Sayonara (1957): Joshua Logan’s Oscar-Winner Starring Brando, Red Buttons, Miyoshi Umeki

Warner (A William Goetz Production)

Joshua Logan became fascinated with Japanese culture during his first visit to that country in 1951. Logan encouraged his friend-novelist James Michener to write a story about modern Japan that would include a tribute to the Japanese theatrical arts, which he admired. Logan envisioned a multi-cultural cast, with Japanese artists performing their arts.

Grade: B

Logan’s original idea was to do Sayonara as a Broadway musical, but there were legal issues. As a result, he decided to take the property to Hollywood, where he was highly respected after the success of his films Picnic in 1955 and Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe in 1956, both of which he had directed on stage.

Marlon Brando, who had also visited Japan, was eager to do the film and go back for further exploration of Japanese culture and philosophy. He was also attracted to Sayonara because of its message, a plea for racial understanding and tolerance. At that time, Brando was already known for his liberal politics and interest in exotic cultures.

The large undertaking took one year to execute, but the movie proved popular with critics and audiences, sweeping many Oscar nominations and awards (see below).

Sayonara is set in Japan at the time of the Korean War. Brando plays American air force ace Major Lloyd Gruver, who is sent to the air base at Kobe as partial recuperation from combat fatigue. Strings have been pulled by Gruvers prospective father-in-law General Webster (Kenth Smith) in getting him assigned to the Aviation Board. The general’s wife (Martha Scott) and their daughter (Patricia Owens) arrive from the US. Eileen is a sophisticated beauty in love Gruver, and he is happy at her arrival, but there is difference in attitude toward the kind of marriage they want.

Gruver is appalled when Mrs. Webster demands that her husband reprimand a Marine Captain (James Garner) for trying to bring his Japanese girlfriend into the Officers Club. Racial tension also comes to Gruvers attention, when a tough enlisted airman (Red Buttons), a comrade and traveling companion from Korea, ignores his advice and appeals to his Congressman in order to marry his Japanese girl, Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). Kelly goes over the heads of the Far East Command and their refusal to permit marriages between American military personnel and local Japanese.

Gruver accommodates his fiancé and they spend an evening at the Kabuki theatre in which men play all the roles, a novelty for Westerners. They meet Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban), a popular Japanese actor, and Eileen and Nakamura feel immediate attraction for each other.

Gruver agrees to be Kelly’s best man at his wedding with Katsumi, but he is reprimanded for his act by General Webster. Gruver takes the occasion to tell the General that he did not appreciate being pulled out of Korea, which puts further strain on his engagement to his daughter.

Director Logan and scripter Paul Osborn balance the blunt military opposition to interracial marriage with those of conservative Japanese opposition.

In the final scene, it’s the young people of Japan who cheer the news of the marriage, not their elders.

When first encountered, Brando’s Gruver is a likable, rather passive man. However, later, through his love for a Japanese woman and awareness of the prevailing prejudice, he takes on a moral stance and shows greater concern and courage in handling social issues.

Formerly known as a light comedian, Red Buttons shows dramatic capacity with which he was rewarded with the Supporting Actor Oscar. Miyoshi Umeki also won the Supporting Oscar for playing the kind and gentle Katsumi.

Miiko Taka plays Hana-Ogi with charm and credibility, despite her lack of experience.

The film’s genuine Japanese settings are nicely photographed by Ellsworth Fredericks; Sayonara was shot in Kyoto, boasting images of the giant Buddhas, the Geisha training school, the Bunraku puppet theater, the Kabuki Theater, and the Imperial gardens.

The release of Sayonara was rather timely: According to one study, by 1956, more than 10,000 American servicemen had married Japanese women despite the regulations.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 10

Picture, produced by William Goetz
Director: Joshua logan
Actor: Marlon Brando
Screenplay (Adapted): Paul Osborn
Supporting Actor: Red Buttons
Supporting Actress: Miyoshi Umeki
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color): Ted Haworth; Robert Priestley
Sound: George Groves
Film Editing: Arthur P. Schmidt and Philip W. Anderson

Oscar Awards: 4

Supporting Actor
Supporting Actress
Art Direction


Produced by William Goetz
Directed by Joshua Logan
Screenplay: Paul Osborn, based on James A. Michener novel
Camera: Ellsworth Fredricks
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Editing: Arthur P. Schmidt and Philip W. Anderson
Music: Franz Waxman; title song by Irving Berlin

Running Time: 140 Minutes


Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando)
Eileen Webster (Patricia Owens)
Kelly (Red Buttons)
Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban)
Mrs. Webster (Martha Scott)
Bailey (James Garner)
Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka)
Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki)
General Webster (Kent Smith)
Colonel Craford (Douglas Watson)
Fumiko-san (Reiko Kuba)
Teruko-san (Soo Yong)