A decade-plus or so ago, the 20th-century Japanese whose work most interested me was Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965). I am currently on an Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) binge, and the Japanese writer I most enjoy remains Dazai Osamu (1909-48). Tanizaki’s foot fetishism eventually tired me along with his lack of interest in such male characters as were necessary evils in his focus on women. And I have not yet tackled his Big Novel/family chronicle Sasame-yuki, which means small snowflakes. In English, both the novel and Ichikawa Kon’s 1983 screen adaptation of it are titled “The Makioka Sisters.”
The movie is set in Osaka during the years 1938-40, years in which Japan was already at war conquering Manchuria and China, male concerns that are only fleetingly signaled, though the novelist and the film-maker were as aware of the rush to disaster as readers and viewers are.
The elder two daughters Tsuruko (Kishi Keiko) and Sachiko (Sakurma Yoshiko) are both married. Not just married but with husbands who have “married in,” that is, taken the Makioka name, which only social inferiors would consider doing.
The youngest sibling Taeko (Kotegawa Yukô) has a serious of disastrous “romantic” liaisons. I don’t recall her smoking in the film, but she goes to a bar alone, wears western clothes, and has a business (albeit it is doll-making, not a masculine one). Takeo cannot marry until the third sister, the diffident Yukiko (Yoshinaga Sayuri) does. Tsuruko has torpedoed a number of matches quite late in the match-making process, Yukiko has rejected some, and Takeo’s notoriety scares off a few more.
Insofar as “The Makioka Sisters” is a Japanese Gone with the Wind, Yukiko is something of a Melanie, Taeko a headstrong selfish Scarlett. Tara is in danger, not of the bombers who are still in the future, but because Tsuruko’s husband, Tatsuo (Itami Jûzô), is being pressed by the bank that employs him to move to Tokyo. And the upsetting of the Old Order is not the war Japan will lose, but the rejection of tradition by Takeo.
Having read a lot of Tanizaki, I am sure that the book’s literary qualities exceed those of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster, but, like GWTW, “The Makioka Sisters” is a soap opera, and there is strong illicit desire (Sachiko’s husband, the delicate Teinosuke [Ishizaka Kôji] for Yukiko the functional equivalent of Scarlett’s for Ashley who married Melanie). And keeping up appearances is a major concern in both movies, though the Makioka sisters do not need to retailor curtains: they have a veritable museum collection of kimonos.
The males in the movie are not as negligible as they are in much Tanizaki fiction. The attention to women’s clothes and exposed flesh (including one longing look at Yukiko’s feet by Teinosuke) is very Tanizaki. Tanizaki was “effeminate” in the older sense of the word in English: a man preoccupied with women and everything about them rather than woman-like. Ichikawa was not and made many movies mostly focused on male characters.
Though she had retired from writing screenplays at the time her husband undertook the Tokyo Olympics documentary in 1964 and died in 1983, it is difficult for me to believe that Wada Natto (née Mogi Yumiko in 1920) did not supply at least some advice for the adaptation of The Makioka Sisters. (She had been credited with the screenplay adapting Tanazaki’s The Key, which was luridly titled in English “Odd Obsession. .)
The eye is Ichikawa’s with gorgeous and fluid camerawork by Hasegawa Kiyoshi (who also shot “The Devil’s Ballad” in 1977 for Ichikawa, a movie I had not heard of before looking at Hasegawa’s screen credits).
I consider “The Makioka Sisters” a late masterpiece from a great master, albeit a movie that I don’t especially like. Its appeal is more for a Douglas Sirk audience than a samurai or Godzilla movie audience.
The Criterion DVD looks great. The only bonus feature on the disc is a trailer. There is a booklet essay by Audie Bock that is excellent, but I’d forego bonus features to see more Ichikawa films. I could easily wish-list a box of them (for the Eclipse series?).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray