Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sayonara

2/4

Starring: Marlon Brando, Miiko Taka, Red Buttons, Miyoshi Umeki, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Kent Smith, Martha Scott, Ricardo Montalban

Not Rated

"Sayonara" is primarily a victim of its length.  I have nothing against long movies in principle, but that excludes movies that last longer than they need to.  "Sayonara" has a running time of nearly 2.5 hours.  A half hour, or more, could easily have been cut off with little lost.  More compelling protagonists would have helped immeasurably, as well.

American servicemen were still stationed in Japan after World War II.  Military policy tried to prevent servicemen from marrying Japanese women, although 10,000 members of the armed forces did so anyway.  One of them was James A. Miechener, who wrote the book upon which the film was based (Michener's first novel was "Tales from the South Pacific," for which he won a Pulitzer and was the basis for the famous musical).

Major Gruver (Brando) is a pilot serving in the Korean War in 1951, but he is pulled out by General Webster (Smith), who is the father of his girlfriend Eileen (Owens), and sent to relative safety in Japan.  Eileen and her parents want Gruver to marry her, but he seems reluctant to pop the question.  Shortly before leaving, one of his men, Joe Kelly (Buttons), tells him that he is defying policy and marrying Katsumi (Umeki), a Japanese woman.  Although he disapproves of such marriages, Gruver agrees to attend as Joe's best man.  He reassesses his position when he spies theater star Hana-Ogi (Taka), with whom he becomes instantly smitten.  They soon fall deeply in love, but there are forces trying to pull them apart.

Aside from the way-too-long running time, the film is dealt a severe blow by the simple fact that there's only one interesting character in the film, and it's not even the protagonist.  That distinction goes to Joe Kelly, played with humor and pathos by noted comic Red Buttons.  It's an obligatory character, but Buttons plays him well.  He has all the best moments and best lines; everyone else is either obligatory or underdeveloped (or more likely both).

Marlon Brando is arguably the most famous movie star who ever lived.  Even those who haven't seen him in any movies know who he is.  While I concede that he has talent (his performance as Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" is legendary, and rightly so), I've always found him to be overrated.  Plus that nasally voice of his always makes him sound like he has a sinus infection.  His work in "Sayonara" is serviceable, but no more.  Gruver isn't a particularly interesting character.  Ditto for Miiko Taka.  She's adequate, but not stand-out.  Miyoshi Umeki, like her co-star Red Buttons, won an Oscar for her performance as Hatsumi, Kelly's wife, but she doesn't have much to do.  Next to Buttons, the next interesting character is Eileen, and that's because Patricia Owens does a lot of good covering up the fact that her character is not well written; her storyline with Brando lacks closure while she has a platonic relationship with Ricardo Montalban (go figure).

There is an interesting note about the casting, and it's the very thing that "Tropic Thunder" parodied so mercilessly.  Audrey Hepburn was first offered the role of Hana-Ogi, but turned it down because she rightly realized that she couldn't play a Japanese woman.

Like the script, the direction by Joshua Logan is pedestrian.  It makes the mistake of telling us what we need to know, rather than showing it to us.  For example, much is made about Gruver doesn't want to disappoint his father, but his father never appears.  Nor is his much mentioned fame shown.  The forces that conspire against the lovers remain abstract concepts, and as a result, the stakes feel lower.  That's just bad storytelling.

There are moments here and there that do work, particularly at the end.  But it's too long and too dull to recommend seeking out this hard to find flick.

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