A measuredly-paced look at interracial romantic entanglements amid the bigotry of the post-World War II era in Japan, Joshua Logan’s Sayonara captures both the comic and tragic sides of the story spread among six or seven major characters in a beautifully filmed and thoughtfully mounted production.
The Production: 4/5
A measuredly-paced look at interracial romantic entanglements amid the bigotry of the post-World War II era in Japan, Joshua Logan’s Sayonara captures both the comic and tragic sides of the story spread among six or seven major characters in a beautifully filmed and thoughtfully mounted production. With sensitive performances and breathtaking location photography, Sayonara still makes a most vivid impression even sixty years after the fact.
Stationed in Japan during the Korean War, U.S. Air Force Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) is engaged to his longtime sweetheart Eileen Webster (Patricia Owens), the daughter of his commanding officer General Webster (Kent Smith), but upon redeployment to Japan falls for the beautiful Japanese actress Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka). However, he is hesitant to pursue the relationship due to the unfortunate example of his crew chief Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons). Kelly, against official military advice and the prejudices of his commanding officers, married a Japanese woman, Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki), and his military career has suffered ever since, and the military seems to be clamping down on interracial marriages even harder as the Korean War intensifies.
Paul Osborn’s screenplay brings forth much of the local color and the mutual prejudices of both Americans and Japanese to interracial relationships found in James Michener’s best seller, and director Joshua Logan takes it the rest of the way using his very wide screen canvas to investigate not only the two on-going love stories which he paces very slowly and deliberately in an Occidental fashion but also to set forth lots of the sights and sounds of Japan, particularly Kabuki and Shochiku theater troupes and traditional Japanese domestic customs. Not only does Logan use the theatrical prosceniums to stretch from one end of the frame to the other, but he’s fond of using other landscapes (bridges, elongated hallways) to traverse the widescreen. He also gives Miiko Taka’s Hana-ogi a breathtaking screen introduction in an expressive montage of the dancing actress in a series of elaborate costumes and stage settings as Marlon Brando’s Major Gruver (along with the viewer) becomes smitten with her varied looks and mannerisms. There are some minor stumbles along the way: Major Gruver comments to the leading male actress Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban) that the Kabuki theater with its all-male cast could have used a “Marilyn Monroe” for variety’s sake though in 1951, Monroe was hardly a household name that an American much less a Japanese would have been familiar with (Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth would have been better choices). And the two mixed-raced couples attending a puppet show where the play involved a ritual suicide among lovers refusing to be parted from one another is a bit too coincidentally on-the-nose for comfort.
Marlon Brando effects a drawly Southern accent that he does manage to maintain throughout (Douglas Watson as Colonel Crawford also tries one on for size, but his is less well sustained), and he manages to act through his contrived accent (the main character in the novel was not Southern) to reach the truth of the character and the story. Red Buttons, known before this film as a television comic, plays it completely straight as the airman who refuses to knuckle under to the military’s blind prejudice against Orientals earning himself a supporting actor Oscar in the process. Miyoshi Umeki as the delicate, open-hearted Katsumi likewise won an Oscar with much less screen time. Patricia Owens does well as the naïve Eileen Webster whose eyes and heart are opened once she experiences what Japan has to offer with the suggestion that a possible relationship with Ricardo Montalban’s Nakamura may be in the offing. Miiko Taka is striking looking but a bit less dramatically effective as Hana-Ogi who must conquer her own hatred of Americans in order to find room for love in her heart. James Garner earned a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer as Captain Bailey who himself is involved with a Japanese actress. Kent Smith and Martha Scott do fine as the more-set-in-their-ways older generation.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 2.35:1 Technirama aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in a lovely 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is quite nice throughout, and color (processed by Technicolor rather than WarnerColor) is controlled yet vivid with reds especially vibrant and alluring and skin tones very believable and appealing. There are some occasional but noticeable fluctuations in density, and there are just enough specks of dust to register mild irritation in the viewer from time to time. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo sound mix nicely represents the movie’s Oscar-winning sound design. Dialogue has been well-recorded and has been placed in the center channel. Franz Waxman’s background score and Irving Berlin’s sweetly evocative title song fill the available channels quite well as do ambient effects like fireworks and swirling river currents. Age-related problems with hiss, flutter, and crackle are non-existent.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Isolated Score and Effects Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono.
Theatrical Trailer (3:59, HD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains some color and tinted stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s thoughtful analysis of the movie.
Though one might assume that the prejudicial undercurrents in the plot of Sayonara might date it for today’s audiences, sadly they have never been more relevant. The film’s moving depiction of love fighting to survive amid the strife and conflict of outside pressures rings just as true today as it did then. Recommended! There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.