Filmsite Movie Review
Sayonara (1957)
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Sayonara (1957) is director Joshua Logan's romantic-drama set in the early 1950s about the issue of American soldiers serving in Japan during the Korean War (1950-1953), who became romantically involved with indigenous Japanese natives. The ramifications of their cross-cultural romances were troubling to the military, with some prevailing racist and prejudicial attitudes. The main theme of the colorful film was about the unjust US policy of disallowing US servicemen from fraternizing with Japanese females and taking Japanese brides, when the practice was so commonplace by the mid-1950s. In the year 1956, more than 10,000 American servicemen had defied regulations and married Japanese women.

The film's tagline was derived from dialogue in the film:

"I am not allowed to love. But I will love you if that is your desire..." This is Marlon Brando and an exquisite new Japanese star. They LIVE James A. Michener's story of defiant desire. It is called "Sayonara."

The script for Sayonara (meaning "goodbye") was based upon James Michener's best-selling novel Sayonara published in 1954, and serialized earlier by McCalls Magazine (from October to December 1953). Between the time of the story's serialization and the 1957 filmed version, the McCarran-Walter Act (1952) declared that Japanese wives of US servicement would be allowed into the US. The change in policy (and the frequency of inter-racial relationships) necessitated that the ending of the film diverge from Michener's novel.

The novel's ending included the double-suicide of two star-crossed lovers (similar to Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet tale, and a modified version of the "Madame Butterfly" plot) - an enlisted man and his Japanese bride (Buttons and Umeki), and the termination of the close romance between an AF Major (Brando) and his Japanese girlfriend. However, in the conclusion of the film, after the double-suicide, the AF Major and his girlfriend were determined to proceed with their forbidden (and true) love despite the consequences.

Many have commented about the movie industry's common early practice of "white-washing" - in other words, to use Caucasians to inappropriately play the roles of Asians (a practice specifically known as "yellowface"). In this film, Mexican-born actor Ricardo Montalban was cast as Kabuki actor Mr. Nakamura. Other prominent examples in cinematic history included:

  • Warner Oland in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) (and other Chan movies)
  • Luise Rainer and Paul Muni in The Good Earth (1937)
  • H.B. Warner in Lost Horizon (1937)
  • Peter Lorre in the Mr. Moto series of films (1937-1939)
  • Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940)
  • Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston in Dragon Seed (1944)
  • Jennifer Jones in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)
  • John Wayne in The Conqueror (1956)
  • Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)
  • Robert Donat and German actor Curt Juergens in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)
  • Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

The Warner Bros. film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and won four, including two performance Oscars: Red Buttons (for Best Supporting Actor), and Japanese-American singer Miyoshi Umeki (in her debut film performance) (for Best Supporting Actress), plus awards for Best Art Direction and Best Sound Recording. Miyoshi Umeki became the first East Asian-American woman to win an Academy Award for acting. The beautiful cinematography (in Technirama) by Ellsworth Fredericks was shot on-location in Japan (mostly in Kyoto), providing gorgeous, stereotypical views of Japanese standards, such as kabuki, geisha, the tea ceremony, paper-walled houses and zen gardens.

Plot Synopsis

Major Gruver's Japanese Mission - To Dissuade Airman Kelly's Intercultural Romance:

As the lengthy film opened during the Korean War in 1951, West-Point educated Air Force Major Lloyd "Ace" Gruver (Marlon Brando) from Richmond, Virginia, with a slurred southern accent, was being ordered to be transferred from the warfront in Korea (due to the excuse of "combat fatigue") and redeployed and stationed at a Japanese air base in Kobe. He was being sent there specifically by General Webster (Kent Smith), the father of Gruver's own red-headed American fiancee Eileen (Patricia Owens) from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Major Gruver's task would be to confront the issue of soldiers becoming romantically involved with Japanese women in post-war Japan, in defiance of US military policy. He was a staunch supporter of the military's opposition to mixed, multi-cultural marriages. There were also problems regarding US racial prejudice against the Japanese people.

In particular, the bigoted Major was being deployed to dissuade his subordinate friend - a junior officer and enlisted Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons), from marrying a Japanese "native" woman, Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). Punishment for such an offense (an unapproved marriage) at the time was court-martial, although it wasn't against the law, and Kelly was given special permission to proceed by his Congressman. In his office, Kelly joked with Gruver about his predicament:

Kelly: Chaplain says, "Don't marry the girl." Colonel says, "Don't marry the girl." You say, "Don't marry the girl." Congressman says, "You marry that girl, Kelly." What can l do?
Gruver: l'll tell you what you can do, boy. You can go home and marry your congressman. You'd be better off.

Major Gruver's redeployment would make it personally more convenient for his impending marriage to General Webster's daughter, whom Gruver described as a pure "American girl": "She is, first of all, an American girl, a girl with fine character, a girl with good background, good education, good family, good blood." He kept implying that one should marry a person of similar background. He showed off a pin-up posed image of Eileen in a bathing suit, to which Kelly affirmed: "She sure does something wicked to a bathing suit." Gruver agreed: "She has an enormous capacity to fulfill a bathing suit." Gruver attempted to discourage Kelly from risking marriage to his sweetheart Katsumi: ("Don't you think you're taking a risk in marrying this Japanese girl?"). Kelly responded: "Risks don't scare me any. Look, Major, the Army, and the Air Force, and the State Department have all ganged up to keep me from getting married." Kelly pulled out propagandistic, anti-fraternization pamphlets, with titles such as:

  • Think It Over, Americans
  • Things You are Required to Know and Do Before Marrying Orientals
  • But Will Your Family Accept It?

