My mother was a movie buff. We’d go to all of the new releases spanning a variety of topics. But the one I remember seeing with her that was the most impactful was the 1957 movie Sayonara with Marlon Brando playing a swaggering US flying ace in the Korean War with his wingman on the ground, Redd Buttons who played a chief maintenance sergeant. These two servicemen were based in post-World War II Japan, a nation occupied by the American military with all of the restrictive covenants on its people and interactions with American residents, especially servicemen.
The female protagonist in this film was a relatively unknown Japanese American actress named Miiko Taka, who played a Geisha named Hana-ogi, one of the top performers of her time and ultimate showgirl. She was coveted as a national superstar in the movie’s plotline and reverence towrd her demanded that she be unapproachable by any man, Japanese or otherwise.
In a classic Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story style mashup, the movie deals squarely with racism and prejudice in the face of insanely unreasonable social demands. Brando’s character, Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver is the son of a U.S. Army general. He is stationed at Tami Air Force Base near Kobe, Japan where he is revered as a fighting ace. He stalks, pursues and falls in love with Japanese entertainer, Hana-ogi, a superstar in her own right.
Me, I was goo-goo eyed in awe of Hana-ogi’s beauty and talent. I fell in love with her along with Major Gruver. I could not for the life of me understand why so much social ugliness could swirl around so much tender loving beauty.
Major Gruver initially met Hana-ogi through an enlisted man, Airman Joe Kelly played by Redd Buttons. Joe, the crew chief, is also in love. He is determined to wed a Japanese woman, Katsumi played by Miyoshi Umami. In this plotline the hate for this relationship is more virulent. The United States military does not recognize marriage to Japanese nationals. The Air Force, including Major Gruver, is against the marriage even though he acknowledges his love for Hana-ogi. Gruver and Kelly have an argument during which Gruver uses a racial slur to describe Katsumi. He eventually begs forgiveness and becomes Joe’s best man at their wedding.
Airman Kelly suffers further prejudice at the hands of his commanding officer who forces him to perform tedious assignments and double duty. The final indignity comes when airman Kelly is told that he, along with many others married to Japanese women, will not be allowed to take their Asian brides home and they are reassigned stateside.
By this time of this revelation, we learn that Katsumi is pregnant and finding no other way to be together, Airman Kelly and Katsumi commit double suicide. This was a wakeup call for Gruver. He is a general’s son and rising star in the military after all! He succumbs to his emotions and marries Hana-ogi. When a Stars and Stripes reporter asked him what will he say to the “big brass” as well as to the Japanese, neither of which are particularly happy about the union, Major Gruver said, “Tell ’em we said, Sayonara.” And thus the title of the movie.
Now I admit that at the time I first saw Sayonara, I was seven years old, but not too young to appreciate the attraction of Hana-ogi and the validity of a relationship with Major Gruver. I could not understand for the life of me why people could be so disapproving of what appeared to my pre-pubescent logic to be tender and true unconditional love. I think I decided then that I was never going to be a party of senseless, mean, ugly, ignorant racism when it comes to who I love, who I befriend and who I support. And true to that conviction, my heart has always fought for what my heart wanted.
I believe it is true that children are born pure and as they grow up, they are exposed to rights and wrongs. But ultimately they make a choice. I am grateful to have grown up in a household that allowed me to make the right choices early. Miiko Taka is forever in my mind iconic of that standard of making the right choice when following my heart.I’m a little boy all grown up with a heart as open and inclusive as ever!