Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sayonara is technically a soap opera that takes place during the Japanese occupation of Japan, during
the Korean War. A handsome production, it is divided between travelogue banalities and, for its
year of release, a fairly progressive attitude toward the issue of mixed marriage. It also has some
good performances, especially from Marlon Brando, who seems to have been personally interested in the
Air Ace Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando) is yanked from fighter duty over Korea
by General Webster (Kent Smith), to come to Toyko as part of his wife's (Martha Scott)
plan to accelerate his engagement to their daughter Eileen (Patricia Owens), into a quick marriage.
But Lloyd is rather irked by the situation, and interested in the fact that one of his airmen, Joe
Kelly (Red Buttons) is being persecuted by the US Forces for his romance and eventual marriage to
a Japanese woman, Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). Just sympathizing with Kelly earns Lloyd the ire of
the brass, and thanks to the pushy attitude of Eileen's Mother, the engagement falls apart. But Lloyd
finds himself pulled into a relationship with a celebrity performer named Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka).
When it comes to official prejudice, even the clout of a star fighter pilot can't protect Gruver and
his Japanese sweetheart.
My mother took me to Sayonara when I was just five; she didn't go to many movies and must
really have wanted to see this one badly to drag me along with her. Having lived in Tokyo for four years,
she was in a good place to determine whether or not this story of occupation life was
For her, Sayonara was a good romantic drama, but she maintains that although
relationships between American soldiers and Japanese girls were common enough, Major Gruver's
easy access to a 'special' person like Hana-ogi is a little unlikely. And the bizarre casting of
Ricardo Montalban as a Japanese Kabuki actor seemed just as false in 1957 as it does now ... why and
how the actor Nakamura was ever introduced to Eileen Webster, let alone could get close to her emotionally,
takes those sections of the movie over the top. Air Force stuffiness and Japanese formality would
really mitigate against anything like that. Other than that, all she said was that it rained constantly in
Tokyo, and it was cold and muddy. That beautful canal where Red Buttons' (far too lavish) house was,
would have had a horrible stench. No plumbing, you see; just exposed outdoor sewers.
What's remarkable about Sayonara is that a movie even a little bit critical of our occupation
or its policies could be made in 1957, the dead center of the Cold War. The fact that it was from a James
Michener book probably helped some, but showing the chain of command abusing its privileges and
openly harassing the poor G.I. who fraternizes with the locals is rather unique. Just a few years
before, From Here to Eternity had to use a whitewash brush to exonerate the Army from the abuses
charged by author James Jones. Here the only nod to the Air Force is the news at the end that restrictions
on mixed marriages will be eased up.
Shot in Technirama (which is squeezed VistaVision, basically), there are at least 3 too many excursions to
theater presentations, which make for pretty pictures but bog the story down. Although Montalban's
Kabuki spectacles are interesting, the silly girlie show that Hana-ogi is supposed to be the star of, isn't very
impressive, except perhaps to show the occupied Japanese imitating Western Variety theater in such
a pitiful way.
But when the drama is in gear, the show works. Brando's indecisive Major refuses to
take sides, and makes a nice arc from calling Katsumi 'slant-eyed,' to a more sensitive (but less
common) attitude toward Asians. The usually insufferable Red Buttons does a great job and earned
his Academy Award, and Umeki and Taka do fine as the Japanese women (although I still like Shirley
Yamaguchi from Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo better). Kent Smith plays the usual unlikeable
persona he solidified in The Fountainhead, and we tag his General character a thoughtless
dolt from the get-go. It's a shame that this is the most-screened Martha Scott movie; she plays an
Ugly-American shrike of a villainess who isn't even given a first name. Her performance seventeen
years earlier in Sam Wood's film version of Our Town, opposite William Holden, is truly
transcendant, and it's a crime that that movie can't been seen in anything but wretched public
domain tapes. In an even more thankless role is Patricia Owens, who does fine work here but would
see her career drop into nothingness just a year later, after starring in The Fly. 2
Finally, there's there's the pleasure of watching James Garner in an early supporting role,
as self-assured and rugged as ever.
Sayonara ends with the kind of odd cop-out which is emotionally satisfying, but not very logical.
Our lovers sacrifice to be together, but they don't sacrifice equally. Major Gruver defies the Air
Force, and probably gets his name scratched from the social register. Hana-ogi abandons her job, her
identity, and her obligation to a country which will probably be a lot less likely to forgive her.
They defiantly walk away from the reporters and the mob, symbolically
leaving the embrace of both Japanese and American public approval, with a curt, "Sayonara." Sergeant
Kelly and Katsumi took a more committed kind of exit; our stars leave in a car with their future as vague
as the nutty young lovers at the end of The Graduate. Where, I ask, are they going to go, and
what kind of future can they have? Gruver's future with the Air Force is in grave doubt, if only
because the brass will certainly take his actions as disloyal and unbefitting a 'poster boy.' Perhaps
the best thing about Sayonara is that it ends with a U.S. soldier just thumbing his nose at
the whole system and exiting, stage left. I think this picture had a positive impact on the
acceptance of mixed marriages among average Americans.
Originally a Warner's release, Sayonara has found its way to DVD via MGM Home Entertainment
through the Goldwyn collection, and the fact that MGM does not completely control the title
may account for the less-than stellar transfer on view here.
The color and framing are basically good, but the film has not been 16:9 enhanced, and suffers when
compared to other widescreen discs on a large monitor. The 2:35 aspect ratio is appropriate for
Technirama. The stereo sound separation is mild,
but the Franz Waxman score is as beautiful as ever. An amusing trailer is offered as the only
extra. Miiko Taka introduces the trailer and narrates it charmingly. In the movie lots of Japanese
characters speak English well, but not a single Yank is shown speaking Japanese; thanks to the Language
options on this DVD, you can listen to the whole bunch of them speaking in French or Spanish instead!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Good -
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 24, 2001
1. Savant was a Korean war baby,
born in occupied Japan, and in 1957 my parents must have thought the movies were all about our
We lived on Edwards Air Force Base, where exotic jets were tested (some by future Astronauts), where
Hollywood was already a big joke. Warners had just made Bombers B-52, a gung-ho tale about the top
sergeant of the flight line at Edwards, played by Karl Malden. My father
was the top sergeant of the Edwards flight line at the time, so we always pretended the movie was
based on us! Karl Malden spent his off hours looking great in uniform, or wearing a fancy smoking
jacket at his showplace of a home. My dad, on the few hours he wasn't working, could usually
be found dead asleep, and our base 'quarters' were reasonable, but nothing you'd want to aim a camera at.
About the only good thing in the film was that Malden's daughter was played by Natalie Wood. That means
my sister was 'played' by the hottest teenager in Hollywood.
2. Because of its focus on Owens' distraught character, The Fly is about as close as a science-fiction / horror film can come
to being a soap opera, I guess.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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