Sayonara feels like the type of movie that was built for awards consideration. Just full of enough liberal politics to make people feel good about themselves watching it when it’s really just a mildly ridiculous, soapy melodrama. Half of the romantic equation here is more authentic and fraught then the other half, which just feels like movie stars posing and staring at each other glamorously.
Granted, Sayonara does have some balls to offer up even the mildest of critiques about our involvement in Korea during the Cold War, and more especially during the 50s when complacency was all but expected. There’s also some capitulations towards racial tolerance, miscegenation, and heaps of travelogue narrations and images. Yet the ending remains a problemantic cop out as Marlon Brando gets to thumb his nose at conventionality and Miiko Taka sacrifices everything to run off with him. There’s no logical reason to think that they will work it out, and the ending probably left many a viewer with crocodile tears but left me with the vague sense of unease one gets from the ending of The Graduate.
What really sticks out is how for all of the good Sayonara tries to do, and it really does seem to try have its heart in the right place, is how grossly it leans into cultural stereotypes of the submissive geisha doll wife. It may have helped turn the tide on the popular culture view of mixed marriages, but it grossly overplays into stereotypes. Even worse is the vision of Ricardo Montalban in yellow-face makeup. Montalban, like many actors of color during this era, was frequently treated as a “house ethnic,” a phrase Rita Moreno used to describe her own tenure at MGM.
No surprise that Sayonara is overwrought as its source material comes from James Michener, he of the doorstop trashy epic. This was something different, smaller scale and filled with bits of truth that manage to poke out of the Hollywood gloss. Frankly, there’s just not enough story to justify the bloated running time, and the thing creaks along at various points. It’s not helped in this matter by director Joshua Logan, a man fond of sticking the camera in one spot and pointing it at his actors and not doing much else. By all accounts Logan was a great stage director, but he treated film the same way and they’re vastly different mediums requiring different techniques and touches.
Then there’s the curious case of Marlon Brando’s central performance, one of the first warning signs that Brando was going to become overindulgent in his quirks and flagrantly disregard acting as a serious craft in years to come. He adopts an indiscriminate southern accent, something of an all-purpose droll, that calls attention not only to itself, but to the performance he’s giving with it throughout. This remove in his performance keeps the romance guarded, can’t smother the more unbelievable plot machinations, and can’t elevate the material beyond its sudsy tone.
He’s bettered in the acting department by a duo of supporting players that walked off with the Oscars. Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki create a believable romance, and they play their parts with deep-rooted commitment. Umeki is a bit of a background player in a lot of her screen time, but there’s one moment where she argues with Buttons about potentially getting plastic surgery to pass for white that probably won her the statue. These two, along with some lovely scenery, are a good enough reason to seek out Sayonara, just be prepared for a dip in interest once their characters meet a tragic end.