“Sayonara” (1957)

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Co-stars: Miiko Taka, Red Buttons, Miyoshi Umeki, Patricia Owens

Awards: Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, Nominated for the Golden Globe Award For Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama

Character: Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver

Another of Brando’s “socially conscious” films, this one is certainly more effective than The Teahouse of the August Moon. Based on a James A. Michener book, it deals with a hot button topic of the time,  interracial marriage, which at times can give it a dated feel. However, if you can in your mind draw the parallels between how the people and couples of this film suffer with the millions of LGBT couples who cannot married and are discriminated against today, a new relevance is breathed into the film.

The film starts with Maj. Gruver, a fighter pilot and the son of a four star general, in Korea, where he is asked to talk his friend and member of his unit, Airman Joe Kelly, out of marrying his Japanese fiance. He shows him a picture of his pretty Caucasian fiance back home, and implies that there is something wrong with Kelly. Kelly won’t hear him, as he is totally in love with his girl. Gruver and Kelly are then transferred to the Itami Air Force Base, near Kobe, Japan. There, Gruver is reunited with his fiance Eileen, the daughter of  Lt. Gen. Webster, who is a friend of his father’s. At this time, Kelly asks Gruver to stand as his best man at his wedding, and after some hesitation he accepts, but not before his disapproval is known. Eileen and Gruver go out on a date, to take in some Kabuki theater, which she was invited to by the famous Kabuki actor, Nakamura. Eileen is intelligent, thoughtful, and open minded, as well as beautiful. She is visibly uncomfortable by the routine racism shown towards the Japanese people by the military.

At the end of the date, Eileen questions Gruver about the depth to which he loves her. She asks him if he’s ever had the desire to haul her off to a shack somewhere, and he launches into an explanation of responsibilities and expectations. It is clearly illustrated that he loves her, but isn’t madly, passionately in love with her. Hurt, she leaves him on the bench, and goes back to her hotel. When Gruver tries to take her out again, she turns him down due to other plans. Bored and sad, he finds himself in a bar, where he meets Captain Bailey, a man he subtly insulted while out with his Japanese girlfriend. Apologies are made, and soon we see the two men in a park, where Gruver spots a beautiful performer named Hana-ogi. The men go to theater where she performs, and Gruver finds himself absolutely smitten. He inquires with Kelly and his wife Katsumi, who knows Hana-ogi, if she will help him be introduced to her. Hana-ogi refuses, as she hates Americans due to the deaths of her father and brother in the war.

Undeterred. he asks her for her autograph, and the proceeds to watch her cross the bridge to her performances daily. He waits in different spots, looking to see if she is keeping an eye on him. Finally, after days of diligent waiting for her to talk to him, Kelly tells Gruver to come to his house for dinner as Hana-ogi will be there. Happy as a clown, he shows up to dinner early, and Kelly gives him a small crash course in Japanese etiquette. He is also given a tour of the Japanese house, where the 5’10” Brando is apparently a giant, as he bumps his head at every entrance. Soon, he is face to face with Hana-ogi, and Kelly leaves them alone. It is there that some awkward flirting occurs, until Hana-ogi confesses that she has been watching him too. She confesses that she too has held racism in her heart as a by-product of the war, but realizes after meeting Gruver that she has been misguided. They realize that if they’re going to see each other, they need to keep it secret, as her theatre group will not allow her to date, and the military doesn’t approve of him dating Japanese girls- especially since he’s an officer.

They fall head over heels in love, keeping their relationship secret from everyone except Kelly, Katsumi, Bailey, and his Japenese girlfriend. Eventually though, the military starts to catch on, and puts out an order forbidding officers from even being seen with civilians. They have to be extra careful, and spend a lot of time hiding out at Kelly and Katsumi’s home. Kelly, who is subjected to harsher treatment from the military for being married to a Japanese woman, is given an order that he is to be shipped out and back to America. Heartbroken, he turns to Gruver for help. They try to appeal to their commanding officer, but he wants nothing to do with it, even though Katsumi is pregnant. Gruver turns to Lt. Gen. Webster for help, who says he cannot be of assistance either, as other men have come to him with the same requests. It’s there, in front of Eileen and her mother, that he announces his own intent to marry Hana-ogi.

The film is a longer one, and at parts has moments where it can drag. Ultimately though, it is a multi-layered story of star crossed lovers and racism, at once timeless and modern (at least in the 1950’s). It won four Academy Awards, including ones for Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki. Brando was nominated for the Best Actor award, but ultimately lost out. The fact that around this time Truman Capote put out his scathing profile in The New Yorker could play into his loss, but that is only speculation. What is interesting to note is that upon release of the film, reviews were mixed and many were scathing, particularly of Brando’s performance. However, after checking Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds a 100% approval rating, and a 7.2/10 rating at IMDb. At the box office, the film fared quite well and became a nationwide hit in America.

Brando, perhaps not giving one of his legendary performances, is nonetheless completely solid throughout. The nondescript Southern accent he creates for the character of Lloyd Gruver is a perfect choice, contrasting perfectly against that of his Asian lover’s. His transformation of casual racist and of a man who does what he is told into someone who sees people as worthy individuals and who can see what hatred can do to the lives of innocent people is remarkable and heartbreaking in turns. For the story and for the performances the ensemble cast turn in, this film is a worthy watch. Thumbs up.

Quotes: “This is the first liquid rice I have ever run into! ”

“My lord that’s my father!”

“Yeah, Tell ’em we said ‘sayonara’.”

‘The Duke in His Domain’ by Truman Capote

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