SAYONARA: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1957) Twilight Time
In a career of innumerable highs, Marlon Brando gave one of his most affecting performances as a U.S. military man whose most heroic act is working through his own ensconced bigotry. Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957) is based on James A. Mitchener’s 1954 novel; itself, a brave and heartfelt cause célèbre, never preachy about its message of racial tolerance. Brando, who in later years would be branded with the scarlet letter for being a ‘difficult’ actor was, in fact, praised by Logan herein for his ‘pliable’ good nature as well as his inventiveness; adopting a Southern accent (not in Mitchener’s book) to play the part of U.S. flyboy, Major Lloyd ‘Ace’ Gruver. Paul Osborn’s genteel, yet probing adaptation of Mitchener’s prose charts Gruver’s sensitive self-investment, stirring from the stupor of his Kentucky-fried white-bred racism towards the Japanese. Brando’s performance is lightly peppered in precisely this sort of homespun good ole boy charm, slowly to slip from the tangled knots of a conventional youth into a more mature and honest assessment of the world beyond. Indeed, early on Brando’s hot shot pilot begins to suffer from an acute attack of conscience, confessing to one of the base doctors his mounting ennui, bordering on depression. The Japanese pilots he has been decorated for shooting down have begun to acquire ‘faces’ etched into his memory; the plight of people as opposed to nations more presciently replacing that military-indoctrinated, oft blindsided patriotism.
And yet, as memorable as Brando’s performance is, it isn’t the one that received the highest praise or honors in 1957. While Brando did earn a justly deserved Oscar-nomination (forgivably forfeited to Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai) it was co-stars, Red Buttons (in his movie-land debut) and Miyoshi Umeki (in her American unveiling) who took home statuettes for their tenderly flawed coupling as American flyer Joe Kelly and his fragile war bride, Katsumi. Umeki, in fact, became the first Asian to win the Oscar; her legendary career as a recording artist in Japan ended with her decision to move to the United States. In their review of her performance on Broadway in Flower Drum Song (a role she would reprise for the movie version in 1961) Time Magazine summarized Umeki’s effectiveness as an actress far better than I ever could: “the warmth of her art works a kind of tranquil magic.” Sayonara also received Oscars for Ted Haworth and Robert Priestley’s Art Direction/Set Decoration and George Groves sound recording. Sayonara’s forgivable Best Picture loss to the aforementioned ‘Kwai’ does not diminish its impact on audiences ever since. Apart from its ‘message’, Sayonara is an exquisitely photographed super-production; Warner Bros. pulling out all the stops to produce a lavish spectacle, photographed on location in Kobe Hyogo, Kyoto, Tokyo, Isaka and Takamatsu Island in Japan, as well as sound stages back home, effectively blended in Technicolor’s patented hi-def process of Technirama by cinematographer supreme, Ellsworth Fredericks. Joshua Logan fills the elongated screen with a vista of breathtaking compositions, achieving an exoticism to bottle the genuine flavor of Japanese culture, offset by Brando’s proverbial ‘fish out of water.’
After a mesmerizing main title sequence, to showcase the fragile beauty of the Japanese landscape, set to Franz Waxman’s haunting score with (wait for it) a title tune written by Irving Berlin, Sayonara begins in Korea. Maj. Lloyd Gruver has just returned from another successful mission in the skies. Alas, his heart is just not in the spirit of combat anymore. Despite his reputation as a hot shot pilot, whose square-jawed ‘good looks’ and butch persona make him the envy of every aspiring flyer on the base, Ace is able to recognize something is sincerely lacking. His fame is meaningless. A good ole Southern boy, Gruver is used to doing what he is told. That includes accepting reassignment to Itami Air Force Base in Kobe, Japan, a ruse perpetrated by Gen. Webster (Kent Smith) and his Mrs. (Martha Scott) to place Gruver in closer proximity to their daughter, Eileen (Patricia Owens). Ellie and Lloyd have been sweet on each other for some time. She desperately wants to marry him; a spark he decidedly does not share. Indeed, Lloyd has never been in love and Eileen, recognizing this, will not settle for a man who would marry her out of sense of duty alone. Paul Osborn’s plot briefly deviates to a potential liaison between Eileen and Kabuki star, Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban, idiotically miscast). Indeed, Eileen practically drags Lloyd to Nakamura’s show where Lloyd is decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of men playing women’s roles on the stage. He prefers Marilyn Monroe.
