I love it when I get to watch and review older, Oscar-nominated and winning films that time seems to have all but forgotten. Such is the case with director Joshua Logan’s 1957 film, Sayonara. Despite being the recipient of ten Academy Award nominations (winning four for Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, and Best Sound, Recording), and starring legendary actor Marlon Brando, this film seems to have flown under the radar. I remember learning about it and being someone who is interested in watching obscure Oscar films, as well as holding a bit of an interest in Japanese culture (thanks anime….), this movie jumped to the top of my ‘must see’ list.
Sayonara tells the story about a seemingly doomed romance, this time one between an American Air Force major (Marlon Brando) and a Japanese dancer (Miiko Taka) that buds at a time when such romances were heavily denounced and discouraged by both Americans in the army, as well as Japanese tradition.
Brando’s Major Gruver, himself, is against such relationships at first when word gets to him that another soldier, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) plans on marrying a Japanese woman (Miyoshi Umeki). At first he puts his duty to the American armed forces and tries to dissuade Kelly, but soon finds his own devotion start to waver as he grows fond of Hana-Ogi (Taka).
Hana-Ogi starts off with a hatred of Americans due to her father being killed by an American bomb, but soon puts that aside and forgives for the sake of Major Gruver. So Gruver ends up in a very similar situation to Kelly – meeting up with Hana-Ogi in places where they won’t be discovered by those who would punish them for their relationship.
Meanwhile the army does everything that they can to keep their men and the native Japanese girls separated, resulting in heartbreak and, in one particular instance, absolute tragedy. There is also triumph as the races do come together in the final act, whether through love or through defending one side against the attacks perpetrated by one’s own kind.
I often say that sometimes it takes my viewing of a film more than once to fully appreciate it, and Sayonara is no different. Though it is not the perfect movie, and certainly has its share of issues, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.
Brando does a fine job as Major Gruver, though admittedly his accent is strange upon first viewing, I actually felt that it did not mother me quite as much upon repeat viewings. It also doesn’t hurt that he makes his character pretty likable and realistic. Also there is the whole “method” acting that Brando was known for. His character stutters and has pauses at moments you would not expect. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t – but I can see the purpose of it; granting the film and his character a bit more authenticity and less rigidness.
Most of the performances are fine, none stand out as particularly excellent except for, perhaps, Buttons who does a great job playing the lovesick, innocent soldier who is helplessly in love with his sweet wife. Taka and Umeki are good, though I’m not sure if can call Umeki’s performance “Oscar-worthy.” Though I will say that she did a good job with what she was given, and near the end there were a couple scenes where she nailed the role, and made you really feel a deep sorrow for both her character and for Buttons’.
Logan’s direction might be stagey, but he still does a fine job bringing this film to life and providing nice eye-candy. Sayonara is gorgeous, with its colorful palette and beautiful Japanese settings that only add to the overall charm and warmth of the movie. Logan also did a great job handling the dance and theatre sequences, which were breathtaking spectacles of Japanese culture.
I also enjoyed how both sides in the setting were shown to be hostile to the romance that was budding among the characters. The American army was not the only side hostile – so, too, were many Japanese individuals and forces. The idea of keeping the tradition alive is a big reason that Taka was so hesitant to commit to Brando.
Through this, the film raised questions about the worth of duty and tradition. There was the blind loyalty felt by Major Gruver to the military which stemmed from his father. There was the feeling of devotion of tradition felt by Taka’s character, as well as her desire to maintain the honor she has regained for her family name after it was endangered when her father did something almost unspeakable.
The writing, though admittedly not infallible to melodrama and cheesy lines that were so common in films from the time period, was still very engaging and did an admirable job tackling a very serious subject matters without making the film dark and lifeless.
The film’s resolution managed to circumvent cliche for the most part, save for perhaps the very end where Gruver and Hana-Ogi have their Graduate moment of telling off both of their past loyalties before riding off into the sunset on their white horse (or in this case… white car). I will say that it did take turns that I did not expect upon my first viewing. This might have been a happy ending, but there were many bumps and bruises along the way that were somewhat surprising for such a seemingly bright and colorful film. It managed to tread the line between majestic fiction and brutal reality, and I personally felt that the film did a splendid job with it.
Sayonara is, at the end of the day, a very enjoyable (even cozy) film that manages to keep you engaged throughout it’s almost two-and-a-half-hour long runtime. It might be a bit cheesy, but I still recommend it to those who have not yet seen, or even heard, of it.
It is beautifully shot, well-acted, and highly engaging; albeit with a tendency to slip into moments of cheese and sappy sentimentality. Not to mention it was a solid Best Picture nominee that has unfortunately been forgotten, and for that reason alone I feel the need to urge you to check it out.
3.5 out of 5