During the Korean War, many American servicemen stationed in Japan are falling in love with and marrying Japanese women. Although some soldiers are open-minded about interracial relationships, many are not and unfortunately, many of the ones who don’t approve are the ones who hold the most power. When top Air Force pilot Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando) is first sent to Japan, he’s among the ones who doesn’t approve. However, his friends Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) and Captain Bailey (James Garner) do pursue relationships with Japanese women. Joe is in love with Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) and wants to marry her, but has to get special permission from his congressman to do so because the military is making it so difficult for soldiers to get married.
Gruver’s views on interracial relationships suddenly change when he sees Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka) and is immediately captivated by her. While Gruver is dedicated to the military, Hana-Ogi is dedicated to Matsubayashi, an all-female theater troupe. Just like the military forbids Gruver from dating Japanese women, the Matsubayashi forbids Hana-Ogi from dating. Gruver tries to pursue Hana-Ogi anyway and she resists at first, but she eventually agrees to meet with him at Joe and Katsumi’s home.
Hana-Ogi and Gruver continue to see each other, doing their best to keep their relationship a secret. Of course, it doesn’t stay a secret for long and when the Matsubayashi finds out, they send Hana-Ogi to Tokyo as a punishment. And the military continues to discourage interracial relationships by ordering all servicemen with Japanese wives back to America and won’t allow them to take their wives with them. Even though Gruver and Hana-Ogi were never married, Gruver is also sent back to America. Before he leaves, he stops in Tokyo to see Hana-Ogi one more time and make a last-ditch effort to see if their relationship will work.
Sayonara is one of those movies that was acclaimed when it first came out, but over the years, it hasn’t been talked about as much. For being a Best Picture nominee and featuring a Best Actor nominated performance from Marlon Brando, I’m not sure why I haven’t heard of it until now. But Sayonara is indeed still very much worth watching; it’s still a very relevant film. It’s a little too slowly paced for my liking, but the beautiful cinematography and good acting make it worth sticking around for. Red Buttons is someone I usually associate with comedy, so his more serious, gentle yet completely heartfelt performance here was a real revelation for me.