The uniting of two astoundingly divergent cultures gives ample opportunity for a movie to explore social differences and complications while dealing with relationships of any kind, let alone romantic ones. In Sayonara, the relationships between American military men and Japanese women is examined in the form of a love story between two characters that would, under normal circumstances, have never even considered each other as an interest. Marlon Brando plays Major Gruver, a burnt out flying ace who is moved from his active duty station in North Korea to Japan in 1951. Major Gruver is an all American hero, whose father is a famous four-star general. He plans to marry his long time Fiance, the daughter of a General, and continue his military career. Gruver is asked to discourage the planned marriage between his good friend, and fellow airman, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) from marrying a Japanese national. He fails to discourage his friend, so instead agrees to be the best man; this is to the disappointment of the American Military who tries to prevent marriages of the sort. While his time in Japan increases, Gruver experiences the foreign customs of the land and falls for one of Japan’s greatest dancers, Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka). It is at this point that the complications for our protagonist begin.
Gruver and Hana-Ogi are two complete opposites. Whereas the Major is an all American southern boy, Hana-Ogi is one of the highest honored women in Japan, a celebrity who, before she agrees to meet with Major Gruver, refuses to speak to any Americans because her family was killed by Americans in WWII. The delicate subject matter was still fairly taboo at the time that this movie was made (1957) and yet it tackles them head on. To an American audience, it’s certain that much of the Japanese traditions and ceremonies shown in the film were unknown, putting them in a similar position that Marlon Brando’s character found himself in. However the true hardships didn’t come simply from a difference of culture, but rather a mistrust and stereotypical view of foreigners from both sides. The American Military strongly opposed marriages and relations with the Japanese, forcing those wanting to get married to storm through jungles of red tape. Similarly many Japanese citizens opposed the unions.
Brando gives a solid performance as the main character, but it’s the story between Airman Kelly and his new wife Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) that takes the cake for strongest emotional performance in the film. During the course of the film we see Kelly transition from typical American pilot to living in a traditional Japanese house, learning to speak the language and willing to give up literally everything for Katsumi. While the entire movie may center around the relationship between Gruver and Hana-Ogi, the driving force and the heart of the story is with these two. As I stated before, the audience experiences the differences in culture right along with the characters. Weather it be through watching kabuki, sharing a traditional Japanese meal or celebrating t local festival, it’s easy to see how different the Americans and Japanese are from each other, while simultaneously seeing just how similar they are. The film takes place, and is filmed in Japan, offering a fair level of authenticity. The acting, for the most part, is exceptional, making it easy to become absorbed in the story.
Sayonara is, by all means a love story. However, not all love stories are happy. The level of persecution and ridicule that all the characters endure is often times heartbreaking. One of the strongest scenes in the movie takes place when an American man confronts his Japanese wife after finding out she planned to have a surgery to alter her eyes to “look American”. The struggle told in this movie is one that thousands of people had to endure, a struggle that thankfully lies, for the most part, in the past. Perhaps a far more relevant film in it’s day, Sayonara remains a strong example of what it was to be in love with someone once considered your enemy. It strips away the social norms of the time and allows the characters to see past the differences between them and ignore the stares of their peers; an action that took a strength we may never have to understand.