sex and profanity, but the whitewash given the Army chain of command that abused its privileges. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the military conceded that the families of enlisted men deserved decent housing.
Sayonara doesn’t sugarcoat its image of the military. Brando’s Major Gruver wants to get along. He can take the stress of air combat but loses patience for the rotten attitudes around him. The pompous General Webster puts Gruver on the spot by pulling him from one duty (flying) to another (marry my daughter!) as if the young officer were his personal property. Although Brando plays it cool, it’s as if he’s finally found the answer to the question in The Wild One about ‘what he’s rebelling against.’ He goes into resistance mode for the defense of airman Kelly. Since it’s Marlon Brando, it’s not difficult to see Sayonara as a spiritual prequel to Apocalypse Now. A hot young officer superstar is being ‘groomed for a top spot in the Corporation,’ but encounters philosophical and personal differences with ‘the nattering nabobs’ trying to control him. Major Gruver begins with no particular beef against the military, unfair regulations and all. By the finish he’s a candidate for a John Milius rebellion, ready ‘to split from the whole program.’
But Brando’s Major Gruver takes no rash action. James Garner’s Captain Bailey guides and advises him at various stages, filling us in on the fraternization rules. Bailey knows all about the sealed-access ‘showgirl park’ where the performers walk directly to the theater from their dormitories. They can only be seen crossing a romantic wooden bridge, and remain remote and unattainable. Relaxed and natural on screen with Brando, Garner proves himself to be ready for big-screen dramatic material, not just his amiable joker on TV’s Maverick.
Captain Bailey’s sane example is needed, for along the way we meet other officers that are pure bigots. The regulations are twisted to punish Kelly and Gruver, as if their romantic choices were traitorous acts. The one nod to the Air Force being reasonable is the news near the end that the restrictions on mixed marriages will be eased up, but that only makes Airman Kelly and Katsumi’s rash decision doubly tragic. The big surprise is that no ‘compromise’ scene has been written in — no God-like military authority figure appears to right all the wrongs. That kind of revisionism famously mars From Here to Eternity.
At around 2.5 hours in duration Sayonara can seem terribly slow. There are at least three too many excursions to theater presentations, which make for pretty pictures but bog the story down. Although Montalbán’s Kabuki spectacles are interesting, the silly girlie chorus lines that accompany Hana-ogi’s more serious appearances imitate a burlesque show, played for cutes instead of smut. Maybe they aren’t authentic, as a Hollywood choreographer is credited. Seeing the occupied Japanese imitating Western variety theater to this extreme seems to be saying ‘here are our women, take them.’ Elsewhere Paul Osborne’s script points up the double standard of airmen being actively encouraged to run wild with the local girls, while forbidding serious relationships. But the movie doesn’t acknowledge the cultural rape signified by the girlie show: ‘we lost, we cater to you.’
But the movie works when the romantic drama is in gear. Brando’s indecisive Major refuses to take sides, and makes a nice arc from calling Katsumi ‘slant-eyed,’ to a more sensitive attitude toward Asians. The often- insufferable Red Buttons does a fine job with his plum part, and earned an Academy Award. Umeki and Taka’s Japanese women are well acted, yet are still viewed as types — the delicate Oriental doll and the cute pixie. Taka is certainly attractive but I still like Shirley Yamaguchi of House of Bamboo more. Kent Smith offers the unlikeable 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 her most-screened movie; her performance opposite William Holden seventeen years earlier in Sam Wood’s film version of Our Town is truly transcendent, even if it can only be seen in wretched public domain tapes. Second-billed but stuck in an even more thankless role is the interesting Patricia Owens. Owens received a series of good parts, but would see her career drop into nothingness just a year later, after contributing an excellent central performance to the original The Fly.
Sayonara’s finish satisfies emotionally but is rather open-ended. When Sergeant Kelly and Katsumi take a committed, traditional exit, perhaps James Michener had in mind bittersweet Japanese stories about impossible romances that finish in glorious suicides. Major Gruver and Hana-ogi sacrifice to be together, but they don’t sacrifice equally. He defies the Air Force and probably gets his name scratched from the social register. But she abandons her identity in a country that will probably be a lot less likely to forgive her. Symbolically leaving the embrace of both Japanese and American public approval, they defiantly walk away from the reporters and the mob with a curt, “Sayonara.”
Our great lovers leave in a car with their future as vague as the nutty youngsters at the end of The Graduate. Where, I ask, are they going to go, and what kind of life can they have? Gruver’s fellow Southerners will consider his marriage a crime of miscegenation. Poster boy Ace fliers need spotless records to climb the promotion ladder: no Major Lloyd Gruver, Astronaut. But maybe they can invent a better life for themselves outside public society. The picture likely had a positive impact on the American acceptance of mixed marriages. As square as it plays, 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?
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Sayonara is going to make fans of James Michener, Marlon Brando and Franz Waxman very happy. The only previous DVD from 2001 was a mess — a miserable flat letterboxed transfer. The show was filmed in large-format Technirama, which is a sideways-running VistaVision with a squeeze. Normal ‘scope release prints were unusually sharp, with excellent optics — see Night Passage, The Big Country, The Vikings, Zulu. The remastering job is quite beautiful (and far better than the images reproduced here). The 2005 transfer was made from an 8-perf Technirama IP. Director Joshua Logan lets much of the show play out in wide shots, allowing the Japanese locations to do all the work, so the fine HD encoding makes the movie pop. Likewise Brando, Miiko Taka, Patricia Owens and James Garner look great in their close-ups.
Franz Waxman’s romantic score was a big hit in 1957, but the actual title song is from Irving Berlin, who could seemingly create a hit tune in any genre, for any use. Orientalism in the arts hasn’t much of a reputation anymore, with critics sometimes forced to make excuses even for Gilbert & Sullivan. But even with its ersatz Japanese flavor, Berlin’s song is undeniably beautiful, an example of Melody in pop tunes, now extinct. I have not a clue what Japanese viewers might think of the song, the movie, or even Ricardo Montalbán’s role in it, but I doubt they are as critical as I am.
The separation is mild on the original stereo composite, but the Franz Waxman score is as beautiful as ever. The Isolated score is a mono Music & Effects track. An amusing trailer is offered as the other extra. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are educational. They happily support my potentially biased theory that Hollywood didn’t want to deal with foreign actors they couldn’t control, when she reports that Miiko Taka is a Nisei American. Perhaps Sayonara’s message is more important now than ever, considering the re-emergence of outright bigotry in public discourse.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 19, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson