Monday 28 May 2007

Sayonara (1957) Joshua Logan

As this is based on a James Michener novel, I'm not surprised that it's two and a half hours long because I dont think he ever wrote anything that wasn't an epic. This one addresses the concept of American GIs falling and love with and marrying people from a nationality that they'd only recently been fighting in war. The story is set in 1951 during the Korean War but that's only a handful of years since the surrender of Imperial Japan to Douglas MacArthur. Given that the area still hasn't forgotten some of the, let us say Japanese excesses of the era, it seems like no time flat.

Marlon Brando is the star but the man who wants to marry a Japanese girl from the very outset is Red Buttons, a comedian doing an awesome job in his first dramatic role, as Airman Joe Kelly, which won him a well deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. He's been fighting as hard as he could to marry her but has to go all the way up to his congressman to get permission. He flies over to Kobe to get married and takes Major Lloyd Gruver with him, who is being reassigned. Gruver is Brando, of course, and he's engaged to General Webster's daughter, Eileen, who is also flying out to be with him.

What it all boils down to, as we soon discover from Brando's choice of words to Kelly and the treatment quickly dished out to James Garner's character when he tries to bring a famous Japanese dancer into the officer's club, is that there's a racism inherent in the system. It's understandable to a degree but it's racism nonetheless and, worse, it encourages prejudice against those who decide not to be prejudiced.

What makes it even more of a double standard is that Eileen and her family are some of the most prejudiced of all, but seem to surround themselves with Japanese culture. Eileen takes Lloyd to a kabuki play, which she seems to be fascinated by; and her parents live in a notably Japanese home, full of screens and cushions covered in oriental art. Eileen is overjoyed to meet the lead kabuki actor, but she couldn't dream of fraternising with the Japanese. Even though that's precisely what she does, more and more as the film runs on. Wow.

Of course it doesn't take long before Lloyd gets himself in trouble, by acting as best man for Kelly, even though he opposed the marriage. It doesn't take long after that for him to become bewitched by a Japanese actress called Hana-ogi and so start taking an interest in the culture and the language himself in order to get her to pay attention to him. It's funny to hear him attempt to say 'Ohayo gozaimasu' in a southern American accent, but it's also somehow amusing to see his wooing technique which is something akin to stalking. Then again this was 1957 and while things had progressed to the level where institutionalised racism could be raised but sexism still wasn't on the agenda, for either Americans or Japanese.

It's also intriguing that while the Japanese women are played by Japanese women, Oscar winning Miyoshi Umeki in her English language debut and Miiko Taka (even though she was born Betty Ishimoto in Seattle, WA), the only notable male Japanese character in the film is played by Ricardo Montalban, of all people, who is about as Japanese as I am. At least he isn't playing an American Indian for a change, but presumably there was some reason why Japanese actors were still restricted to playing Number One Son in 1957. Talk about institutionalised prejudice.

What interested me most here was how much I was watching Marlon Brando. I've heard huge amounts about how he was the greatest American actor of them all and really haven't been able to see it. In A Streetcar Named Desire I was found that I was watching Vivian Leigh and in On the Waterfront I was watching Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Lee J Cobb. I don't know who or what I was watching in Last Tango in Paris. In The Wild One I was watching Brando but I wasn't seeing the magic everyone talked about. In Superman and Apocalypse Now and some of the later films he wasn't on screen long enough for me to watch him. Here was the first time I really found myself seeing a real talent, yet this is far from the top of the list when people rave about Brando's performances. I wonder what I'm seeing here that they aren't and what I'm not seeing elsewhere that they are.

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