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Sayonara

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Nov 28, 2017
Sayonara

The 1957 Marlon Brando-starring film version of James Michener's novel "Sayonara" is alternately a charming and disheartening work, with more than a few moments that will provoke uncomfortable chuckles of disbelief.

Brando is in fine form as "Ace" Gruver, a combat pilot in the Korean war with an impressive kill count. Gruver is the son of a four-star general; he's idolized by his men; what he says counts to the guys with whom he serves, and for this reason he's asked to dissuade his pal Joe (Red Buttons, in his first film role) from marrying a Japanese national named Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). When Joe makes it plain that nothing Gruver or anyone else has to say will stop him marrying the woman he loves, Gruver -- himself affianced to the daughter of a general -- agrees to serve as best man at Joe's wedding.

The law at the time allows servicemen to marry Japanese women, even if social attitudes in both countries are largely against such unions. In a fine twist, when Eileen (Patricia Owens), Gruver's fiancee, voices reservations about marrying a career soldier, Gruver more or less drops her on the spot -- and promptly fixes on Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka), a beautiful and glamorous star from the acclaimed Matsubayashi revue troupe, an all-woman company that is almost a microcosm unto itself (and, acting like one, forbids its members romantic relationships of any kind). At the same time, Gruver makes friends with a tough-as-nails Marine need Captain Bailey (James Garner), who himself has been slipping around with another Matubayashi member.

Things are rosy for a while, as Gruver and Hana-Ogi make themselves at home in Joe and Katsumi's house, an oasis where both couples can escape the judgment of their fellow Americans and enjoy their time in Tokyo together with their respective significant others. (As a living arrangement, the foursome presents sadly unexplored possibilities -- ah well, this was 1957, after all.) But their bliss is short-lived: Col. Crawford (Douglass Watson), an officious (and presumably racist) commanding officer, sets out to punish Joe and Gruver, issuing an order that makes it a court martial-level offense for American servicemen to be seen in public with Japanese women. Adding injury to insult, Crawford then reassigns Joe to a Stateside posting where, by law, he is prevented from bringing his wife along. Finally, Crawford declares Joe's house off-limits -- even to Joe.

As social commentary, "Sayonara" was forward-looking and remains a moving story about the personal costs that accompany social and legal attempts to control who loves and marries whom. As a product of its time, however, the film is rife with the very racism it denounces, along with a healthy dose of sexism. The Irving Berlin-written theme song boasts cringe-inducing lyrics written in faux pigeon English, while the casting of Ricardo Montalban (!) in the role of a famed Kabuki actor named Nakamura (!!) leaves one in a state that falls between uproarious laugher and shocked embarrassment. (Almost worse is the way Nakamura's story thread is dropped after it begins to parallel those of Gruver and Joe, with Eileen seemingly headed toward a multi-national marriage of her own.)

Julie Kirgo's liner notes essay provides some fascinating background to the movie, including the fun fact that director Joshua Logan toyed with making a musical out of the project. Luckily, he shelved that idea -- though he did allow Brando to follow his instincts and play Gruver as a Southern man, resulting in a proto-mumblecore performance that has a music of its own.

Other than the booklet essay and Twilight Time's signature isolated score track (which showcases Franz Waxman's film music), this Blu-ray edition offers no extras. But nothing more is needed: This complex, if dated, film looks wonderful on its 1080 hi-def transfer, and its core message about love being love shines through its hapless, vintage prejudices.


"Sayonara"
Blu-ray
$29.95
https://www.twilighttimemovies.com/sayonara-blu-ray

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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