Sayonara (1957)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sayonara</strong> (1957)

(On Cable TV, February 2019) Considering that Sayonara is a late-1950s film about Japan, it’s inevitable that it would be somewhat romanticized—although, notably, not as whitewashed as it could have been. A rather annoying Marlon Brando is featured in the lead role as a very stereotypical American getting seduced by the Japanese way of life (and, obviously, a Japanese woman). Much of it becomes a romantic drama heavily playing off social expectations with the unsubtle style of the time. From today’s perspective, Sayonara isn’t much to talk about: it’s long, melodramatic, plays into some strong clichés of interracial relationships and has a mumbling Brando. It’s very much an adaptation of the James Michener novel, better suited to the page than the screen. While it’s better than many other Hollywood movies of the period in having ethnic-appropriate casting for the white men and Japanese women, it does have Ricardo Montalban play a Japanese man … oh well. And so on. But if you dig down into that the film represented in 1957, then you can understand why the film was nominated for a few Oscars: At the time (and for a few more years afterward). It was one of the few sympathetic and compassionate representation of Japan and to fairly represent interracial relationships. Miyoshi Umeki became the first Asian (and, to date, the only) Asian actress to win an Academy Award, while comedian Red Buttons got an Oscar of his own for a very dramatic role. It has aged, but as a compassion-driven film it had aged far more gracefully than other, more hate-driven ones. While the result definitely feels trying today, Sayonara is a film worth putting in context. I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but those trying to complete their list of all Oscar-nominee pictures … but it does have its strengths.

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