The Makioka Sisters: Of Love and Money

On Film / Essays — Jun 10, 2011

Bringing Junichiro Tanizaki’s sprawling, elegiac histor­ical novel The Makioka Sisters (1948) to the screen would seem an undertaking tailor-made for Kon Ichikawa. The renowned writer’s work was familiar territory for the veteran director, who had adapted the quirky Tanizaki novella The Key (the 1959 film is also known in English as Odd Obsession), along with many other impor­tant books, during his prolific middle years as one of Japan’s foremost film directors. Moreover, born on Japan’s west coast and educated in Osaka—he carried a thick Osaka accent all of his adult life—Ichikawa was uniquely suited to the task of immersing himself in Tanizaki’s portrait of an old Osaka family’s four lovely daughters. And he had already made a successful film about the spoiled son of an Osaka merchant family dominated by women: 1960’s Bonchi. No one knew the terrain like Ichikawa.

But in 1982 and 1983, when he was readying production on The Makioka Sisters, Ichikawa was sixty-eight, a rickety age for the enervating demands of running a film crew, waiting on the weather, and directing an ensemble of competitive movie stars. Plus, he was without the help of his wife and former frequent screenwriting collab­orator, Natto Wada, with her gift for witty dialogue and meaningful silences. The two had worked together on such renowned adaptations of modern literary classics as The Burmese Harp (1956), Conflagration (1958), Fires on the Plain (1959), The Key, and The Outcast (1962), but she retired from screenwriting in 1965, and he went into documentaries and cartoons immediately thereafter. He eventually returned to best-selling fiction adaptations without her, but he had not attempted source material as important as The Makioka Sisters since their fifties and sixties heyday. (To make matters worse, early in 1983, while Ichikawa was preparing Makioka, Wada passed away.)

The studio, Toho, although it wanted a major work to celebrate its fiftieth year in film and had backed Ichikawa’s projects many times over the years, was noto­riously tightfisted, having more than once completely cut off even the internationally acclaimed Akira Kurosawa. And the novel itself, at 530 pages in the fine English translation by Edward Seidensticker, is a hefty epic of regional nostalgia, war and peace, wealth and poverty, and family pride and complex sisterly rela­tions, involving adopted husbands, arranged marriages, aunts, cousins, maids, hairdressers, photographers, bartenders, traditional artists and actors, and various business associates. In short, Ichikawa had to make the Gone with the Wind of Japan on what American directors would call a TV-movie budget.

Ichikawa rose mightily to the task. He cowrote the screenplay with Shinya Hidaka, employed Tanizaki heir Matsuko Tanizaki as script consultant, and enlisted Kurosawa’s producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, to coproduce with him. For the three megastars and one newcomer who would play the four sisters, he contrived to make the Makioka family business (never revealed in the novel, because the shop and the parents are already gone) the manufacture of kimonos, giving himself the opportunity to show off his actresses, always on camera, to fabulous advantage in their rich silks and brocades. Some critics have disparaged the film as a mere kimono show, but the celebration of this traditional art is very much in keeping with the book’s tone of cultural nostalgia. The kimonos and the opulent set decoration representing dark, crowded early twentieth-century interiors replace the similarly rich historical detail of the novel—the kabuki theaters, restaurants, hotels, shops, and steam trains. A telling scene in the film is the amusing interlude in which eldest sister Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and next sister Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), trying on obis (kimono sashes), discover that the thick brocade, very difficult to wrap and tie in the back without help, squeaks when new with every breath its wearer takes. For the modern Japanese woman seeing the film on its release, a real silk kimono, with obi, sandals, hairstyling and ornaments, and other accessories, would have cost almost as much as a new car, so this scene of casually changing from one new obi to another was wildly exotic.

After a series of shots of cherry blossoms in the rain, the film properly opens on a close-up of a beautiful face, that of Sachiko, with an upswept hairdo and in a sky blue kimono, uttering the single word that expresses the underlying concern of Osaka life since the rise of the bustling merchant city in the 1600s: “Money?” The sisters’ annual tradition of viewing the blossoms in nearby Kyoto introduces all four in their finery and establishes their love of natural beauty, but their conversation turns on the core conflict of the story: the third sister, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), the most traditional and reticent of them, is past the easily marriageable age, but the youngest sister, Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), the most westernized and rebellious, cannot marry until Yukiko is settled. The efforts of the family, then, along with their relatives and friends, are concentrated on getting Yukiko married off to a man of suitable wealth and breeding.

Throughout the film, Ichikawa expertly layers themes that appear in meanderingly linear form in Tanizaki’s novel. The dark elegance of the merchant house­holds, the leisurely pace of their comings and goings, their dress­ings and bathings, their attentive servants, their pursuit of classical music, dance, and theater provide a soothing backdrop for the turmoil of their arguments, jealousies, and embarrassments. Ichikawa relishes the tension between the straitlaced “main house,” headed by Tsuruko and her husband, Tatsuo, who must always uphold the family prestige, and the comfortable “branch house” of Sachiko and her husband, Teinosuke, with whom the two younger sisters feel much more at ease. The husbands have their own conflicts, as both are “adopted,” meaning that their social standing was so inferior to the Makioka family’s that when they married, they assumed their wives’ surname and family obligations—for an important Japanese family with nothing but daughters, this is the only way to perpetuate the family name. Tatsuo, played with appropriate stiffness by Juzo Itami (later a noted film director), expresses his resentment openly when Yukiko rejects a suitor introduced by his superior at work, while peacemaker Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka) indulges in an erotically charged fascination with Yukiko. Both husbands fuss but eventually always give in to their wives.

