This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Sayonara, bestselling author James A Michener’s towering novel of racial prejudice and its tragic consequences in Korean War era Japan. The hero is an American ace fighter pilot; the heroine, a top star at the Takarazuka Revue. And since it’s also Takarazuka’s 100th anniversary this year, I thought this was a good time to tell you about one of my favourite books.
I came across Sayonara because I’m a massive fan of the Takarazuka Revue, which began in 1914 as a little troupe of girls acting out nursery stories, but morphed into a spectacular singing and dancing revue company following an encounter with Parisian revue in the nineteen-twenties.
All of the Takarazuka actors are women, and the top stars are massively popular throughout Japan, just as they were in Michener’s day.
Sayonara is set in the little town of Takarazuka, just outside Osaka, though it was more of a country village in Michener’s day. The life of the town still revolves around the Takarazuka Grand Theatre.
Michener was himself married to a Japanese woman, the translator Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, whose family had been interned in America following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that brought America into the second world war.
Michener knew first hand the post-war American prejudice against Japanese people, but in Sayonara he also recognises the Japanese prejudice against foreigners, exemplified by the traditionalist and rule driven Takarazuka Revue Company.
With cultural rigidity and prejudice on both sides, when fighter pilot Ace Gruber falls in love with beautiful but enigmatic actress Hana-ogi, the stage is set for tragedy. But it is the parallel romance of Airman Joe Kelly with Katsumi, a simple Takarazuka fan, that tugs at the heartstrings most, as little people with inoffensive lives are crushed under the wheels of unyielding fate.
The book was made into a film of the same name, starring Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka, in 1957. It rightly earned Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki as Joe and Katsumi Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Brando was also nominated for an Oscar, but failed to win and I have to say that in my view it’s not one of his great performances. The film is sadly not faithful to the book, writing in a hunky role for Ricardo Montalban as a kabuki actor (!) and completely changing the powerful ending.
There are some brief scenes in the film which seem to depict a Takarazuka Revue performance from the fifties, but in fact these were filmed at OSK, a copycat troupe which went out of business some years ago.
So maybe skip the film, but definitely get the book. It’s out of print but secondhand copies can be bought from a number of sellers.
And if you should happen to fancy a more contemporary story with the Takarazuka Revue at its heart, well then, try my murder mystery, The Cherry Blossom Murder.