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Film / Sayonara

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A 1957 drama film directed by Joshua Logan and starring Marlon Brando, Sayonara is the second most quintessential Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow film, after The World of Suzie Wong. It was adapted by screenwriter Paul Osborn from James Michener's 1954 novel of the same name.

The film takes place in 1951 during The Korean War. Major Lloyd "Ace" Gruver (Brando), a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot stationed in Korea whose father is a four-star general and who is prejudiced against Asians, is irritated that many of his friends and associates are marrying Asian women (something that the Air Force, and the U.S. military as a whole, strongly disapproves of). Gruver is transferred to a desk job in Kobe, Japan under the command of his father's friend, Lt. General Webster (Kent Smith). He is also engaged to marry Webster's daughter, Eileen (Patricia Owens), but he doesn't seem to be particularly attracted to her. After reluctantly serving as best man at the wedding of his crew chief Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) to local woman Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki), Gruver finds his prejudices challenged when he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Takarazuka actress and dancer Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka)...

Earned Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Buttons) and Best Supporting Actress (Umeki)—the latter the first and only Asian performer to date to win said award. Ricardo Montalbán appears in Yellowface as Nakamura, while James Garner plays Marine captain Mike Bailey.

Has absolutely nothing to do with 2015's contemplative film Sayonara by Kouji Fukada, set in a post-apocalyptic Japan.