Reluctantly agreeing to be ‘best man’ at Joe Kelly’s rather perfunctory and thoroughly uncomfortable wedding to Katsumi, despite the U.S. Military establishment’s strong disapproval to inter-racial marriages, as well as his own strong misgivings on the subject, Gruver comes under even graver scrutiny from Webster and his wife, who have yet to figure out he and Eileen are not going to be married. Gruver is astonished to discover some 10,000 Americans have since wed Asian sweethearts in spite of this overwhelming animosity: America imposing an embargo on virtually any of these inter-racial couples desiring to relocate to the United States. At the officer’s recreational clubhouse fellow soldier, Captain Bailey (James Garner) is denied permission to bring his girlfriend, Fumiko San (Reiko Kuba) to table. Although Gruver is not particularly pleased with the club’s stance on this innocuous fraternization, he sides with the policy as outlined by Webster. Alas, sometime later, Bailey and Gruver meet again; Bailey offering to take Lloyd to the latest production put on by the Matsubayashi all-female musical revue. Its star, Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka) is a stunningly handsome woman with oodles of talent to boot. She mesmerizes Gruver throughout the night’s festivities, bringing him to his feet in rousing applause at the end.
Alas, Gruver’s attempts to introduce himself to this vibrant artistic flower grow dim. Hana-Ogi, who lives on the grounds of the academic dance school she is honored to teach at, does not entertain gentlemen callers – especially Americans. Later, Gruver learns from Fumiko both Hana-Ogi’s father and brother were killed by American fighters in the war. Undaunted, Gruver waits patiently by the footbridge each afternoon as Hana-Ogi and the girls take their leave off school’s grounds to venture into the nearby city. Gruver elects to concoct a plan to test Hana-Ogi’s interest in him. After a week of waiting by the bridge he deliberately misses an afternoon, quietly observing the girls from a distance and waiting for any reaction from Hana-Ogi. To his great pleasure she is suddenly disturbed not to find him lurking about. Meanwhile, the Websters press on with their flawed plans to force an engagement between Lloyd and Eileen. In their presence Eileen repeatedly turns down Lloyd’s invitations to dinner, effectively putting a period to their nosy queries. As both romances seem to be at a standstill, Gruver receives an invitation from Joe to visit the home he has established with his new bride. Gruver is most impressed with the modestly appointed abode; also, by Katsumi’s abiding love and respect for her new husband. But he is quite unprepared for what comes next; Joe having arranged for Hana-Ogi to meet Gruver in one of the adjacent rooms.
Gruver’s first tries at polite conversation fall flat. Indeed, Joe and Katsumi afford the couple total privacy to break their glacial barrier. Finally, Hana-Ogi informs Joe of her lingering resentment towards all Americans, bitterly blamed for the deaths of her father and brother. Joe’s pride is momentarily wounded by Hana-Ogi’s inference all Americans are monsters. But then, Hana-Ogi confides, having met Joe, and now himself socially, she cannot in all good conscience maintain this bias. Gruver orchestrates clandestine meetings; a growing affection blossoming between these two lovers as they transgress against, and finally conquer the prejudices from their respective youths. Tragically, the dark hand of fate intervenes on this happiness. Eileen overhears a conversation. Joe’s home has been under military surveillance. Believing Gruver is in danger, Eileen goes there to warn him, only to discover he is in the arms of another woman. Meanwhile, Joe’s idyllic life is further threatened when his new superior officer assigns him the least attractive duties to preoccupy virtually all of his free time. To quash any more of their boys falling for the local color, the military plots to reassign its gallant men immediately. Aware his reassignment states-side will result in a permanent separation from Katsumi, who has since become pregnant with his child, Joe quietly elects to take both their lives in a double suicide.
Unaware of their fates, Gruver pleads with Gen. Webster to allow Joe and Katsumi to remain in Japan. Webster refuse. Gruver and Bailey rush to Joe’s home to discover the Army already boarding up the doors and windows of Joe’s home, a crowd of locals gathered outside. Gruver breaks in and finds Joe and Katsumi locked in each other’s arms on their marital bed – dead, yet with a look of serene repose about their faces; Joe, still gently clutching his pistol. Their discovery sickens Gruver, who now informs Gen. Webster he intends to wed Hana-Ogi at the earliest possible convenience. This revelation is made before Eileen and her mother also. Quite satisfied Lloyd has never loved her as much as he does Hana-Ogi, Eileen decides to pursue a romance with Nakamura. Regrettably, Gruver’s passion is thwarted when, after barging into the dance academy, he discovers Hana-Ogi has since moved to pursue her career in Tokyo. General Webster informs Gruver the ban against enlisted men bringing their war brides back to the United States is to be lifted.
Armed with this news, Gruver travels to Tokyo, interrupting Hana-Ogi backstage after her latest performance. She insists the gentle soft core of their love affair will never withstand the aged crust of prejudice that surrounds them. When asked “what will our children be?” Gruver humbly explains, “Half yella’/half white. Half Japanese/half American. Half you/half me.” Hana-Ogi cannot argue with her beloved’s resolve to discover the future awaiting them – together. As the couple departs the theater, they are besieged by fans and reporters from The Stars and Stripes military newspaper for a sound bite about their plans. Proudly, Gruver informs everyone he and Hana-Ogi will marry with all speed. When one of the reporters suggests such a marriage between one of the great war heroes and a Japanese actress will ruffle too many feathers in the top brass, further inquiring what he, Gruver, intends to tell his superiors in his own defense, Gruver rather flippantly replies with confidence, “Tell ‘em we said, ‘Sayonara’ (the Japanese word for ‘good-bye’).”
