Lloyd Gruver (Brando), a United States Air Force Major 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 which the U.S. Military as a whole strongly disapproves of). He is transferred to a desk job in Kobe, Japan, under command of his father's friend—three-star general Webster (Kent Smith). Lloyd is engaged to Webster's daughter, Eileen (Patricia Owens), but he doesn't seem particularly attracted to her. Reluctantly, he serves as the 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 himself falls in love with the beautiful Takarazuka actress/dancer Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka)...
Earned Best Supporting Actor for Red Buttons and Best Supporting Actress for Miyoshi Umeki—making her the first and only Asian performer to win said award.
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.
- 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. She was not however when the film is actually set (1951).
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Hana-ogi was sold to the troupe 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.
- Film of the Book
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Somewhat subverted in the case of Kelly, who starts taking on more Japanese customs after marrying Katsumi.
- 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.
- 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.
- Surprisingly Good English: Hana-ogi does not speak for the first part of her screen time. When she comes to Kelly and Katsumi's house for dinner, Gruver spends several minutes babbling in front of her before he realises he doesn't know if she can even understand him. But of course she speaks perfect English.
- 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.
- 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.