Kelly's marriage would mean he would be prohibited from taking his foreign-born wife to the US. Gruver stressed that Kelly's love for a Japanese girl would be his downfall, especially if he renounced his US citizenship, but his attempts to persuade Kelly rang hollow and turned insulting - with the use of a disgusting racial slur. The "love-crazy" Kelly vehemently rejected his suggestions:

Lloyd: Listen, Kelly, l haven't got anything against this girl of yours. I haven't got anything against the Japanese anymore. I mean, not really. But, uh, you know, when - I-I just don't understand how a normal, average American, I mean, let's, let's put it this way. I think even your friends are gonna put you down if you marry this girl.
Kelly: If the friends I got are that kind, they won't be friends of mine much longer. Look, Major, I'm gonna marry my girl if I have to give up my American citizenship to do it.
Lloyd: Oh, Kelly, you stupid ignorant slob! I mean, go ahead and marry this, uh, slant-eyed runt if you want to. It'll serve you right.
Kelly: Now wait a minute, Major. Don't talk to me that way! I won't take that from you or anybody else!

Once they had arrived at the Itami Air Base in Kobe, Major Lloyd reluctantly agreed to serve as 'Best Man' and as a witness at Kelly's and Katsumi's marriage, at the Consul's Office on the following Saturday, even though he objected to their marriage.

Major Lloyd's Own Doubts About Marrying the General's Daughter Eileen:

Major Gruver was met at the plane at the airbase in Kobe by General and Mrs. Webster (Kent Smith and Martha Scott), Eileen's parents, and to his surprise, Eileen was sitting in their car to greet him. They drove together to the Officer's Club, and when they arrived, they noticed an altercation in progress. Marine Corps Captain Mike Bailey (James Garner), accompanied by pretty Japanese national Fumiko (Reiko Kuba), one of Japan's most famous dancers, was being denied entrance to the exclusive "Americans-only" club - the situation was an example of "out-and-out fraternization" that had been outlawed by the US military. The dancer was humiliated and treated with disapproval and disrespect, especially by Mrs. Webster who remarked offensively and loudly: "What's she doing here?" Captain Bailey and Fumiko were forced to leave the premises.

Lloyd's own doubts about his future marriage with Eileen grew more intense after their attendance at the all-male Kabuki Theater later that evening for a play "about a lady who turns into a lion." The lead actor, Mr. Nakamura (Ricardo Montalbán), had invited Eileen and Lloyd to attend. After the show, they visited with their host Nakamura in his dressing room, where Lloyd admitted bluntly that the show needed the presence of a "Marilyn Monroe" character.

[Note: By the time of the 1957 film, Marilyn Monroe was a well-known actress and sexy bombshell, but in the film's time frame of 1951, she was only a bit player and little-known.]

Major Gruver and Eileen visited an open-air restaurant, and after their meal, they strolled into the nearby garden to discuss their upcoming marriage. Her first question to him was: "Why aren't we married now?...Do l mean everything to you, as you do to me?" They argued about their love for each other and the fulfillment of each other's expectations. He was having serious difficulties in his unstable relationship with Eileen, who stated that she wasn't sure of how her life would be with a military man, since both had grown up with Army backgrounds. She feared that he would become like his father, a four-star general neglectful of his mother, and she didn't want to be married to him based on personal status alone, rather than for true passionate love:

Eileen: No woman wants to live any way except body and soul with the man she loves. Lloyd, you'll never tuck me away in the corner of some little town. Go ahead and become the greatest general in Air Force history, but love me, too.
Lloyd: But I do love you, baby, I do.
Eileen: Well, I guess all I'm trying to say is that, and I really mean this, Lloyd. If what you want is a family, like our fathers have, and promotion in the Air Force, and position in society like our mothers have, and you marry me because I'm pretty and smart, and have guts and will know the ropes, then I don't think you ought to marry me, Lloyd...

Having lived a life of discipline, with responsibilities and an important position to fulfill, he called her worries "nonsense." He claimed he had always wanted to marry a girl someone like her:

I want a wife and a family. I want a home in America. And every time I think of havin' a home like that, I always think about it with a girl like you. I mean, a girl with a good Army background like my own.

She refused to accept his demeaning characterization of her foolish thoughts, and begged for his love: "What do you mean 'a girl like me'? I'm not a type. I'm me. Oh Lloyd, it's me you've got to love. Oh Lloyd, haven't you ever felt like, like grabbing me and hauling me off to a shack somewhere?...Then what's holding you back?" He objected to her wish for loving spontaneity: "Are you ever gonna grow up, honey? Don't you know there's a right time and a wrong time to do things? Aren't you ever gonna realize that you have responsibilities to other people? That you have a position to fulfill, that you're not alone in this world?" She accused him of hiding his emotions behind a personal "fort", but he defended himself:

Lloyd: You gotta understand one thing, that I'm not in a position to be haulin' my fiance away to a shack somewhere like a alley cat or something like that. I wasn't brought up that way.
Eileen: You're going to do everything that's expected of you?
Lloyd: I'm certainly gonna try, I'll tell ya that.
Eileen: Well, I don't expect you to marry me just because it's expected of you.
Lloyd: Listen, you know sometimes, I look at you, and I don't understand you. I don't know what's going on in your brain. I think sometimes I don't even know who ya are or what you're all about.
Eileen: Maybe you don't. Maybe you never will.

While trying to convince Kelly to quit his affair, the Major's own personal beliefs (and his engagement to Eileen) were also being challenged. Their argument was the beginning of the disintegration of their relationship.

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