The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
12 December, 2009
I was expecting Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters to be a challenging read. Tanizaki, after all, is one of Japan’s most famous writers and the book is a good 530 pages of small print. After reading Naomi which impressed me considerably, I finally took The Makioka Sisters off my TRB shelf after it lay there languishing for too many years. And it was a revelation.
Naomi took as its main character a young woman in Tokyo who falls into a degenerate and modern lifestyle as opposed to the traditional Japanese lifestyle that was slowly vanishing. The Makioka Sisters, on the other hand, tells the story of four sisters belonging to an old and venerable merchant family in Osaka who are clinging to the traditional way of life amidst the onset of war and financial hardship.
Tsuruko and Sachiko are the two elder sisters who have been married for over ten years to Tatsuo and Teinosuke who have both taken the Makioka name, Tsuruko’s husband Tatsuo becoming the head of the Makioka family after their father’s death. The story follows their attempts at getting the third sister Yukiko married. Until she does, the youngest sister Taeko (or Koi-san as she is known) is unable to get married herself. The search for a suitable husband proves to be full of obstacles not least of which is an old scandal involving Taeko and the youngest son of a rich Osaka family. Compared to Yukiko who is passive and non-commital, Taeko is full of life, wanting to try new things and making a living for herself (which is frowned upon as unsuitable for her social station by her brother-in-laws). As the years go by, with Japan’s military intrusion into world affairs and the rise of war in the West, the Makiokas themselves begin to feel that what is acceptable behaviour in society is slowly beginning to change.
Tanizaki portrays each sister with different characteristics, but because it is Sachiko, the second sister, who narrates most of the novel, it is a little difficult to discern the thoughts of Yukiko and Taeko about whom she worries so much. In fact, I found Yukiko’s passivity and Taeko’s rebelliousness baffling at times because we are unable to understand their motives. In a society where marriage is equal to social status, being unmarried was a stigma not only for that person but for the whole extended family. Even though this was so, Yukiko who is in her early thirties seemed unbothered by her single status. Taeko on the other hand is eager to get away and start a life of her own. Although the Makioka family is far more lenient than would be expected during this period (both Yukiko and Taeko are allowed to stay with Sachiko instead of Tsuruko and still keep their allowance) and although their family fortune has dwindled since their father’s death, their life is still one of luxury and leisure.
Tanizaki does not focus on eroticism and degeneracy as in some of his other work, but there is still a hint of it with Taeko’s involvement with the unsuitable men in her life. It would seem that by the time Tanizaki came to write The Makioka Sisters (or Sasameyuki, it’s Japanese title), he had fallen out of love with everything modern and Western and had moved away from Tokyo towards Osaka and Kobe where most of this novel is set. Even so, Tanizaki cannot help including snippets of detail such as the cafe Juccheim’s in Kobe (which still exists) and the Leica with which the Makioka sisters take photographs of the weeping cherry trees in Kyoto. They are always eating out at European restaurants and seem to have a fondness of everything German including German beer and medicine. In a sense I found that Tanizaki was caught between his love for the modern and Western and the traditional and Japanese. He also highlights the difference between the people of Osaka and Tokyo in their manner and their use of language which still exist today.
Tanizaki’s treatment of the Makioka sisters portrays the confusion in the changing social milieu and mirrors the theme of modern vs. traditional which runs through the novel. But it is not a simple delineation between the two as all four sisters portray both aspects from switching between kimonos and dresses to drinking sake and wine, smoking and even preferring European food. Ultimately the sisters are brought back into the traditional fold through marriage and it is only Taeko who becomes more modern, and therefore degenerate, who pays the price for her choice. I don’t know whether this was intended but it seemed a little harsh that Taeko who strived to do things her way and make her own life was ultimately punished for refusing to think of the consequences of her actions for the people around her.
The Makioka Sisters felt as though it was a very modern novel, albeit one set in the late 1930s. Considering Tanizaki’s main characters were mostly women in this novel, I thought he was fair in their portrayal, although veering slightly towards the extreme in the case of Yukiko and Taeko. But his portrayal of Sachiko and her marriage was beautiful and sympathetic and you can see his fascination with women and their struggles. As much as it is a novel of the four sisters, it is also a novel of the men in their lives, the husbands, the brother-in-laws and the suitors. Together you can build a picture of a society struggling towards modernity but constantly being held back by convention.
I didn’t expect to enjoy The Makioka Sisters so much. And I appreciated it more as I read along. It’s a book to savour and enjoy and this may be due to its origins as a serial novel. I only wish it was a little longer because I wanted to know how the sisters fared. Did they find their own happiness in the end? How was the family affected by war? I was surprised at how much I cared about the gentle Makiokas and how much they made me think about life as a woman and the choices we are given.
Following on from Naomi, The Makioka Sisters has whetted my appetite for Tanizaki’s writing and I will definitely seek out more books by Tanizaki to read.