This film provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Gruver. He is annoyed when he's taken off combat duty in Korea to ride a desk in Japan while getting married to The General's Daughter.
  • Actor Allusion: Director example. Both Gruver and Nakamura are fans of Marilyn Monroe. Joshua Logan had directed Marilyn in Bus Stop, released the previous year.
  • An Aesop: The film pulls no punches when it comes to the anti-racism moral and is all the more effective for it. At the time, Moral Guardians kept invoking Think of the Children! when it came to interracial marriage — claiming it would be awful to 'doom' children to a life of being unable to fit into either race — which gets completely shut down in one of Gruver's speeches. Hana-ogi asks what would happen if they had children.
    "What would they be? They'd be half Japanese and half American. They'd be half yellow and half white. Half you and half me. And that's all it's going to be."
  • Amicable Exes: Eileen remains friendly towards Gruver after their separation.
  • Artistic Licence – History: Gruver and Nakamura reference Marilyn Monroe, who was famous at the time of the film's release but not so much in the year (1951) in which it's set.
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • Gruver is told he's being sent to Randolph Field. The field was renamed Randolph Air Base in 1948, three years before the movie takes place.
    • Gruver is also said to be a West Point graduate, yet he wears his class ring on his right hand. West Point graduates always wear the ring on their left - as a mark of distinction.
    • Junior officers are always expected to hold their salutes until returned by the senior officer. Likewise for an enlisted man saluting an officer of any rank.
  • Asian Babymama: Nearly happens to Kelly, when he's reassigned to the States, despite informing everyone that Katsumi is pregnant. But they choose to die in a suicide pact.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish:
    • Averted when it comes to Katsumi. She's said to be learning English, so whenever she speaks it, she does so as realistically as someone who isn't used to.
    • Also averted with Hana-ogi and Nakamura, who have perfect English. The latter was played by a Mexican actor putting on an accent, while the former's actress was second-generation from America, so that was how she spoke naturally.
  • At the Opera Tonight: The characters attend shows on several occasions. Gruver and the Websters attend a kabuki performance. Gruver also attends a performance of Hana-ogi's troupe. A bunraku performance provides the inspiration for Kelly and Katsumi's suicide pact.
  • Author Appeal: Two prominent characters being performers, and several scenes feature shows or examples of performance art. Joshua Logan had visited Japan and become fascinated with the culture, so the film was envisioned partly as a celebration of Japanese performing arts.
  • Bait-and-Switch Sentiment: Inverted in Hana-ogi's declaration to the press.
    "I hope when I am old, I will teach children to dance. My own children."note 
  • Beta Couple: No less than 3 beta couples: Airman Joe Kelly and Katsumi, Captain Mike Bailey and Fumiko, and Eileen Webster and Nakamura.
  • Betty and Veronica: Gruver (Archie) has to choose between Eileen Webster (Betty), a nice American girl from a family of officers like his, and Hana-ogi (Veronica), a Japanese singer who simply ignores him in the beginning.
  • Big Damn Kiss: This was notably the first Hollywood film to have a kiss between a white man and Asian woman.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Kelly and Katsumi have conversations in both Japanese and English. Justified in that Katsumi is trying to learn English, so this is clearly her way of practicing.
  • Broken Ace: Hana-ogi is the star of her theatre troupe and a beautiful singer. But she was also sold to the troupe from a young age and feels empty inside.
  • Career Versus Man: Hana-ogi is the star of an all-female musical theatre revue who is forbidden to marry - meaning she must see Lloyd in secret. She says that a girl would be dismissed if she were caught. The end implies that she'll try to do both; either forcing the revue she works for to let her marry Lloyd and continue performing, or move to America and perform there instead.
  • Crazy Cultural Comparison: The main plotlines involve more dramatic instances of Culture Clash, but there's a lighter scene early in the film, at the kabuki performance. Lloyd and Eileen note with some interest that most of the Japanese audience members have brought packed lunches to the theater... but everyone turns and stares when they kiss.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Hana-ogi was sold from a young age to pay her father's debts.
  • Disposable Fiancée: It doesn't take very much for Gruver to dump Eileen. Justified in that from the beginning, it seems like he's marrying her only because he's supposed to.
  • Driven to Suicide: Kelly and Katsumi choose to kill themselves in a suicide pact rather than be separated.
  • The Film of the Book: Notably the director of the film (Joshua Logan) was responsible for getting the book written, and he had been intending to adapt it later.
  • Foreign Language Title: Japanese for "Goodbye", presumably due to how the lovers are being separated from each other.
  • The Friends Who Never Hang: Hana-ogi says Fumiko (the girl Bailey regularly meets) is her best friend, and the only scenes they share together are when they're performing on stage or walking across the bridge with the other performers.
  • Going Native: Kelly starts adopting Japanese dress and Japanese customs after marrying Katsumi. Gruver does likewise after dating Hana-ogi.
  • Irony:
    • Gruver is against interracial relationships at the beginning. Guess what happens.
    • Eileen lampshades that she once asked Lloyd if he was ever passionately in love with her - and that when he demonstrates he is capable of passion, it's with another woman.
    • At the end of that same scene, Mrs Webster tries to comfort her daughter being spurned for a Japanese performer. Eileen responds with:
      "There's only one person I want to talk to right now. And oddly enough, he's Japanese!"
  • Just the Way You Are: Kelly gives quite a passionate speech on this subject.
    "Will you tell that stupid dame I love her the way she is. I don't want her changed. Will you tell her I love her mouth and her nose and her ears and her eyes. Just the way they are."
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Both the U.S. government and the USAF strongly disapprove of servicemen marrying Japanese women, so Kelly gets in a lot of trouble when he marries Katsumi.
  • Maybe Ever After: It's implied that Eileen will pursue Nakamura after her engagement with Gruver falls through - but it's not given any confirmation.
  • Melodrama: The film was made during the peak of Melodrama's popularity in the 50s and at its heart is about the drama surrounding whether these characters can make their interracial relationships work in an ever evolving society.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow:
    • As noted in the introduction, one of the most iconic examples, as Gruver and Kelly both take up with Japanese women, who are both subservient to their men. Kelly however takes up more Japanese customs than Katsumi does American - and both are shown trying to learn the other's respective language (it's clear Kelly speaks more Japanese than Katsumi does English).
    • Hana-ogi technically outranks Gruver, as she's a national celebrity and spends the first part of the film as the more dominant partner. It's in fact said that she's out of Gruver's league.
    • There's the straighter example of Gruver's comrade Bailey's fling with a minor Matsobayashi performer Fumiko.
    • And the film Gender Flips it by having Eileen - a respectable American twentysomething - pursuing the Kabuki star Nakamura.
  • Misplaced Accent: Hana-ogi speaks perfect English with an American-sounding accent in parts. This is because her actress Miiko Taka was born in America to Japanese immigrants (and thus had a mixture of the two accents).
  • Old Maid: Hana-ogi says that when she gets too old to perform on stage, she will then become a tutor to the younger girls. When she discusses this fate later with Gruver, she says "do you think I want to be a lonely old woman who teaches dance?"
  • One-Word Title: Foreign Language Title, Japanese for "Goodbye", presumably due to how the lovers are being separated from each other.
  • Pass Fail: A particularly harrowing scene has Kelly discovering that Katsumi was planning to get back alley surgery to make her eyes look more Anglo so she could pass for white. Kelly has to assure her he likes her as she is.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Late in the film the military reassigns all the men who are married to Japanese women to the United States. Hana-ogi's relationship is discovered, and she's transferred to a revue in Tokyo.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The couples enjoy a festival celebrating the Tanabata legend. Tanabata is about a pair of Star-Crossed Lovers separated by the river of the Milky Way - just as the US government plans to separate the men from their Japanese wives.
    • Hana-ogi also takes Lloyd to see the Meoto Iwa - two rocks that were eventually joined by a rope in a makeshift marriage pact because it was logical that they be considered married after being together so long. Foreshadowing for how her and Lloyd will agree to stay together.
  • Satellite Love Interest: We know very little about Katsumi as a person outside of her marriage to Joe - as she is still learning English. Her only act independent of him in the film is to be a fan of the Matsobayashi and introduce Lloyd to Hana-ogi (and vouch for his character). Averted with Hana-ogi though - who is a more developed character.
  • Scenery Porn: Some really lovely color photography of Japan.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Gruver, to an extent. He's rattled after he sees the face of the last enemy pilot that he shot down.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Kelly and Katsumi - who face constant harassment from the military. They end up Together in Death. Gruver and Hana-ogi end up subverting the trope.
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo: The movie subverts a lot of this by setting itself in Kobe (though it was filmed in Kyoto) and drawing a distinction between that and Tokyo (where Hana-ogi later goes).
  • Title Drop: The very last line in the movie. When reporters hound Gruver to comment on the backlash he is expecting from his superiors for marrying a Japanese woman, he answers, "Tell 'em I said 'Sayonara.'"
  • Together in Death: One of the definitive cinematic examples, as Kelly and Katsumi are found in an embrace.
  • Tsundere: Hana-ogi is a Type B, where she is initially cold and aloof towards Gruver whenever he visits her on the bridge. Yet on a day when he hides in the bushes, he can see her looking around for him, confirming she did have an interest. It's later said that she is still prejudiced towards Americans for the bombing of Kobe during World War II, meaning her attraction to him made her very conflicted.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Both Katsumi and Hana-ogi fit the trope in their own ways. Both are reserved, dignified and internally strong.
  • Yellowface: Averted with the two females - Hana-ogi and Katsumi who were played by Asian actresses. But Nakamura was played by the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. He played several other Asians during the 1950s too.