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


John Kennedy said...

I am reading this but at this stage am only a little over one-third through. I found it hard to get into at first but am enjoying it more now. The flood incident is indeed well delineated and convincing. Its picture of a Japan partially westernised but still adhering to its traditions is vivid and powerful. I think I can understand what attracted you to it, Faye, but I have a way to go yet.

Faye said...

I understand - it is difficult to read quickly. The very realistic style , which is dense with detail, does slow up the reading processes.
I will be interested in your overall view - I am sure you will have some interesting insights.
I am reminded of the fine detailing of the natural world inc the weather througout the book - one more factor which makes it very hard to skim.

John Kennedy said...

It took me a time to 'get into' this book, and I might not have persevered but for the challenge created by its being part of the 'Classic Readers' program. But I came to enjoy it thoroughly, and I have just spent much of this afternnon finishing the last 120 pages in a single sitting.

I found particularly interesting the picture it presents of middle class Japanese life about 1940. It is a fascinating blend of tradition and Western modernity. The characters use trains, taxis, and telephones, have some knowledge of Western literature, music, and languages, and occasionally enjoy Western meals, and some of them wear Western dress sometimes, or even frequently. But they are also deeply embedded in tradional Japanese culture, and we hear a good deal about Japanese dress, Kabuki theatre, and Japanese ceremonies and practices such as viewing cherry blossoms. Their concerns are - about health, money, position in society, etc. - are familiar ones and in many ways what we might expect to find in a European or Australian novel of the same period. (It interesting to reflect that these are the Japanese of exactly the period we are inclined to associate mainly with extreme militarism, fanatical devotion to the emperor, and an enthusiasm for suicide.) But there are also aspects that are alien to the modern West, notably of course the way in which marriages are arranged, but also the practice of declaring people who have not behaved properly are no longer part of the family, and the deference to the wishes of the oldest sister and her husband.

You mentioned Jane Austen, Faye, and I quite often found myself thinking of her work as I read this book. There are obvious differences, not least in tone, but in the work of both Tanzaki and Austen arranging suitable marriages is the central concern, and in both we have a mixture of characters who adhere to the conventions, and those who shockingly defy them. Although the Japanese novel was written by a man, like Austen's novels it is a work in which women and female concerns are central, and the male characters are a bit peripheral.

Sachiko is by far the most vividly delineated character, and the primary focus is really on her. Taeko also emerges vividly. Yukiko is enigmatic, and I am not sure that I agree with Edmund White, quoted in the 'blurb' of the edition I used, that she is 'detrmined to manipulate everyone from her shadowy retreat'. I am not sure she ever quite knows what she wants, even at the very end as she journeys to Tokyo to be at last married. The beautician Mrs Itani is a marvellous comic creation, a bit reminiscent of Dickens.

I am glad I was led to discover this novel.

Faye said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed it John - as you note it rewards a persistent reader.
On Yukiko , I had another think about her following your comment and I have some empathy with Edmund White's comment. Yukiko is the most traditional of the sisters and we often hear about her appearance being very Japanese. But I think she is stubborn and really not wanting to marry at all - she manages to mess things up time and time again . Prospective suitors are just never good enough and the family goes along all the time with this whereas Taeko by contrast has a very hard time of it. Is Yukiko manipulative ? - perhaps yes - and if so I think the author is dealing with it with a very earthy sense of irony and characterisation.

But in the end of course there is simply no alternative life style available or allowed for Yukiko and she is going to marry -but what about the ending of the book and in fact the last sentence - is that realism or not ? I dont really see Yukiko as a victim as such - she is going to live nearer her dearest sister and she is going to be comfortable financially - and I reckon she is going to have a big impact on her new household.

Like you John, I enjoyed reading about this culture very much - masterfully written i think.

John Kennedy said...

You may well be right about Yukiko, Faye. I really did find her by far the most enigmatic of the four sisters. It is possible that she is trying to sabotage the various attempts at arrnnging her marriage, and really does not want to marry at all. (I must admit that did not occur to me until you mentioned it - I suppose it did not occur to her family either!) I do think she is more passive than shrewdly manipulative. Maybe at the end she has got the best deal possible for a woman of her social status in her society, but she is marrying a man who has nevr really held down a job and who is dependent on the generosity of his ageing father. He is obviously of higher status than the other suitors by the standards of her time and place, but would she have been better off with the doctor turned businessman?

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