Adapted from James Michener’s novel, an American Air Force major assigned to Japan is best man at an officer’s wedding to a Japanese woman and neglects his American fiancée to see a Japanese dancer.
In 1951 a jet plane lands in Korea, and pilot Major Lloyd Gruver (Marlon Brando) says he got two more.
A doctor is examining Gruver and tells him he is through flying for a while, but Gruver says he needs only a bottle of beer. The doctor was kidding and says he is going to Kobe, Japan. General Webster requested him. A man says Kelly got permission to go back and marry the Japanese girl. Gruver says he explained that he cannot take her back to the United States. The man says there is no law which says he can’t marry her, and he has appealed to his Congressman. The man asks Gruver to talk to him. Gruver says Kelly has been promoted four times and busted back each time
Gruver is talking with Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons). Gruver says he saw a face in a plane and is thinking about it. Kelly says he won’t have much to do in Japan except to marry the general’s daughter Eileen. Gruver is surprised to hear that she is there. Kelly says they both can marry their girls, but Gruver sees a difference. Gruver says his girl is American and shows him a picture of his girl. He has been engaged to her for a long time and says she has many good qualities. Kelly likes her in a bathing suit. Kelly asks if he has seen his girl Katsumi. Gruver says she looks bright but asks if he is taking a risk marrying her. Kelly shows him pamphlets designed to discourage him. Gruver says he has nothing against the Japanese anymore. He says his friends will put him down, but Kelly says they won’t stay his friends. He would even give up his American citizenship. That bothers Gruver, and he says he is nuts. Kelly admits his “in love crazy.”
On a plane Kelly tells Gruver they are about to land in Kobe, and he tells him about Kabuki theater with all male performers. Kelly also knows a place with Japanese girls.
Gruver gets off the plane and waves to General Webster (Kent Smith). Kelly asks Gruver to be his best man, and Gruver agrees. Mrs. Webster (Martha Scott) welcomes Gruver with a hug. Gruver sees Eileen Webster (Patricia Owen) in the car and kisses her several times while he kids her that she is the ugliest girl.
Outside the club Captain Bailey (James Garner) complains that a Japanese girl is not allowed there. General Webster asks an officer what is the trouble. Bailey says she is one of Japan’s most famous dancers. Webster says the club is only for American personnel. They have been easy on fraternization, but an officer should be an example. Webster says he is sorry, and Gruver asks Bailey about insolence. Bailey salutes and leaves with his girl. Mrs. Webster invites Gruver to go to the Kabuki theater.
In the theater they watch the actors. Gruver notices that some in the audience are eating. In his dressing-room Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban) is told about Eileen Webster. She tells Gruver that she met Nakamura who is very famous. She says a lady is going to turn into a lion. Eileen tells Lloyd that she loves him, and they kiss, drawing some frowns. The actors move around the stage and along a runway. Eileen says the actors are trained to have the grace of a woman and the power of a man. Having played the woman, Nakamura now plays an old man.
Backstage Nakamura talks with Eileen and Gruver who wishes they had used a Marilyn Monroe. Nakamura says they were banned from Kabuki in the 17th century.
Gruver and Eileen have dined at a restaurant, and they walk outside. She asks why they are not married. He says the Korean War delayed it, and she asks if that is a convenient excuse. She visited his mother and was surprised by how lonely she is because his father is often away. He says his father is a general and that his mother likes it that way. Eileen says she wants him to love her too. She says if what he wants is the Air Force and a position in society, then he should not marry her. He agrees that she has been thinking too much, and he kisses her and tells her to quit it. She hopes things will turn out. He says she always talks nonsense when they get together. He says he wants to have a home in America with a girl like her. She objects to his referring to her as a type. He says he is not in a position to take her off to a shack. He questions whether he really knows who she is, and she says maybe he never will.
