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The opening and closing cast credits differ slightly in order of appearance. Red Buttons' opening credits reads: "and presenting Red Buttons." The last opening cast credit, Ricardo Montalban, reads: "also starring Ricardo Montalban." After the ending credits, a written acknowledgment thanks "the officials and people of Japan" for their help in making the film. The name of the technical advisor for the Japanese theater scenes was shown as "Masaya Fusima" onscreen, but a document in the film's copyright record lists the name as "Masava Fujima." Onscreen ending credits list the character played by Douglas Watson as "Colonel Crawford." However, in the film the name is pronounced "Craford," which is how Michener's book, copyright records for the film and the Variety and New York Times reviews spell the name. The onscreen dialogue coach credit for Carlo Fiore is misspelled Fiori.
Several months before James Michener's novel Sayonara was published, and before a serialized version published in McCalls (Oct-December 1953) magazine was released, Paramount, M-G-M and Twentieth Century-Fox were bidding for the rights to make the film, according to August and September 1953 Daily Variety news items. The September 1953 Daily Variety item reported that Michener insisted on a seven-year lease and no sequel rights.
Then, according to a 9 September 1953Hollywood Reporter news item, Michener withdrew Sayonara from the film market "in order to secure a stage production, a dramatization by Joshua Logan and Joseph Mankiewicz." A September 14, 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that a group headed by Logan, who had produced Michener's South Pacific on the stage, and Irving Berlin acquired stage and film rights to Sayonara and planned to produce the property as a musical first, with book by Logan and score by Berlin. The news item also stated that David Merrick, stage designer Jo Mielziner and Michener had spent several weeks together in Japan two years earlier and, at that time, Logan had suggested the idea of a story using Japanese theatrical companies. A September 16, 1953 Variety article also stated that Michener was considering co-writing the musical's book.
According to the September 1953 Variety article, the three bidding companies and independent film producer William Goetz were considering filing suit, on the grounds that they had already come to an agreement with Michener over the property. A September 30, 1957 Daily Variety article reported that M-G-M, Fox and Goetz were preparing a joint lawsuit against Michener to enjoin the sale to Logan and to force Michener to sell to one of the three plaintiffs, which was possibly the first time an author was sued to force a sale "elsewhere than his choice."
A joint-action breach of contract suit was filed with the Supreme Court in New York, according to a November 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, by Fox, Goetz and Loew's, Inc. against Michener, Logan and Michener's agent, the William Morris Agency. The plaintiffs claimed that the film rights were offered for a $150,000 down payment and an additional $100,000 if the film's gross reached $5 million, that Michener was to pick from those companies who agreed to the terms by a specific deadline, and that the three parties had agreed to the terms. Although Michener made a motion to have the case dismissed, according to December 1953 Daily Variety, Hollywood Reporter and Variety news items, the judge upheld the contention of the plaintiffs, ruling that "the communication made on behalf of...Michener constituted an offer rather than an invitation to bid" and that the sale to Logan was illegal.
Negotiations to settle the action were still in motion when, according to a December 14, 1955 Daily Variety news item, Warner Bros., which had registered the title with the MPAA Title Registration Bureau, became connected to the property. Logan had recently signed a non-exclusive producer-director deal, which called for four films in six years, with Warner Bros. A December 19, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, which reported that M-G-M and Fox dropped their claims, accurately predicted that Logan would direct and that Goetz would produce the film for Warner Bros. release.
The song "Sayonara Goodbye," according to September 1957 New York Times and March 1958 Hollywood Citizen-News articles, was written by Berlin when the property was being considered as a Broadway musical. The articles state that rights to the song were sold to Goetz for one dollar. According to an October 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item, sheet music for the song was selling at a rate of one thousand copies a day. The song was recorded by several artists, among them, the Ames Brothers.
Paul Osborn, who, according to a March 1958 Hollywood Citizen-News article (that reported his first name as "John") was already working on the book for the musical and was signed to do the screenplay. In a March 1957 Variety article, Logan mentioned that Truman Capote read the script and "made a few suggestions," although his input was minimal. According to the March 1958 Hollywood Citizen-News article, actor Marlon Brando requested that the ending of Michener's novel, in which "Gruver" and "Hana-Ogi" do not end up together, be changed to a happy ending. A modern source reported that it was Brando's idea to make Gruver a Southerner, which he was not in the original novel.
Brando also, according to the Hollywood Citizen-News article, requested that a Japanese actress fill the lead role. In the article, Goetz reported that they had difficulty finding a Japanese actress who could master the English language in time for the production and that they were "seriously thinking of [casting] Audrey Hepburn or Jennifer Jones." In a March 1957 Variety article Logan said that Hepburn read the script several times, but refused the role because she was "terrified of...acting and thinking like an Oriental." Miiko Taka, who was cast, was a Los Angeles-born Nisei and, at that time a non-professional and, according to Logan, "the biggest chance we took."
According to the March 1957 Variety article, the Air Force objected to "two inaccuracies in [the] script," that the character "Joe Kelly" called Gruver by the nickname "Ace" early in the film, which would not have been correct protocol, and that there was never, as written in Michener's book, "a definite order shipping men who had married Japanese girls back to the States." The article also quoted Logan as stating that real Japanese women employed in a "Girls' Opera," as was Hana-Ogi, objected to Michener's portrayal of them, when the novel was first translated into Japanese, as they felt "blackened" by the "story of one of their members living out of wedlock with a U.S. military officer. Their slogan [was] purity, beauty and art."
According to studio production notes, the puppet drama in the film, called "Shinju Ten-no Amijima" or "The Love Suicides at Amijima," was performed by the Bunraku Mitsuwa Troupe. Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items add the following actors to the cast: Warren Robertson, Steve McGrover, Mrs. Shiguki Nitta and Peggie and Laddie Reday. Sayonara marked the film debut of William Wellman, Jr., the son of the famed director who played a Stars and Stripes reporter. Although another film in which he appeared, Lafayette Escadrille was produced earlier, Sayonara was released first. Studio production notes and a March 14, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that actress Patricia Owens, who portrayed "Eileen," had an appendectomy during filming.
A studio cast list found in the production file for the film at the AMPAS Library indicates that several of the cameramen were borrowed from RKO. According to studio production notes, portions of the film were shot in Tokyo, Isaka, Hami Airbase, Takamatsu Island and Kyoto in Japan. A March 1957 Hollywood Reporter reported that the jet plane sequences were shot at Lockheed Airport in Burbank, CA.
According to November and December 1957 Hollywood Reporter news items, Sayonara's Los Angeles preview was held at the Warner Bros. Burbank studio, making it the first time the studio previewed a film on their lot. Portions of the event were broadcast on Art Linkletter's House Party, Truth or Consequences and It Could Be You television shows.
Sayonara won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Sound Recording. Red Buttons, performing in his first dramatic role, and Miyoshi Umeki, a Japanese nightclub singer who marked her American film debut, won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively, for their portrayals of "Joe Kelly" and "Katsumi." The film was also nominated for Best Picture (losing to The Bridge on the River Kwai), Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography. Brando was nominated for Best Actor and Logan for Best Director, but they lost to Alec Guinness and David Lean, respectively, both of whom were in The Bridge on the River Kwai.