Sayonara (1957)

Directed by Joshua Logan

Some movies are strong and weak simultaneously. I suppose this is another way of saying they have both good and bad qualities. While watching Sayonara I kept thinking how much I would like to see the movie re-made. But …

I’d like to see it remade because there are so many elements to it that don’t work and also make it seem dated. However, how would you remake it without it’s one stunning element — Marlon Brando?

Brando is perfect in Sayonara. Unfortunately, he’s too good. Nothing else is working on his level.

He is so naturalistic, so precise in his portrayal of Maj. Lloyd Gruver, the southern military man with racist attitudes who falls in love with a Japanese woman, it doesn’t cohere with the other performances or the direction, which are all mid-fifties, a little studied, a little self-conscious.

Miyoshi Umeki (as Katsumi), Red Buttons (as Joe Kelly) and Marlon Brando (as Maj. Lloyd Gruver)

I should qualify that, however. The performances from the Hollywood actors fall short. The Japanese actors, particularly Miiko Taka as the chief dancer Hana-ogi and Miyoshi Umeki as Katsumi (wife of military thorn-in-the-side Joe Kelly, played by Red Buttons) are perfect and match Brando step for step.

But the Hollywood actors seem a little out of their depth. I don’t think they can necessarily be faulted for that. For the period, they’re excellent.

But Brando is so far beyond them, so seemingly unselfconscious, they appear weak when playing a scene with him.

The look of the film and it’s direction are also a problem. Like many Hollywood films of this period, it has a staged quality which from the perspective of 2004 comes across as awkward at best.

And again, when Brando’s performance is set within this context, it comes across as even more pronounced.

And this is unfortunate because it really is a good story, a great romance (though the ending is a little forced).

Maj. Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando) and Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka).

Brando’s Lloyd Gruver goes through a tremendous transformation as the poster-child of the American military man who is committed to what he sees as his duty and obligations despite having had different ideas about what his life might be like.

And his cultural biases, which are extremely racial, transform as he grows to love the dancer Hana-ogi and begins to discover Japan first hand.

With the social pressures against their love, and the deepening feeling between the lovers, a wonderful romance with great social implications informs the story.

Even with the films numerous flaws (like poor Ricardo Montalban with his Latin accent trying to portray the kabuki dancer Nakamura), the movie still manages to work, at least to a degree.

And this is why I would like to see it re-made. It’s a great story. And Brando is a wonder to see. (But who could play the Brando role at the same level?)

However, as it is, wonderful as Marlon Brando may be, and as good as the story is, ultimately the flaws undermine the movie. It has to be put down as a movie of great but unrealized potential.

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