In an office Kelly and Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) take their wedding vows. The consul warns him that the Air Force will not take care of her. Gruver is a witness and hands Kelly a ring which he puts on her finger before he kisses her. Gruver asks the consul how many GIs have gone through that ceremony, and he says about 10,000 even though they make it difficult with paper work. Kelly asks Gruver to kiss the bride, and he does. Kelly thanks him for his courage in doing this and offers to help him in the future.
General Webster thanks Lloyd for coming over, and he asks about his witnessing the marriage. Webster says the Army policy is to discourage such marriages, and he and Mrs. Webster believe that he sanctioned that marriage. Lloyd says he did not encourage it, but he did it to help his own men. Mrs. Webster asks what is wrong with him and Eileen. He says he is embarrassed. He says he is a pilot and was doing a job in Korea, but in Japan he has nothing to do except to be with Eileen. Mrs. Webster asks if he plans to marry Eileen. Lloyd says Eileen is not sure right now. Mrs. Webster encourages him to ask her out for dinner. Eileen comes in, and Mrs. Webster says Lloyd came to see her. He invites her to a movie, but Eileen says she is having dinner with friends. He asks about tomorrow, and she says she is busy then too. He asks about next week, and she says yes and asks him to call her. Lloyd says goodbye and goes out. Mrs. Webster asks her why she said no, and she says she does not want to see him when her mother tries to set it up. She hopes she will not lose her man for her.
At a bar Gruver orders a drink, and Bailey tells the Japanese bartender to call him sir so as to avoid insolence of manner. Gruver asks Bailey what there is to do. Bailey asks where in the south he is from. They sit and talk outside. Gruver says he did not want to go to West Point, and his mother says she and his father expected him to. He says he had a different idea. His father flew from Texas and told him he did not have to go to the Point. Gruver says he went on to West Point. Lately he has old feelings coming back and is not sure he wants to stay in the Air Force. Bailey asks what it all means, and Gruver laughs. They look at a bridge, and Bailey says girls go over that bridge from their dormitory. They see the women coming and go to watch with others. The women sing as they cross the bridge. Bailey points out his girl, but he explains that Matsubayashi girls are not allowed to date. If they are caught, they are dismissed. Gruver says he was dating her, but Bailey says he is different. Bailey says those girls have fame and wealth but no l’amour. Gruver says Bailey has l’amour, and he agrees. They see Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka) in white holding a chicken. Bailey asks Gruver to see the show.
In the auditorium girls dance with bare legs. Then others play music and sing. Gruver and Bailey enjoy the show. Chorus girls dance again, and Gruver smiles. In the finale Gruver stands up and bows to Hana-Ogi.
Outside Gruver asks Bailey if they will come back this way. Gruver says Hana-Ogi is the greatest thing he ever saw. Kelly and his wife come up, and he asks Katsumi to say something. She speaks a little English, and Kelly says he is studying Japanese. Gruver asks how they are doing, and Kelly says they got a little house. Gruver asks if Katsumi will introduce him to Hana-Ogi. Kelly says the rules are strict, but she will ask her. The girls return to the bridge, and Bailey tips his cap to his girl. Katsumi asks Hana-Ogi, and Kelly tells them that she will not speak to Americans because they killed her father. Gruver says he did not do it, but Bailey says they all did.
At a restaurant Bailey is with the Kellys, and Gruver talks with Bailey’s Japanese girl. He asks her if Hana-Ogi ever goes no dates. He asks her to tell her that he wants to meet her and talk to her. She says they never speak to men. Gruver says it will happen.
Bailey finds Gruver waiting near the bridge as the girls arrive. Gruver stops Hana-Ogi and asks for her autograph. She signs her name and walks on.
Returning Hana-Ogi signs autographs for Japanese, and she sees Gruver is there. He studies Japanese and speaks to her on other occasions by the bridge. She signs autographs and looks for Gruver, but he is hiding behind a tree. Kelly says he has been looking for him. Gruver says he has an engagement this evening. Kelly tells him that Hana-Ogi will be there.
