Sayonara (Joshua Logan, 1957)


Marlon Brando (Lloyd Gruver), Red Buttons (Joe Kelly), Miyoshi Umeki (Katsumi), Miiko Taka (Hana-ogi). Written by Paul Osborn. Directed by Joshua Logan. Rating: PG. Running time: 147 minutes.

Try not to fall in love with Japanese girls, especially if you’re a military man during the Korean War. That’s the message of Sayonara. Anyone that fails to heed that advice will no doubt crumble under the impact of social condemnation, and legal restrictions on taking one’s woman back to the US. First it’s Lloyd Gruver’s friend, Joe Kelly, who falls for an Oriental and becomes and outlaw in deciding to live out there permanently. Then Gruver himself (played, as always, perfectly by Marlon Brando) follows suit and rejects the elite path of marrying the General’s beautiful daughter laid out for him.

Sayonara is a strange one if it tries to incite sympathy. Kelly’s relationship is almost given to us from the start without any development, and when with his wife Katsumi the language barrier means they barely communicate, and when they do it’s banterless. Similarly, Gruver takes an eye for Hana-ogi on the basis of her looks, and seemingly after one 5 minute conversation they kiss like they’ve been building up to romance for years. It’s hard to feel for a relationship that flourishes on such futile foundations, even if both of its stars are real sweet lookers.

All this implies Sayonara’s not supposed to be primarily about the love affairs, though the dramatic music employed in its mildly romantic moments makes one question whether that’s the case. It’s probably better viewed as a direct attack on cultural intolerance, and an exploration of East-West encounters. The lack of lovey-dovey moments does indeed make room for a lot of scenes showing the military control and manipulation over the soldiers’ lives. Most that defied convention by marrying a Japanese woman were often shifted to another war station, in the sole attempt of breaking up the relationship. And a naive exploration of Japanese culture this is not. As the ending titles emphasise, Sayonara was indeed shot in Japan, and plenty of screen time is dedicated to their versions of theatre, food and custom.

It’s well acted, to say the least, even if the characters are difficult to fully grasp; and as a documentation of an era’s attitude Sayonara succeeds and shows Japan well. Only as a romance does it fall terribly short, and one can only hope that making the film of this nature was not the director’s prime aim.

One Response to “Sayonara (Joshua Logan, 1957)”

  1. 1 Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) « jacob williamson | thoughts on film

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