Saturday, June 29, 2013

Brando: Sayonara (1957)


Brando and Miiko Taka in Sayonara

I love Japan, almost everything about it, which is probably why my perspective on Sayonara has changed from the first time I watched it, ohhhh, some odd 5 years ago. I understand the Japanese culture better now, enough to realize that Brando's character, Major Lloyd Gruver, is fortunate that he didn't insult the entirety of the nation with his passionate pursuit of a Japanese national.

The film takes place in 1951, a significant time because the war had only been over for a few years and there was still extreme tension between America and Japan. Brando approaches the character of Lloyd Gruver with his usual dedication to detail, which explains the Southern accent that has been deemed nearly flawless. Lloyd is stationed in Japan not because he wants to be there, but because a three star general, friend to his family, and father to the girl he's engaged to marry, wants him there. So, his tour in Korea is cut short and Lloyd finds himself in Japan. It doesn't take long for issues to arise between Lloyd and Eileen, played by the attractive Patricia Owens.

A disagreement separates the two, and Lloyd's eye wanders to Hana-Ogi, played by Miiko Taka. At first, he's looking for just a little bit of fun, but as he progresses deeper into the lifestyle of the Japanese, Lloyd finds he really likes it, and really likes Hana-Ogi. Unfortunately for any American soldier who fell in love with a Japanese national at this time, they could get married, but there was a law preventing the wives from being brought back to the States. Essentially, a husband could get transferred stateside and never see his wife again. So, Lloyd has a decision to make. Is he serious enough about Hana-Ogi to fight the system, or has he merely been playing house?

As much as I love Marlon Brando, it's actually a secondary set of characters that snagged my attention and fondness even over him. Red Buttons (yes, that is his name) plays Kelly, an Irish American AF pilot who falls in love with a Japanese woman named Katsumi, played by Miyoshi Umeki. Kelley and Katsumi marry early on in the film and so we see them through Lloyd's eyes, watching him soften towards the idea, seeing his developing fondness for Katsumi, and his envy of their tranquil and idyllic Japanese life. Kelly and Katsumi are the heart of Sayonara, the catalyst for all of Lloyd and Hana-Ogi's decisions. They're crucial to the plot, and I love them for it.

Kelly, Katsumi, and Lloyd

This movie always saddens me, though, because a great tragedy occurs. And anyone without a familiarity with Japanese culture would do a double-take at the perceived insanity of the tragedy. Me, not so much. Japanese women were so terrified of being raped by the soldiers during WWII that they would tie their children to themselves and throw themselves off cliffs in order to avoid that fate. There is no shame in suicide to protect one's honor in Japan. I don't know how they feel now, but that is how the people felt then. Because I understand this part of their culture, I process the tragedy better then most American audiences. The decisions made by two characters make some sick, twisted sort of sense to me because it is a Japanese decision and not an American one.

Back to Brando, he plays a calm, relaxed Southern boy in Sayonara, and I have never really liked lazy Southern boys. Which is why my psyche latched onto Red Buttons instead, both the first time I ever saw this movie and even now. Brando is excellent in the role, a perfect choice, but I couldn't help but feel that the romance between Lloyd and Hana-Ogi was Hollywoodized, whereas Kelly and Katsumi could have been real people. Red Buttons was just that good.

Oh, and yes, the rumors are true. Ricardo Montalban does put in an appearance as a Japanese national. Gouging my eyes out with a pair of spoons was becoming a viable option!

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