Gruver gets out of a cab with flowers and asks children where Joe Kelly lives. They show him. Kelly welcomes him. Inside Katsumi is cooking. Kelly tells Gruver to take his shoes off as he comes in. Kelly tells him to sit at the place of honor on the floor and gives him an arm rest. Gruver hopes for the rest of the chair too. Katsumi says it is nice to have him among them. Gruver gives her the flowers. She serves towels for them to wash their hands. She serves saki, and Kelly explains it is rice wine. Gruver notices it is warm. Kelly advises him how to serve saki for her. Katsumi excuses herself to finish cooking. Kelly hands her whiskey in a bag as a present. Kelly shows him around the house. He has extra rooms, and Gruver hits his head on the door frame. Gruver asks if Hana-Ogi speaks English, and Kelly says she understands.
Gruver goes back and sees Hana-Ogi sitting at the table. They bow to each other. Kelly goes to help Katsumi. Gruver says he is glad she came over, and he sits down. She pours saki for him, and then he dips the cup in water and pours for her. He says this is the first time he had liquid rice. He says she is a fine-looking woman. She does not react. He says he is hungry and wonders if he is saying the wrong thing. He hopes she is interested in him too. He does not know what to say. She says her father’s killing made Americans her enemies. He says many Americans were killed too, and he suggests they not talk about that. She says he has been watching her at the bridge, and she has been watching him too. She says Katsumi told her that he kissed her gently at the wedding. Hana-Ogi asks him to forgive him for what she has been feeling. He says he feels like a fool, and he asks her to forgive him. She says she is from a poor farm in northern Japan. She became first dancer and will become head teacher. She says her life is planned as his life is dedicated to the military. She has not been in love but has thought about it. She says they must face the danger ahead now if someone discovers them. She says she will never fall in love again; but she will love him if that is his desire. She pours saki for him.
On the steps Eileen welcomes Nakamura, and Mrs. Webster tells them to circulate around the party. Nakamura excuses himself, and Mrs. Webster asks if Lloyd has come yet. General Webster has to speak to Col. Crawford who says they think Gruver has hooked up with a Japanese woman. General Webster says he must be wrong. Crawford says he has shacked up with a Japanese girl, but Webster says he trusts Gruver. Crawford asks permission to post an order that they are not to be seen with Japanese women, and Webster approves.
Gruver goes up stairs and kisses Hana-Ogi. She asks if anyone saw him come, and he says he is the only military person around there. Inside Gruver sits next to her while a Japanese man prepares tea. She says the pleasure is in the process.
Gruver walks through a Japanese town. He comes into Kelly’s house. Kelly is being washed in a tub by his wife. Gruver turns on music and takes off his coat. He says Hana-Ogi is coming over, and they are going to cook together. Kelly asks what he is doing later and asks if he will play poker with them. Gruver wears a Japanese robe. Hana-Ogi finds him, and he kisses her. He mentions food and closes the door.
Later Hana-Ogi is singing “Sayonara” with a puppet. He likes it, and she comes over and kisses him. He says he is going to have fun later with girls and beer. She does not want him to be lonely and leaves. Eileen comes in and says she had to come. He stands up and asks how she is. He invites her to sit down. She sits on the floor and says they are after him. She warns him about Col. Crawford. She says he is hoping to catch Kelly. He asks if he has been seen going there, and she says yes. She says she has to go and warns him to follow military regulations. She says he is the Air Force’s pin-up boy. She gets up, and he helps her with her coat. She asks if he has thought seriously about what he is doing. She says he has a brilliant record and hopes he will not throw it all away. He says he did not know this would happen. She goes out.
Hana-Ogi asks Gruver if he likes the play, and he says yes. She shows him two rocks in the ocean that have gotten married.
Bailey asks Gruver why he is visiting them. He says he needs his laundry done. Bailey reads aloud the new orders issued. He warns Gruver this is serious. Gruver says he goes out in the country. Gruver advises Bailey to go out tonight because it is Tanabata. Gruver says it is the night of love. Gruver says he will see him and goes out.
During fireworks Gruver and Hana-Ogi are lying on grass. She says her heart is full of love for him and kisses him.
