Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films: SAYONARA starring Marlon Brando, Red Buttons, Myoshi Umeki, Miiko Taka and Ricardo Montalban

Today is Overlooked or Forgotten Movie Day and sometimes reality intrudes and you gotta' go with it so I offer apologies for the lateness of my post. Shame on me. And on a day with such romantic implications, too. But, late being ever so much better than never, here's my review of a wonderfully romantic film you might not have seen. Oh, and don't forget to check out the rest of the Overlooked Films other bloggers are talking about today over at Todd Mason's blog, SWEET FREEDOM.

SAYONARA is a 1957 film based on a book by James Michener (with a different ending) and turned into a luxurious, if  occasionally brittle, romantic film of forbidden love. It is set in Occupied Japan after WWII when the American occupying force did their stiff-necked best to hamper romantic happy endings. Fraternization was frowned upon and rules against marriages between Japanese women and American men were strictly, and often, cruelly enforced. The marriages if they did manage to take place, went unrecognized.

Lavishly directed in splashy Technicolor by Joshua Logan, the screenplay by Paul Osborn - based on Michener's book - is not afraid to tackle the themes of racism and prejudice. It is all remarkably well done considering the 1957 date and of course, everyone looks wonderful.

The only sour note, expressed by many, is the casting of Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura, a Japanese Kabuki performer. In truth he is quite good, so it's hard to quibble with the film-maker's choice to go this route. There is something about Montalban's quiet dignity and seething sexuality which I find intriguing. His scenes with Patricia Owens are wonderful for what lies beneath the surface of their seemingly banal conversation. I love the moment in the film when he removes his Kabuki make-up while Owens watches. (If I'm remembering correctly.)

But I'm probably in the minority in this view.

The Plot:

Marlon Brando plays Air Force Major Lloyd 'Ace' Gruver, recently transferred to Kobe, Japan at the urging of his almost-fiance, Eileen Webster (Patricia Owens) who happens to be the daughter of the commanding officer in the district.

Gruver, a good soldier and an easy going, confident sort, is himself opposed to interracial marriage - Brando sports a Southern accent which adds background intrigue to his character, a West Point graduate.

In Kobe, Gruver meets up with an old friend, Airman Kelly played by Red Buttons in an Academy Award winning performance. Kelly has met and fallen in love with Katsumi, played by the
gloriously understated and charming, Miyoshi Umeki - in her Academy Award winning performance. Despite prejudice and draconian Army rules and regulations, Kelly and Katsumi plan to marry.

Gruver tries to talk him out of it, but when he meets Katsumi for the first time (the way Brando says 'Katsumi' in his Southern accent is just, dare I say it? - adorable) he realizes why Kelly is so devoted to her - she is gentle charm personified.

When it's obvious he can't dissuade the couple, Gruver tries to smooth troubled waters as he realizes that Kelly is being given every dirty duty his commanding officer can find to discourage Kelly and keep him from his heart's desire.

One evening at the theater, Guver catches a glimpse of the spectacularly elegant, Hana-ogi, the star of the Takarazuka-like company of dancers and singers. It is another ritualized sort of theater presentation with women playing all the parts in the different skits, including the men. The women who perform live in a kind of encampment, a dormitory of sorts - kept as much as possible from socialization with not only the occupying army, but Japanese men as well. They are forbidden to marry.

Gruver is determined to meet this beautiful mysterious woman and breaks several rules to do so, despite the fact that Eillen Webster is waiting none too patiently back at headquarters, for an official proposal of marriage.

Along the way, Gruver meets Captain Bailey (James Garner), a guy with a much more relaxed attitude towards the local womanly flora. He tells Gruver that Hana-Ogi is forbidden fruit.

But Gruver is undeterred, he's not used to being told 'no', and finally Hana-Ogi succumbs to his somewhat wayward charm and perseverance. They arrange to meet in Kelly and Katsumi's small home near the river.

Gruver and Hana-Ogi's love affair is just beginning - for that's all that Gruver plans since she tells him from the first that it will be nothing more, it can be nothing more. She would be disgraced if it were found out she had been seeing any man, but especially an American. He, only too clearly, knows the rules he's breaking as well. But he has no plans to fall in love.

In the meantime, Kelly is given orders to fly state-side. He is being sent 'home' to America. Needless to say he doesn't want to go, his 'home' is with his wife, Katsumi. But she is eligible to go with him. It is a cruel enforcement of the rules by Kelly's superiors especially when we learn that Katsumi is pregnant. Gruver pleads with the General to bend the rules. But to no avail. They would callously force Kelly to abandon his wife and child. Orders are orders.

But of course, there's no accounting for the human heart. These orders lead to one of the saddest and most powerfully moving scenes I've ever watched in any film.


