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SAYONARA (director: Joshua Logan; screenwriters: Paul Osborn/based on the novel by James Michener; cinematographer: Ellsworth Fredericks; editors: Arthur Schmidt/Philip W. Anderson; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Marlon Brando (Major Gruver), Miiko Taka (Hana-ogi), Red Buttons (Airman Joe Kelly), Miyoshi Umeki (Katsumi), Patricia Owens (Eileen Webster), Kent Smith (General Webster), Martha Scott (Mrs. Webster), Ricardo Montalban (Kabuki actor), James Garner (Capt. Mike Bailey, USMC); Runtime: 147; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Goetz; Warner Brothers; 1957)
“The main plot points have become dated over time, nevertheless the action still feels sincere.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Joshua Logan and writer Paul Osborn adapt to film James Michener’s best-seller novel about forbidden love in post-war Japan. It offers a call for racial tolerance to counter the bigoted military’s policy of trying to discourage marriages between American servicemen and Japanese women. The main plot points have become dated over time, nevertheless the action still feels sincere. This modern version of the opera Madame Butterfly is beautifully photographed by Ellsworth Fredericks and looks at times like a travelogue.

Ace air force pilot during the Korean War in 1951, Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando), an old-fashioned southerner whose father is a four-star general, is transferred to Kobe, Japan, to a desk job under command of his father’s friend–three-star general Webster (Kent Smith). Their daughter Eileen (Patricia Owens) is engaged to Lloyd and is itching to marry him. She arrives at the Japanese military base from her hometown of Tulsa to surprise him. But there’s a surprising disconnect, as Lloyd respects her but doesn’t love the beautiful woman.

Lloyd is reluctantly best man at Airman Joe Kelly’s (Red Buttons) marriage to Katsumi, a local Japanese woman, after failing to talk him out of the marriage. This act gets him a reprimand from General Webster for going against company policy; the marriage was arranged by Kelly’s Congressman after the military brass tried to stop it. We learn that there are 10,000 such marriages, despite the military’s best efforts to stop them.

The heart of the narrative is when ‘good ol’ boy’ Lloyd falls for a beautiful Japanese actress-dancer Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka), from the renown all-women Matsubayashi company, and has to wrestle with his own racial prejudices and upsetting the military brass. He soon finds himself in love and is willing to go against his former racial beliefs to stand up for what he believes is right in a humanistic sense despite the repercussions. When the desperate Kelly and Katsumi commit suicide rather than face being separated by his military transfer, Lloyd realizes that he must marry Hana-ogi and live out his life as best as he can despite the obstacles placed in his way by the West Pointer’s beloved military.

Brando is less ‘method actor’ than serious stage actor, giving his role the kind of honest intensity it deserved. Buttons, in his first major role gives his best film performance ever, going on to win Best Supporting Actor with this heartfelt performance. Ricardo Montalban convinces as a Kabuki actor in drag who mouths the film’s liberal pieties.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”