At the Kabuki theater Eileen sits in the balcony, and a man hands her a reply from Nakamura inviting her to have dinner with him. She nods her head as he performs.
While dining Nakamura asks Eileen if she would like to see the garden. They get up and go outside. He asks her if Gruver will marry a Japanese girl. He thinks he is not brave enough to face the censor for such a marriage. He says beauty is not confined to any one race. He asks her not to turn away. He asks if he can see her again, and she says yes. She wants to know more about Japan.
Gruver is lying inside a net, and Hana-Ogi lies by him and kisses him. She asks if he is tired, and he says he has been thinking. He feels like he is a different person now. He spent most of his life taking orders and giving orders. He has been spending afternoons there thinking. He is beginning to understand what he really wants. He kisses her. Kelly comes in and tells him that he is being shipped back to the States. Gruver says maybe they can work something out. Kelly says every guy on the list is married to a Japanese girl.
Col. Crawford tells Gruver and Kelly that they cannot do anything. Gruver asks about his wife, and Crawford says she stays there. Gruver says he would be busting up his marriage. Gruver asks why he could not extend his tour of duty. Crawford says he cannot do anything even if his father is a four-star general. Kelly says his wife is going to have a baby. Kelly asks if he could be transferred back to Korea. Crawford asks where his home is, and Kelly says it is the house by the canal. Crawford tells him that is off limits from now on. He warns him of a court martial, and Kelly asks if then he could stay in Japan. Crawford warns Gruver too.
Gruver tells the Websters, and they talk about Kelly’s situation. Eileen complains, and her father tries to explain the reasons for the rules. He thinks some of them may welcome the transfer. He says there are often regrets. Gruver says Kelly has no regret. General Webster says three men came to him today with the same request. Gruver asks him to make an exception as he did for him when he brought him from Korea. Webster says it is a hopeless situation. Mrs. Webster asks why it means so much to Lloyd, and he says he plans to marry a Japanese girl himself. Mrs. Webster tells Eileen it is for her father to handle this. Gruver tells Eileen he is sorry, and he leaves. Eileen says she will never love anyone as much as she loved Lloyd. Her mother asks her to stay, and Eileen says she wants to talk to someone who happens to be Japanese.
Gruver tells Kelly he may have made it worse. Kelly says Katsumi wants him to go with her on a train to a show. He does not want to tell her until later. Kelly goes out, and Hana-Ogi comes in. Gruver tells her they will have to change the law next year. He says he signed papers so that they can get married. She says they never talked about marriage. He says he could not until now. He says they will change the law about not being able to take her back to America. She reminds him of the dangers she mentioned the first night. She is tempted, and she could be a mother; but she says it is no good. She feels he knows it too the way he talks about the Air Force. He says they are too far into it, but she says she is obligated to them. He says she is obligated to him. She says they are her life. He says she does not love him enough. She is leaving for Tokyo in six days to join another troupe. Another girl would have been dismissed, but they are being lenient with her. He asks why they mean more than he does. She says she has no right to marry anyone. Her father was forced to sell one of his daughters, and she as the oldest had to go with them. She says her best friend’s father paid money to free her so that she could be a Matsubayashi girl. She cannot marry anyone. Suddenly they hear a crash, and Kelly is roughly handling Katsumi. He shows Gruver a diagram of eye surgery, and she says she wants to look American. Kelly says he loves her and will not let her do that. Gruver persuades Katsumi to say she is sorry and that she will not do that. She agrees. Gruver says he wanted to have a party tonight, and she says they may be late.
In the theater the four watch the Kabuki players with puppets. Hana-Ogi tells Lloyd not to think of anything but the play now. Katsumi explains how the woman will bind her body before her death. Hana-Ogi says when lovers can no longer face life it is customary for them to die together. Katsumi says it is beautiful, and they will live together in another world. The man puppet stabs the female with a sword and then stabs himself. The two women are weeping.
