Sayonara and 1952 Japan

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Sayonara

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

‘Sayonara’ (photo courtesy John Quincy Lee)

Turning any movie into a play is tough. Turning a successful movie into a play is tougher and making a movie into a stage musical is more difficult yet. Add to that the responsibility of turning a movie about history, race and controversy into a musical is an achievement.

That is exactly what New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Company has done with Sayonara that opened on Thursday at The Clurman Theater on W. 42d Street in New York. The play, just as emotionally gut wrenching as the 1957 movie starring Marlon Brando and Red Buttons, probes racism in 1952 Japan, while the U.S. Army was in its waning days of occupying the country.

Sayonara, for those who have not seen the film, is the story of a U.S. Air Force hero pilot, ‘Ace’ Gruver, transferred from Korea to Japan so he could be with his girlfriend, the daughter of an American General. In Japan, he meets Hana-Ogi, the gorgeous lead performer in the fabled Japanese Takarazuka theater company. The pair fall in love and Gruver and Hana-Ogi, a much modernized woman still struggling with deep attachments to her past, face discrimination from both American and Japanese quarters. The play is the story of how they do, and do not, overcome it.

Staging Sayonara as a musical is a daunting challenge. How do you put the sprawling story, with its majestic movie scenery, on to a small stage and how to you equal the superb performers in the film?

Well the Pan Asian Repertory Company, has, for the most part, done a fine job. Their production of Sayonara is a heart-warming, and heart-breaking, story with magnificent performances by a number of actors in the cast. It has soft, luscious music (Hy Gilbert and George Fischoff) and a solid, emotional book by William Luce. It is moving and riveting and reminds you, too, that all over the world today, just as in 1952 Japan, American have innumerable problems in relations with foreign neighbors and continue to grapple with imigration.

The play opens with a good song by Gruver (Morgan McCann) and others called Born to Fly. That is followed by other gems, such as L’Amour and Proud to Be Japanese. The actors in the play are good singers and they do a fine job of making the songs as much as part of the story as the dialogue.

It seems odd that Ace can switch his love over from the general’s daughter, Eileen, to Hana-Ogi, but he does. He then falls into the same trap as his buddy Joe Kelly. How does a soldier marry a Japanese woman? In the play, U.S. regulations forbid bringing a Japanese bride back to America, so Ace and Joe face a stone wall in their romances. How do you get over the wall? Do you?

The writers stretch history a bit to make the drama emotional. In 1946, the army frowned on solders who married Japanese girls, but Congress allowed it under Public Law 271, known as the War Brides Act, that permitted marriages and the bringing of foreign wives to the U.S. That was in effect until 1949, but in that year Congress also passed Public Law 471, Known as the Fiancées Act, which permitted soldiers to bring a foreign born fiancée to the U.S. for three months. If they married within those three months, she could remain permanently. The writers suggest that in 1952 there was no chance that Japanese women could come to the U.S. which was not exactly true but helped make a good story.

The strength of Sayonara, as a movie and here as a play, is that it explores the racism of the U.S. army towards the newly conquered Japanese, but also Japanese racism toward the U.S. soldiers (Hana-Ogi lost family in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima). People in the play, on both sides, works as hard as possible to break up the American-Japanese unions, even calling on the ghosts of Hana-Ogi‘s family and Japanese cultural traditions. Ace is lobbied by his American girlfriend and her parents and persecuted by American officers

This was a bold racial movie back in 1957. but it remains solid today (do we have a problem with immigration today?). In sixty years, America has done much to improve cultural relations with men and women around the world, but we still have a way to go.

Sayonara has a very dramatic ending. The second act is quite good. The first act is a bit wobbly and needs some tightening up. Another problem is the small stage. This is, like the movie, a big, sprawling story and needs a bigger stage. The singers and dancers, in particular, need more room. The play takes place in the Japanese city of Kobe and it would have been nice if there was some news or travel video of the city, just to add some backdrop to the story. The play could have added some more sound effects, too. There is a marvelous sound effect early on of a plane taking off, but not much more.

Director Tisa Chang has done a fine job of directing the play. She gets wonderful performances by McCann as Ace, Ya Han Chang as Hana-Ogi, Edward Tolve as Joe Kelly, Natsuko Hirano as Katsumi, Kelly’s girl. The play has a racially mixed cast with Americans as American GIs and civilians and Asians as the lovely Takarazuka dancers. One of the strengths of the play is the deep emotional ties of the Japanese characters to their country and its history while at the same time being in a hurry to adopt new, and popular, western traditions. By the end of the play, you learn much about cultural relations between Japan and the U.S. in the early 1950s.

PRODUCTION: The show is produced by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater. Choreography: Rumi Oyama, The play is directed by Tisa Chang. The how runs through July 26.

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