The open sensuality of Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters stands out against the reticence of the novel, where there is no suggestion of Teinosuke’s yearning for his sister-in-law. But the camera’s lingering close-ups on the back of Sachiko’s neck and shoulders, on Taeko in the bath, and on Yukiko’s legs and feet as Taeko cuts her toenails and Teinosuke happens upon them do express the eroticism underlying all of Tanizaki’s work, and add spice to an otherwise decorous tale. Ichikawa infuses his film­making with brightly contrasting colors, fast cutting, and a variety of camera angles, recalling his early training as a painter and animator. Teinosuke’s unabashed, staring desire and Yukiko’s subtle glances at him and other men, including a red-faced soldier she enthralls on a train on her way to a meeting with a prospective husband, combine to create a portrait of Yukiko as refined yet smoldering, quiet but cuttingly perceptive. As her character is revealed in these little vignettes, her exhausting progression from one formal meeting to the next with one gentleman after another  who is too countrified, too boisterous, too self-important, too old, too scientific, too uneducated—all inappropriate for a woman of her quality—while humorous, builds as much suspense and frustration for the audience as it does for the family earnestly searching for a mate for her.

The dramatic foil to the tragicomic flow of Yukiko’s serial arranged meetings is Taeko, with her themes of love and money. For Taeko, money is represented by the dowry that was entrusted to Tatsuo, as Tsuruko’s husband, for her eventual wedding. Impatient for love as a teenager, Taeko eloped with Okuhata, the second son of a jewelry store owner, years before the story begins in 1938 (Ichikawa shows this in grainy black-and-white flashbacks and shots of newspaper articles). The scandal was only the first of her embarrassments to the family name: starting a business of her own making dolls, stringing Okuhata along for six years and accepting stolen gifts from him, taking up with a photographer and, finally, a bartender. None of her men is of a station of which the family can approve, but she cannot in any event marry before Yukiko, so her eventual victory is planning a career and giving up her dowry to live in poverty with her lover in a second-floor walkup in an industrial section of town.

Ichikawa reserves actual material hardship for Taeko alone, leaving out the privation, malnutrition, disease, and apprehension woven into Tanizaki’s novel, set during the Great Depression, the Japanese incursion into China, and the lead-up to the Pacific War. He knew that Japanese audiences of the 1980s, flush with the wealth that came with being banker to the world and possessed of a higher standard of living than even the United States, could no longer bear to look back on wartime poverty. While the book chronicles the decline of the Makioka family to the point where Yukiko marries the poor, illegitimate son of an elderly nobleman’s mistress and Tsuruko has to pinch pennies and ask for cast-off clothing in order to sustain her six children, Ichikawa presents only luxury and the rich cultural life and traditions of Osaka’s wealthy. Instead of complacency that leads to scandal and compromise, Ichikawa offers a glamorized, kimono-clad version of the tilt into the Second World War for the eyes of a new Japan with no stomach for the suffering of the wartime generation. The postwar humanist Ichikawa, who showed the misery and deep questioning of Japanese soldiers in films like Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp, averts his eyes for an audience that feels no guilt. He doesn’t give us a Hollywood ending—Taeko does end up poor and cast out—but he gives Yukiko quite a Cinderella moment with a noble fiancé, and the final scene of the film is a humorous glimpse of Teinosuke pining over sake for the departing beauty he loved to stare at.

The Makioka Sisters is a mood piece, and Ichikawa focuses on the lilting cadences of the Osaka dialect, reverence for the natural beauty of the Kyoto region, the adven­tures of the wayward sister, the quarrelsome affection between the two married sisters, and the ringing success of the stubbornly traditionalist sister who holds out for the marriage she wants. The film stands, too, as a decorative but deeply felt homage not only to cultural arts but also to such constricting, utilitarian customs as arranged marriage and firstborn authority.

And yet, The Makioka Sisters really does recall Gone with the Wind: each sister, in her own way, resembles Scarlett O’Hara in her chin-up confrontation of the loss sur­rounding her. Tsuruko is separated from her sisters and her beloved Osaka by the imperatives of her hus­band’s career. Sachiko loses the comfort, companionship, and help in caring for her daughter that came from having both of her younger sisters living in her home. Yukiko loses her family name, her sisters, and the niece she loves to care for when she marries. Taeko’s rebellion brings her love but also separation from her family and a very uncertain economic future. Scarletts all, symbols of a bygone prestige, culture, and ease, they remain lovely and courageous but have no Tara to rebuild.