The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Afetr reading this book again I now feel as though I know the sisters Makioka - Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko . It was written after WW11 , and translated and published in English ca 1957 . The main story however takes place over a few years in the late 30s and early 40s in Regional Japan - Osaka , Kobe, and Kyoto and also Tokyo. Much has been said about it as a record of the changing way of life of an era seen through the fading fortunes of a once great and rich family and this is fascinating aspect of the book, The beauty and great strength of the book for me however is the individual characterisation . Each of the four sisters becomes known very thoroughly by her conversation, letter-writing and thought and feeling processes which the author details for us. Sachiko is very well drawn and we know more about her thought processes than the others but they are each richly drawn.

Re the plot - this is a domestic, family saga at one level (the big problem for the household is the imperative to have the two younger sisters married - in the right order - a familiar idea perhaps to readers of Austen and 18th century English novels). What perhaps sets this novel apart for me is the realism of the writing - there is some humour but there is huge sympathy and respect for the characters and the way of life. The scenes are always very well set - you are conscious of a japanese artistic quality - poetical and visual . Naturalism and realism are the backdrops against which this poetical but robust story plays out. There are also a fair share of dramatic events -a horrific death scene , and a dangerous typhoon for example. The typhoon flood and rescue scenes are told as realistically and excitingly as any good Australian author would do in describing a flood or bushfire drama for instance. However the plot does revolve around the need to arrange a husband for Yukiko -various women act as marriage brokers including one marvellous hairdresser character. The traditional roles of women and men in these exercises are engrossing.

Another major aspect of the book is the detailing - we get to know so much about the way of life pre-antibiotics through the health episodes of which there are plenty in the novel - beri-beri was a common complaint with the Makioka women - we learn also for instance that when dressed as a geisha to dance the woman would eat small amounts only and place the food directly onto her tongue so as not to touch her makeup. There is much loving commentary about Kabuki theatre , actors of the day , artists etc.

The book starts about mid 1930 and goes up to about the beginning of 1941. The backdop of the horrific world events is touched upon only - we know there is a feeling of austerity in the provinces of Japan e.g.In the later years of the novel, the traditional cherry blossom promenades in Kyoto are undertaken in a more austere fashion - less jewellry and finery is worn for instance. The Chinese-Japanese war is referred to as the China Incident and the war in Europe is seen from the German point of view. However this is merely occasional background comment . The novel is focused on the domestic , social concerns.

I enjoyed this novel even more the second time I read it - I will be very interested to hear other including dissenting opinions