SAYONARA has everything you could hope for in a love story: excellent performances (Brando too was nominated for an Oscar), passionate love scenes, drama, desperation, conflict, and heartbreaking tragedy. It also has beautiful scenery, a good soundtrack and when all else fails (which it hardly does) handsome men and beautiful women in an exotic locale.

Not much more to look for in a romantic drama.

If you wish to see the  (kind of corny) SAYONARA trailer, please use this link.


  1. I've managed not to see this yet, over the years...my irritation with that other early Michener, TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC, might well've been part of the problem, but also this one hasn't gotten as much exposure as many films with similar casting...probably in part because of the casting of Montalban as Japanese.

  2. The beauty and tragedy of the B story (Buttons, Umeki Miyoshi) was the part of the film I focused on.

    Can you believe she i the 1st and only person of East Asian ancestry to win an Oscar? Wow!

  3. I might have seen this film but can't really remember. So Marlon Brando, eh. Think he's been too hyped as an actor, Yvette? I've had friends who used to go "Watch this! Marlon Brando's in it!" I admit I haven't seen too many of his films but I have watched GODFATHER a number of times.

  4. Since this has James Garner (and Ricardo Montalban) I shouldn't have a hard time getting Paul to watch this one with me! I can't believe I'd never heard of it.

  5. Todd: For it's time, this is a pretty good film and showcases the prejudices and racial tension of that era in that place. I have good memories of it. Plus I have to say that it is still a very moving film.

    It has a different ending than the book but I'll tell you - the movie ending is quite the better one.

  6. iluvcinema: Hard to believe, I know. But she was so perfect for her role. You just all in love with her.

    I agree that the Red Buttons/Myoshi Umeki love story grabs you and doesn't let go.

    I remember watching the Oscars and I was so thrilled for them both.

  7. Prashant: Oh, his early films are the ones I like best. I've never seen THE GODFATHER and have no plans to. I don't like movies that glorify gangsters. Not for me.

    I don't think it's possible to over-hype the early Brando. He really was an incredibly fine actor.

  8. Lauren: It really is a 'forgotten' film. Possibly because it might make people uneasy.

    But I think it's worth seeing for the terrific performances of all involved.

    It is definitely a love story, though. Don't know how your husband will feel about that. HA!

  9. I saw this in the theatre when I was little. If it came out in 1957, then I was nine! What were my parents thinking?!

  10. Just saw your note about the Godfather. It doesn't glorify at all. One of the best movies I've ever seen, in combination with G2. There is nothing admirable about these guys. Now, if you want a comedy about a former gangster, you might enjoy Steven Van Zandt in Lilyhammer on Netflix Instant. Oh, my it is so, so good. I wish you lived closer. It would be such fun to watch movies together!

  11. Ha! Maybe you fell asleep? :)

    I'm just not that interested in watching films about gangsters. To me they are just not very interesting people. I know I'm in the minority.

    At any rate, I wish you lived closer too. Very few people have my taste in movies so even as a kid I often found myself going alone. We don't agree on everything, but we do agree on most, I think. :)

    I didn't realize there was a series on Netflix....I'll have to take a look. Thanks for letting me know.

  12. The story line sounds very similar to Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly"!

  13. They aren't my faves by any means! In fact, I had to give up on the Sopranos. I simply could not bear the attitude/violence toward women. But Lilyhammer is a whole different thing. I'm quite sure you will like it, Yvette. More here:


  14. It was a good film. I was never crazy about Brando. I am more a Walter Pigeion gal. Old teheee..
    Oh an Tyron Power too.


  15. Well, not really, Pat. But I don't want to say anymore for fear of giving away a major plot point.

    I think you would enjoy this movie. :)

  16. Thanks, Nan. I'll check it out. :)

  17. Yvonne: I liked Walter Pidgeon when he was younger and not so stuffy seeming. I also liked Tyrone Power as ZORRO and in the pirate movie. :)

  18. Hi Yvette, real blast from the past. It is faintly hilarious that this is the film Brando made directly after "The Teahouse of the August Moon" - what a strange double bill that would make ... I remember liking the book and thinking that it was more adult than I thought it would be - but I was probably 17 at the time so it may have just compared favourably with Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming!

  19. Hi Yvette, real blast from the past. It is faintly hilarious that this is the film Brando made directly after "The Teahouse of the August Moon" - what a strange double bill that would make ... I remember liking the book and thinking that it was more adult than I thought it would be - but I was probably 17 at the time so it may have just compared favourably with Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming!

  20. Sergio, I did wonder when TEAHOUSE came out. Yes, this would be a strange double bill, indeed. :)

    But I give Brando credit for being unafraid to try.

    I hated the book's ending though.

    I prefer the film and the touching performances of Red Buttons and Myoshi Umeki.


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