Saturday, November 29, 2003

Sayonara (1957)

Happy Ending, Tragedy

By Nicholas Stix

Shakespeare’s rule – “happy ending, comedy; unhappy ending, tragedy” – does not apply to Sayonara. It is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen.

Set in Japan in 1951, towards the end of the U.S. occupation, and during the Korean War, Sayonara tells of American men thousands of miles away from home, and the forbidden Japanese women they meet, and fall in love with.

At the time, servicemen were forbidden from fraternizing with Japanese women, but like the song says, “If you can’t be/With the one you love/Well, then, love the one you’re with.” And in all fairness, many a G.I. met the love of his life while in uniform on foreign soil.

The story sets up a parallel between two rigidly hierarchical, intolerant societies: The U.S. Army and Japan.

Marlon Brando plays Maj. Lloyd “Ace” Gruver, the reigning ace and golden boy of the Army Air Force. “Ace” is the son of a four-star general, and destined himself for general officer status, as long as he plays by the rules. Gruver is an amiably racist Southerner whose world is about to be turned upside down. (One glaring historical error in Sayonara, is its making Gruver a flier in the Army Air Force. The Army Air Force ceased to exist in 1947, when it became the fully independent branch, the U.S. Air Force.)

Gruver is confronted with racial conflict through one of his men, Airman Joe “Red” Kelly (played by carrot-topped Jew, Red Buttons). Red asks Gruver, his C.O., to witness his marriage. Gruver does not seek to hide his racism, and as per Army regulations, seeks to talk Kelly out of the union. He emphasizes that Kelly will not be able to take his wife stateside with him, should he be assigned to return home. Kelly says he will never leave the woman he loves, and demands and receives an apology from the officer. This scene is designed to set up the conflict to come, and to show Gruver’s profound decency, and the loyalty he feels to his men. In Japan, Gruver witnesses the wedding, and even kisses the bride.

Japan is a traditional society and Gruver, the product of Army tradition, is himself locked in a semi-arranged marriage to a three-star general’s daughter, a wonderful, intelligent, beautiful young woman (“Eileen Webster,” played by Patricia Owens). But is he really in love with her?

Gruver becomes smitten with Japan’s most famous musical actress, “Hana-ogi” (Miiko Taka), and pursues her. Meanwhile, his fiancé becomes attracted to the country’s greatest kabuki actor (“Nakamura,” played by Ricardo Montalban, an Hispanic; imagine the reaction by Asian ethnic hustlers to such casting today!).

Meanwhile, a racist colonel decides to make the lives of soldiers who have fallen in love with Japanese girls a living hell.

Sayonara was up for a heap of Oscars, but only won two. It lost out on most of the awards, because it was up against The Bridge on the River Kwai, another movie about the collision of Japan and the West, which happened to be one of the greatest movies ever made. The two Oscars Sayonara did win, went to Red Buttons and Miyeshi Umeki (as Red Kelly’s Japanese bride, “Katsumi”), as Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. As moving as these two performers were, I’m not sure Buttons deserved the award over Sessue Hayakawa’s performance as Col. Saito in Kwai. However, without giving away too much, the circumstances of Buttons and Umeki’s performances won them their Oscars, just as much as their performances did.

Sayonara is filled out by a congenial performance by a young James Garner, as Marine Corps “Capt. Mike Bailey,” who befriends Gruver, and workmanlike performances by Martha Scott and Kent Smith as Gruver’s prospective mother-in-law and her spineless husband, and Douglass Watson as the racist colonel. While effective in her more intimate scenes, Miiko Taka performs with much more self-assurance in her musical stage numbers.

In 1957, Marlon Brando was on top of the world. Having not yet suffered the egotistical meltdown that would make him both personally and professionally unreliable for the rest of his career (see Apocalypse Now, etc.), at the time he could play anything but Shakespeare.

There is clearly a liberal message here: We can triumph over racism, if we can reach through to the core decency of people who were raised in a racist culture. And I believe that Sayonara went too easy on the Japanese, who at their best were as racist as we were, at our worst.

Either you will feel bullied by Sayonara’s underlying liberal pieties, or it will break your heart. It broke mine.

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