“Don’t you think you’re taking a risk marrying a Japanese girl?’
They were not words of advice given to me ahead of my wedding in 2014 but the question posed by US Air Force fighter Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando) to his fellow airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons), who is set to wed a Japanese woman despite the disapproval of US military authorities who do not recognise such an inter-racial marriage as it’s generally illegal under American law.
Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Gruver resolutely supports the military’s opposition to such multicultural romances and, having failed to talk Kelly out of getting married, agrees to be his best man and before you know it he too ends up finding love himself with a Japanese entertainer. These two parallel romances in the post-WWII occupation of Japan (1945-52) are at the heart of the story.
It’s all set in Kobe but, other than some aerial shots of the city, the Japanese locations were actually filmed in Kyoto although sadly I’m not sure where. What I do know is that the ‘American Officers Club’ is a century-old Japanese restaurant called Yamashiro which stands in the Hollywood Hills. This cedar and teak building is a Japanese palace replica with a teahouse, gardens and a pagoda. Meota Iwa (wedded rocks) in Mie Prefecture also features.
The film producers should take some credit for actually casting Japanese instead of Americans with make-up as was done a year earlier when Marlon Brando portrayed an Asian in ‘The Teahouse Of The August Moon‘ (1956). They didn’t quite complete the job though as Ricardo Montalban played a Japanese Kabuki Theatre actor called Nakamura-San which seems absolutely ridiculous in this day and age. You just have to laugh at the idea really! It wasn’t the only thing that would inadvertently make me chuckle during the films overly-long 147 minute duration!
A surprising amount of awards were dished out for this film. The ridiculously-named Red Buttons as well as Miyoshi Umeki (as Katsumi Kelly) both received supporting Oscars for their performances. Though the former did deliver some touching moments, I didn’t really see anything too outstanding in either portrayal. The latter in particular didn’t even have that much to do for her part. Personally, I thought Miiko Taka (as Hana-ogi) was more impressive and displayed more emotion as the anti-American who found love with Gruver. Far less appealing were her dancing and singing skills which failed to convince me that she was some kind of national treasure.
The main theme of the movie is racism. Some Japanese hate the Americans, especially the aforementioned Hana-ogi character whose family was bombed by them. On the other hand, the American authorities are not fans of the Japanese and do not like their soldiers fraternising with them. Colonel Crawford is quite openly hostile towards Kelly in particular and he cruelly decides to transfer him back home whilst his wife is pregnant which has catastrophic consequences.
‘Sayonara‘ was touted as offering a real glimpse into the life and culture of the Japanese. As ever though it’s just the usual exotic stereotypes of things like geisha, kabuki, tea ceremony, paper-walled houses and zen gardens. There may have been a big leap (for that period) in terms of racial tolerance thanks to this movie but the same certainly can’t be said regarding sexism. Japanese women are portrayed as quiet, obedient and doting, doll-like objects who wish for nothing more than to please men by scrubbing the back of their husband in the bath. This is the 1950s American version of what they think Japanese women are like!
Amongst the ogling of Japanese women’s physical beauty and their submissiveness, there were some huge steps forward in terms of liberalism and having the courage to stand up for it. Kelly’s open mindedness must’ve been truly novel for a large number of the American audience in the 1950s. He was willing to adapt to Japanese culture due to his love for Katsumi.
There’s no doubt that this is definitely of its time but for a film made in the mid-fifties I do have to say that it looks far less dated than some movies from that era as it was filmed in technicolor. It also deserves credit for it’s courageous point of view (particularly the final scene which Brando was apparently responsible for) and for delivering a message which is still relevant today. However, if you’re looking to watch a film ‘set’ in Japan then I would still suggest you find something else and say sayonara to this one.
Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10