Sayonara was a huge hit in 1957. Regrettably, its reputation has waned in the intervening decades. Rarely seen, and suffering the further indignation of allowing its rights to lapse, Sayonara ought to have remained proudly under the Warner Bros. banner, for it is truly one of the stars in that studio’s tiara of crown jewels. The story is riveting from start to finish, never told with the heavy-handedness that so readily afflicts other ‘progressive’ pictures devoted to themes of social justice. Under Joshua Logan’s direction, Sayonara endures as a splendidly conceived and extremely poignant time capsule; a nostalgic depiction of the fallout from racial prejudice. It is a story from an era when Hollywood, perhaps not readily known for its ‘message pictures’, nevertheless expressed a willingness to gamble on ‘unusual’ properties that have long since continued to ripen and unearth so much more about the human condition with each passing decade. While too much of our movie culture now, and certainly a goodly number of pictures made in the fifties, are glossy and gargantuan confections, offering much for the eye, yet too little to ease the heart (certainly, Sayonara’s lithe tale is as tricked out with positively sublime production values to coat the pill of its sobering moral with a bon-bon gloss, most palpable – even to the narrow-minded among us), it shares the spotlight today with virtually no other production as invested in challenging racial stereotypes. Herein, Sayonara is quite unique, heartfelt, epic in its tragedy, and yet, morally uplifting – even more impressively, all at once. Surely, there are other Sayonara’s yet to emerge that need to be told. Alas, where are today’s talented ‘progressives’ to rise up and meet this challenge finely, purely and with all the splendiferousness of achieving their high art from their high morals – not their high horses? Where, indeed?
Twilight Time’s new to Blu release of Sayonara is a mixed blessing. For although this 1080p offering rectifies a goodly number of sins committed on the old MGM/UA DVD release from 2002, through renewed studio short-sightedness and lack of funds, these badly archived original elements have not been given the benefit of a full-blown restoration. Pity that. For Technirama was a magnificent process, employing 35mm, 8-perforation frames, nearly twice the size of conventional Cinemascope. Unlike the ‘scope’ process, Technirama used a 1.5:1 anamorphic optic to stretch the image vertically rather than horizontally. In Technicolor’s laboratory, the 8-perf negative was optically reduced to 4-perf with images vertically made in the 2:1 anamorphic ratio. Because of its pliability, Technirama also carried 4-tracks of stereo and could be blown up to 70mm prints, revealing a startling breadth of color density, adjusted and balanced during the printing process. What all this means is Sayonara on Blu-ray ought to have been a visually resplendent experience. What we have instead is a presentation merely adequate, and, regrettably, at times totally subpar to the Technirama process.
From the outset, it becomes quite clear something is terribly wrong; the main titles looking as though they have been fed through a meat grinder; riddled in a horrible amount of dirt and scratches. Would it have really broken the bank for Fox/MGM, the present-day custodians of this deep catalog title, to employ a little blue-wash therapy to fill in the damage and cracks, and perhaps a bit of color stabilization thereafter to reduce the sporadic amounts of built-in image flicker? Perhaps. The good news here is that much of Sayonara escapes MGM’s miserly shortsightedness. Age-related artifacts are curiously curtailed after the main titles to an acceptable – though not forgivable – level. Aside: it’s almost 2018, folks. This sort of half-ass mastering is a holdover from the bad ole days before hi-def was even an inkling on the horizon. It has virtually no place among home video efforts we should be expecting today. Color density is pretty solid throughout, but occasionally the image appears slightly faded. Flesh tones can look quite good some of the time, but downright pasty elsewhere; not just from scene to scene, but shot to shot. What a shame and a sham! TT is not to be blamed here, folks. And for many, Sayonara’s overall image will greatly impress as it does noticeably advance over the careworn MGM/UA DVD.
But is this the barometer by which any hi-def 1080p release should be judged? “Better than” is still not “best of all” or “the best it can be.” I often receive flak from both fans and distributors when I am critical of their output, lack thereof, or worst of all, lack of quality in what actually manages to escape from their respective stables. Sayonara is a great film deserving of far better than it has received herein. The 2.0 DTS audio is adequate but unremarkable. It would be interesting to know if there are any archival 4-track stereo elements of Franz Waxman’s isolated score. We know from TT’s ‘insider’ surviving 4-track stereo elements of the finished soundtrack (dialogue, SFX and music) do exist in the Warner vaults. TT was denied access to them by WB – a very sad state of affairs, indeed (unless, Warner is planning its own re-issue from their Archive sometime in the near future). Perhaps the final insult here is TT’s release contains only an isolated music and effects track. We really ought to have an audio commentary here to provide historical context, not only on the movie’s back story, but also the U.S. policy regarding interracial marriages back then. Few movies are as deserving of more attention paid than Sayonara. It is frankly a little off-putting Sayonara in particular has received so little love for this debut Blu-ray release. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)