Kon Ichikawa, director of the 1983 version of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel, The Makioka Sisters, is a master of literary adaptation and the cagiest of great Japanese moviemakers. You imagine him wearing a hyper-observant poker face as he beaks down the façade of perplexing realities. Ichikawa’s empathy and skeptical intelligence, as well as his graphic and narrative invention, give his best films a unique scintillation; they reward viewers with both a renewed appreciation of surfaces and an ironic awareness of depths. He attuned his first Tanizaki adaptation, The Key (1959), to the allure of flesh and to the degrading persistence of desire: Ichikawa handled an aging man’s sexual obsession so stylishly that all the characters’ erotic dissembling became a delightful and appalling dumb show. (In a different vein, few movies have pierced the thin skin of civilization as profoundly as Ichikawa’s rendering of Shohei Ooka’s novel about wartime cannibalism, Fires on the Plain, also from 1959.)
The director’s early prime came to a close with Tokyo Olympiad a rich, kinetic account of the 1964 Summer Olympics—the rare documentary that celebrates sport for its heightened expressions of humanity The epic labor of making the film and the controversies surrounding it (for foreign release, the distributor slashed the running time by half) must have knocked the wind out of Ichikawa. He began to produce mostly minor work, including a profitable detective series and a puppet movie starring Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse who was a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Nearly 20 years after Tokyo Olympiad, Ichikawa fulfilled a long-held dream when he adapted The Makioka Sisters (which had been filmed twice before). Retelling Tanizaki’s classic family chronicle, he drew on the skills he acquired in a four-decade career and the understanding of Tanizaki he displayed in The Key.The result is a magisterial achievement: a barbed, poignant, and seductive elegy. In the opening-credit sequence, the four heroines—daughters of a late Osaka shipbuilding tycoon—tour the cherry blossoms of 1938 Kyoto. It’s more than a gorgeous piece of local color. The blossoms reflect the magnificent Makiokas themselves as they glide through the frame in luminous kimonos, epitomizing the ideals of feminine refinement and grace that are fading before Westernization. Ichikawa captures their beautiful ephemerality, but the movie is also robust and engulfing. The director strove, he said, “to make the exterior of the film a dazzling, fascinating, and acrimonious human comedy.” He succeeded. You watch in a state of amused enthrallment, carried along by the satiric humor, bubbly soap opera, and keenly modulated colors. Then Ichikawa detonates a string of climaxes, and turns the final third of this two-hour-and twenty-minute movie into an emotional catherine wheel.
Tsuruko, the oldest sibling, and her banker husband Tatsuo, the adoptive head of the family, face the same challenge with her sisters that Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye did with his daughters: marrying them off in proper descending order, according to time-tested matchmaking practices. The next eldest, Sachiko, is already the wife of a department store clothing-division manager named Teinosuke. But Yukiko, the most traditional sister, is woefully obstinate, and the baby sister, Taeko, is rebellious—she wants to use her dowry to pursue her art and business: dollmaking. But Tsuruko and Tatsuo won’t release the money until Taeko marries. And Taeko can’t get hitched until Yukiko does.
Every plot turn or flashback amplifies the conflict between old-fashioned ideas and 20th-century complications. When Taeko tries to elope, her attempt makes the newspaper—but with Yukiko’s name. The sisters resent Tatsuo for not buying off the publisher instead of demanding a retraction (which makes things worse). Tatsuo resents them for holding on to outmoded ways that diminished their fortunes when their father was alive and now threaten to curtail his own career. (Juzo Itami, who would go on to direct The Funeral, Tampopo, and A Taxing Woman, played Tatsuo for Ichikawa; he forcefully conveys the man’s emotional frustration.) Tatsuo and to some extent Teinosuke, too—men of the corporate world—are foreigners in their homes. What strengthens them is the knowledge that they’re the Makiokas’ hope for survival.
Ichikawa’s reverence and irreverence complement each other—he brings out the sardonic comedy in the marriage interviews (or miai). With co-screenwriter Shinya Hidaka, he compresses Tanizaki’s text ruthlessly, rearranging anecdotes, removing a sequence of a deadly flood and simplifying the novel’s network of relationships. He also intensifies Teinosuke’s feelings for his sister-in-law, Yukiko. This superb comic-dramatic stroke will please all except Tanizaki purists. Yukiko drives Teinosuke crazy because she embodies everything attractive about nineteenth-century womanhood: passion and beauty distilled into the promise of domestic bliss. At the end, Teinosuke still pines for Yukiko after she leaves to get married. His recollection of Yukiko and her sisters in the cherry blossoms crowns this lyrical and moving remembrance of Japan past.