By the canal Gruver and Kelly get out of a cab. A boy tells Kelly that soldiers are going through the house. Gruver has Hana-Ogi get in the car and leave. The other three go to the house. Kelly sees the house is boarded up with signs saying it is off limits. The military police say he is shipping out Thursday. Kelly has to tell Katsumi something, and they walk away.
In his robe General Webster tells Gruver he has to put him under arrest. Webster says the Matsubayashi supervisor came to him today. Gruver is to fly to Randolph Field day after tomorrow, and until then he is under house arrest. He says Gruver is not being responsible and dismisses him.
In his room Gruver hears a car horn, and Bailey says he could not get near the place. Military police tell Gruver that Kelly disappeared. They took him to the airport, but he did not get on the plane. They ask Gruver to help them, and he asks for a reason why he should. They want to prevent him being arrested for desertion. Gruver offers to look for him, and Bailey goes with him.
They take a car to the canal and walk to the house. Gruver calls to Kelly, and he goes in under the boards, followed by Bailey. Gruver knocks on a door. He opens the door and sees Kelly and Katsumi lying together on a bed. Gruver realizes they are dead and feels terrible. Bailey says he will call the police.
Outside Hana-Ogi looks in and says “Sayonara” to Kelly-san and to Gruver-san. Outside by the canal people have gathered. Some carry signs and chant for Yankees to go home. Bailey says they had better get out of there. They see gangs approach, and a fight begins. The young men beat the two Americans. Some Japanese help them, and they manage to get away. Gruver asks Bailey to take care of everything and says he will see him later. Gruver flags down an Air Force car and leaves.
Gruver crosses the bridge and enters the Matsubayashi temple area. He goes in a building and sees classes for singing and dancing. He calls to Hana-Ogi and goes upstairs. A woman tells him she is gone. She shows him her empty room. Two Japanese police come in, and the woman stops them.
General Webster tells Gruver and Bailey that they were attacked by Japanese who wanted to create an incident. He says he knows how he feels and says it was dreadful about Kelly and his wife. He tells him that he learned that a law is being passed that will enable Americans to take their Japanese brides back to the States. He says many have died waiting for laws to be passed. He asked Gruver to get back to the mainstream of his life. Gruver thanks him for coming over.
Gruver looks at the two rocks in the ocean while Bailey waits in a jeep. Gruver gets in the jeep and asks him to take him to the airport.
At the Tokyo airport two soldiers sees Ace Gruver, and they tell him they are from Stars and Stripes. Gruver says he is in a hurry and gets in a car.
Gruver comes into a theater and stands watching Hana-Ogi sing for a moment before going out. He goes downstairs and to the backstage rooms. He finds Hana-Ogi and dismisses two women from the room. He closes the door and tells her that he is going back to America on Friday and may not ever get back to Japan. He wants to know one thing. Once she said to him that she could love him and be a wife and a mother. She remembers. She said she was afraid of being a lonely old teacher and dancer. She feels it already but asks him to go now. He says they are going to have more trouble. He asks her if she loves him or not. If she does not, he will find a way to live with it. He asks her to tell him what she really feels. She says she is frightened and confused. She says they must do the right thing. He says they have been wasting their lives doing the right thing. She says they have duties, and he says the first one is to love each other and raise sweet children. She says they live in different worlds. He says he wants her to be his wife. She asks about their children. She says they will be half her and half him. He asks her to come with him to the American consulate in Tokyo to fill out the papers. He says he will wait for her outside, and he goes out. She weeps.
The Stars and Stripes reporters ask Gruver if he has a story for them. He says no. Hana-Ogi has changed clothes and comes out. She says it is difficult for a Japanese woman to speak in public. She says Major Gruver has asked her to be his wife. She hopes people will approve. She hopes she will be able to teach her own children to dance. They ask what Gruver has to say, and he says to tell the brass that they said, “Sayonara.”
This cross-cultural drama portrays the American military in Japan after World War II when thousands of them married Japanese women. This romantic story reflects the good relations which developed between the former enemies during the American occupation that helped Japan reform and demilitarize their government with democratic processes.