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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Sayonara (Blu-ray)
Sayonara (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // Unrated // November 14, 2017 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at ]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 4, 2017 | E-mail the Author
DVD Talk Collector Series
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Previously available on DVD as a subpar, flat letterboxed release, Twilight Time's new Blu-ray of Sayonara (1957) benefits enormously from its high-def transfer. Filmed in 8-perf horizontal Technirama, Sayonara's large frame negative allowed for super-sharp prints (and, later home video releases), as the process would again for movies like The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960), Zulu (1964). In Sayonara's case, the new transfer not only makes this filmed-in-Japan production's travelogue aspects shine, but it also does a far better job bringing out the subtleties of star Marlon Brando's understated performance, which was impossible to fully appreciate on the DVD version.

The movie, adapted from James Michener's 1954 novel of the same name, is also much more adult, complex, and realistic compared to other Hollywood movies of that era about interracial romance. Further, Sayonara gets Japan right better than other western-world movies filmed there.

During the Korean War, Maj. Lloyd "Ace" Gruver (Brando) is a celebrated pilot in the USAF, the son of a General, and betrothed to Eileen Webster (Patricia Owens), the beautiful daughter of another (Kent Smith). Though popular with his men and effective in combat, shooting down Soviet MIGs, Eileen's father pulls strings to have Gruver reassigned to a desk job at the Itami Air Force Base in Japan.

There he's asked to intercede when an airman from his unit, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons), prepares to marry Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki), an indigenous Japanese. The U.S. Armed Forces steadfastly opposes to marriage by its servicemen to Japanese women, and Gruver initially tries to talk Kelly out of marriage to a "slant-eyed runt." Kelly, however, is obviously in love and determined to marry Katsumi no matter what, so Gruver finally agrees to Kelly's request to serve as Best Man.

Gruver, meanwhile, is confused and dissatisfied by the strings Eileen's family has pulled and their pushiness about the young couple getting married. Instead, accompanied by new friend Capt. Mike Bailey (James Garner), a Marine, Gruver becomes enamored of postwar Japan and its myriad strange and unfamiliar but pleasing customs. Together they visit a performance of the all-girl Matsubayashi theater revue (actually the Shochiku Kagekidan Girls Revue), where Bailey's Japanese girlfriend dances. Gruver is immediately drawn to the show's star, the multi-talented Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka). However, none of the Matsubayashi girls are allowed to date, and Hana-ogi is disinclined anyway since it was American soldiers who killed most of her family during the last war.

Sayonara is that rarest of birds: a big, splashy mainstream Hollywood romantic drama that also happens to be an extraordinarily sophisticated, intelligent and forward-thinking movie about contemporary racial issues. Except for one minor character, there are no real villains in the film. Even Eileen, whom Gruver embarrasses by throwing her over for Hana-ogi, is sympathetic to her ex-boyfriend's plight, especially as she, too, is similarly mesmerized by fairy tale Japan. (A largely extraneous subplot concerns her friendship with Kabuki star Nakamura, played not badly by Mexican Ricardo Montalban, and his romantic attraction toward her. All's fair: within a few years Japanese stars Toshiro Mifune and Joe Shishido would be playing Mexicans in movies shot there.)

Rather, at a time when Hollywood, especially in the wake of the anticommunist Blacklist, was aggressively pro-U.S. military, Sayonara is openly critical of policies determined to tear servicemen from their Japanese wives (and biracial children), refusing to acknowledge legal marriages there and, motivated in part by simple bigotry, was almost sadistic glee seemed eager to split up new families by reassigning man-who-dared to stateside camps.

Gruver is a smartly conceived character beautifully realized by Brando. His attitudes early in the film are like any ordinary American. After all, less than ten years before American propaganda depicted the entirety of the Japanese people as subhuman, akin to cockroaches and rats, a strategy wholly different from wartime attitudes toward Germans (with propaganda limited to Germany's leaders rather than the general population). Gruver is a complex character, a man whose entire future has been mapped out by others, vaguely dissatisfied with the arrangement but uncertain what to do about it. Kelly and Bailey introduce him to various aspects of Japanese life, much of which he finds strange but also strangely pleasing. The cruel policies of the Armed Forces confuse him, especially since he's been unfailingly loyal to the Service that, up till now, has looked after him so well.

Brando's southern accent is a distraction at first, but it's an authentic-sounding one and underscores the character's unpretentious innocence. Red Buttons, a huge star of early television before his ego self-destructed his career for a time, made a huge comeback with the film, winning an Academy Award, as did Miyoshi Umeki, a Japan-born singer, who is quite adorable. Miiko Taka is less memorable, though she's burdened with one of the picture's few flaws, a presentation of Japanese woman-as-porcelain doll. In the film she's never seen in everyday fashions of the period, which were heavily influenced by Audrey Hepburn's wardrobe in Roman Holiday. Except for her Matsubayashi costumes, her appearance is over-emphatically glamorized, dressed in brightly colored kimono. The Japanese stage show is visually dazzling and authentic, it being a less successful rival to the more popular and long-lasting Takarazuka, but obviously footage of Taka is inserted for no other reason than to show off a wearying parade of colorful costumes.

Hollywood's usual route during the ‘50s of movies with overseas settings was to film a limited portion of the picture on location while the bulk of it, particularly interiors, were recreated on stateside soundstages. In movies like Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955) this is pretty obvious because the interior set design gets all the details wrong. But the team led by Ted Haworth and Robert Priestly must have imported scads of Japanese carpenters and designers along with the raw materials, because the integration of Hollywood sets and Japanese locations is nearly imperceptible.

Beyond the beauty of Japan that director Joshua Logan's Technirama camera captures, the movie also records an early postwar Japan largely vanished forever. I was, for instance, startled by the Kyoto location used for the area around Kelly and Katsumi's house. Able to pinpoint the intersection, I checked the site on Google Maps' Street View and was disappointed to find it changed utterly, its quaint charm completely lost to rows of utilitarian modern housing.

Video & Audio

Twilight Time region-free release, limited to 3,000 units, is licensed from MGM/Fox despite originally being a Warner Bros. release. (Presumably rights reverted to Joshua Logan and/or James Michener at some point.) The transfer from original Technirama elements really pops: the textures of the Japanese and military costumes, the Japanese architecture and gardens, the brief glimpses of military hardware and Japanese taxicabs all look great, and the performances, particularly those of Brando, Garner, and Buttons, come off infinitely better. The 2.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio is limited in its directionality but add enormous oomph to Franz Waxman's score, a mixture of "Oriental" clichés and effective cues, particularly with regards to Buttons's and Umeki's characters. Optional English subtitles are included.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to a trailer highlighting new face Miiko Taka in original footage, an isolated music and effects track, and Julie Kirgo's liner notes.

Parting Thoughts

A near-great film that looks fantastic, Sayonara is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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