Plot: What’s it about?
Japan after World War II was a devastated country. America helped to rebuild the country that it had helped destroy. There were still some tough feelings on both sides from the atrocities committed in the war. This fascinating relationship between the two countries led to some very interesting films from the time period just after the war and subsequent occupation. One such film is Sayonara, a beautifully shot melodrama based on the novel from beloved author James A. Michener.
Marlon Brando stars as air force pilot Major “Ace” Gruber. Ace is a decorated pilot in the Korean War and is reassigned to Japan. Ace is opposed to marriage between American men and Japanese women and makes this point clear to his friend, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons.) Joe plans on marrying a Japanese girl despite the military’s disapproval of their union. Though Ace advises him against the marriage, he still agrees to be his best man. Upon arrival in Japan, Gruber sees his long term fiancé Eileen Webster (Patricia Owens) and her mother at the airport. When they make their way to the soldier’s club, the mother insists that a young captain named Bailey (James Garner) not be allowed to bring in his Japanese date. After catching a Kabuki show with Eileen, it becomes pretty clear to her that Ace likes the idea of her and what she represents more than he is in love with her. When their date goes awry, partially because he will not have sex until marriage, Ace is left without many friends in Japan. When he meets Captain Bailey they become fast friends. Bailey introduces him to the exotic world of Takarazuka style theatre, and he promptly falls in love with a Japanese entertainer named Hana-oki (Miiko Taka.) To make things more complicated, her father was killed by an American in the war. She still can’t help but fall for him and betray her duties to her society.
This film, while somewhat slow-moving, serves as an excellent time piece on a specific time in Japan’s history and America’s history. It is hard to believe that just sixty years ago the idea of mixing the two cultures romantically courted so much controversy. It shows how deep some of the scars from the war went. James A. Michener was transfixed by Japanese culture and wrote several successful novelizations that took place in different centuries in Japan. Therefore, this film has a lot of Japanese culture from the time to digest – from Kabuki shows to Takarazuka girls. That is one of the best aspects of the film.
The actors in the film turn in reliable performances. That said, it may take a little while to get used to the “Southern” accent that Brando chose to use. It made me chuckle occasionally because it was somewhat stereotypical. I was surprised by how effective Red Buttons was in his role as the lovestruck Joe Kelly. Given the material’s somewhat melodramatic nature, everybody did just fine at hitting their marks, with another solid supporting performance by James Garner.
The film has one thing working against it – pacing. This film does not try to move quickly, but rather chooses to let the viewer gain a better understanding of the time and place. It rewards the patient viewer. What it has going for it is an enormous amount of color and beauty. The cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks under Joshua Logan’s direction is remarkable. It makes great use of the wide screen to capture some truly beautiful images of post-war Japan. Those images make this one worth your time.
Video: How’s it look?
Similar to the transfer that Twilight Time received for House of Bamboo, Sayonara is absolutely beautiful to look upon. CinemaScope was a beautiful format to shoot in and the MPEG-4 AVC encoded image in 2.35:1 takes advantage of the widest of screens. The cinematography of Japan in 1957 by Ellsworth Fredericks captures beautiful images at every turn. Fine detail is exceptional with even very small details in corners of the print receiving great attention. There is some specking, but I can’t imagine for a second that a fan of the film will be anything but thrilled with this transfer. This is a really great presentation of the film and another great transfer sourced by Twilight Time.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Twilight Time have provided a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. It has excellent fidelity to the original elements. While there is a lot of clear dialogue to listen to, there is also a lot of musical arrangements that highlight the sights and sounds of Japan at that time. Strange instruments and drums do not come across as muffled and there has been good attention paid to the sound design in general. The compositions by Frank Waxman are interesting and fit the film, but I probably would not listen to them in my car. Overall, solid work.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Theatrical Trailer
- Isolated Film Score
The Bottom Line
Sayonara is not a perfect film, but it does a good job of examining head-on the racial politics at the time and Japan after the war. Despite a daunting running time, the film has some truly beautiful imagery to take in that makes it worth your time. It is also fun to watch Marlon Brando slumming it with a Southern accent that is a bit of a stretch. Red Buttons runs away with the film, which I would not have guessed when I popped it in my player. Recommended.