Army pilot Major Lloyd ‘Ace’ Gruver (Marlon Brando) has just been transferred from the action in Korea to a desk job in Japan. There he will be closer to his girlfriend Eileen (Patricia Owens) and her military based family. It seems his military life has always been perfectly on track. Like his grandfather and father before him, Ace went to West Point and has plans to move up the ranks. But Eileen sees how putting the military first can put strain on a marriage and questions her relationship with Ace.
Meanwhile, Ace’s friend Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) has gone through all the tedious paperwork and written his congressman to marry a Japanese girl. The military strongly discourages these marriages, yet over ten thousand have happened. The main problem in these marriages is that the men cannot bring their brides home to the United States, and they know this.
Now, Ace warns Kelly about marrying and sides with the military at first. But as he sees how happy Kelly and his bride, Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) are together he starts to change his opinion.
As Eileen and Ace drift apart, Ace sets his eyes on a beautiful Japanese dancer. Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka) is one of the most prestigious dancers in her troupe, but she refuses to speak to Americans because they killed her father in WWII. But Ace doesn’t give up, he waits by the bridge the dancers cross every day just to see her. This attention seems to subtly break her down and Kelly invites her to dinner to meet Ace, where she agrees to love him.
Their relationship has to be kept in secret from the military. They regularly meet at Kelly’s house or in the countryside, but the secret isn’t safe for long. The military wants Ace to be a better example since he is seen as a big hero from Korea, but if he doesn’t cooperate they plan to make an example of him and Kelly.
Back in ‘57 Sayonara was probably a very eye opening film. The main issue about the military prohibiting marriages is just one point, there are many aspects of Japanese culture shown to the audience. We get a fascinating look at Japanese theater, from the all male Kabuki, the female dancing and even a tragic puppet show. During scenes at the Kelly house, we see how meals and sake are traditionally served.
Sayonara won the award for art direction easily. From the traditional layout and design of the Kelly house to all the beautiful details throughout the city and in all the theaters scenes the Japanese culture is always displayed.
What really bothered me was the way Brando threw a heavy Southern accent onto a West Point graduate, as if we needed to be reminded that he’s an American not used to all these Japanese customs. In the end, it’s the supporting cast who keep the story fresh and engaging. I was glad to see that Buttons and Umeki were awarded for their roles.
But in the end, Sayonara is only alright. It’s just another love story mixed with some culture to keep us interested, lead by a good ol’ Southern boy for us to relate to. Brando is so much better in Streetcar.
“Don’t you think you’re taking a risk marrying her?”