Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Makioka Sisters, the movie

I've just watched (again) the Criterion Collection's high-definition DVD restoration of The Makioka Sisters. Set in Osaka in the years just before the attack on Pearl Harbor—the Japanese at home are already feeling the effects of the war in China—the movie follows the lives of four sisters from a declining merchant family. Their parents are dead, two older sisters are married (and the eldest's husband is the titular head, having married into the family and taken the Makioka name), the two younger are in the marriage market.

Much of the action involves the family trying to find an acceptable husband for shy and retiring Yukiko, 30, and the behavior of brash and modern Taeko, 25, who cannot marry before her older sister. Yukiko's husband will come only through a miai, the arranged meeting between the potential couple and their relatives. Taeko would marry for love and without regard for class or family status, I suspect an extraordinary attitude for a young Japanese woman in the 1930s.

The film is based on Junichiro Tanizaki's novel of the same name (in English; in Japanese it's Sasame Yuki, which means something like "a veil of snow"). The book was published right after the war and translated by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1957.

The movie, which by necessity has to simplify the 500-page novel, is both lovely and poignant. The war in China barely intrudes, and except for moments neither the film nor the book discusses politics or history. We know, however, what the characters do not; they are about to be swept into war and desolation.

The Makioka Sisters shows the tensions, needs, and social constraints within a Japanese family. For a fine discussion of the movie, see Audi Bock's essay. Even better, rent the movie, or read the book, or both.

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