1957’s Sayonara is a movie about rejecting racism and prejudice. Predictably, the 1957 version of civil rights has less to do with civil rights than it does with ‘edgy’ filmmaking.
On the forefront of civil rights and a level-ish playing field for all Americans, we staged a war in Korea thereby making the rest of the world safe for America, too. Predictably, Film took an almighty stab at the heart of intra-American conflict, race-relations, and while the medium is better for it the film plays more like a dark parody than it does a golden light. Yes, some citizens of the Orient have a problem distinguishing between an ‘L’ and ‘R’ (it’s the same letter in Japanese – about halfway between the two). Yes, Japan has modernized to become a global powerhouse, and not just a setting for kabuki and subservience. Yes, there was no way for screenwriter Paul Osborn to have known this and the depiction surely comes across as less overtly goofy in James Michener’s novel. But the best films in the past 85 years have done their best to create believable dystopia, so maybe enough with the ching-chong and a more focused look into politick if the movie really wanted to be a smart civil rights flick.
Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka save the work from becoming a true parody. We know Brando for his iconic performances in the 1950s and ’70s. We don’t really know Taka, save older theatre and cabaret junkies, but on-screen together the pair have uncanny chemistry – the believable relationship helps to highlight at least part of this issue, which would grow from anti-Orientalism (after our unofficial isolation after Korea) to anti-African American (still happening…) and now to anti-orientation-that-isn’t-straight (even more frustrating). We follow the issue on a micro level – the relationships among the soldiers and the betrothed natives and on a macro level – the military-industrial complex’s official position on inter-cultural relationships. Lots of these issues are dragged out to almost extreme examples – the double-suicide, the intense focus on the kabuki (really, though, Ricardo Mantalban as a Japanese kabuki artist?) and the somewhat goofy courtship among the lead actors. Brando just makes it believable that he’s a West Point educated son of a general with a goofy southern accent. What makes the performance so strong is that it’s almost incredulous to believe that any other actor could have played this part miraculously without spiraling into cabaret.
The concept of race relations in the United States is older than the country itself, older than emigration and really older than diversification of the species. There’s a huge statement for you that means almost nothing so here’s what I mean: humans have been fighting for equality before the concept of equality had a formal definition. We have evidence of the first humans fighting over territory, women, food, etc. for as long as there exists a written record, period. As genetics and evolution has granted the world people of different everything someone has found a way to exploit it for his or her own benefit. Sometimes this works in favor of the parties involved. Direct diversification creates different opportunity for people, a concept that would seem nigh impossible with too much sameness. In the abstract, the concept is too huge and its underbelly leads directly to misunderstanding and hatred. As a concept, Sayonara tries to roll up both sides into 2 hours, a shame, seeing as the States was ripe for a fresh take and an even bigger shame as the actors involved are true thespians and more than likely could have been more pliable with a more nuanced story.
Luckily there was no kung fu.
The 1950s demanded film enthusiasts to be more open-minded and accepting to people from more diverse backgrounds and Sayonara is a vital example to the challenging nature of that decade. While it’s not as challenging to sensibilities as movies starting in the late 1960s (Midnight Cowboy) or as striking as some others from the ’50s (All About Eve or 1957’s winner The Bridge on the River Kwai) and it’s mostly a well-meaning attempt, the importance of Sayonara isn’t the end-goal or the accomplishments, it’s that these issues were important enough to discuss through the star power of Marlon Brando and the relevant issue of the Korean War. And for that, brava.