Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is a writer I associate very strongly with a kind of claustrophobic, highly charged, erotic, chaotic, madcap kind of fiction. I’ve read both Diary of a Mad Old Man and The Key and both novels are quite similar in tone and theme, both in diary form, both exploring the strange paths that love and desire can lead us upon. I admired both books, though they both left me feeling somewhat exhausted. Which is my excuse, really, for leaving The Makioka Sisters, at 500+ pages, sitting on the shelf for so long. Yet it could not be a more different book.
The Makioka Sisters follows the fortunes of four sisters from an aristocratic Osakan family whose status is on the downturn, in the period just before Japan’s entry into WWII. The eldest sister Tsuruko is married and her husband Tatsuo has become the head of the family following the death of the girl’s father. The second sister Sachiko is the main sister around whose life the story revolves. Sachiko too is married and she lives in Ashiya with her husband Teinosuke. Whilst her unmarried sisters Yukiko and Taeko should live with their elder sister in the main house, in practice they tend to spend most of their time at Sachiko’s, preferring to live away from Tatsuo with whom they do not have a good relationship. The ‘main house’ as Tsuruko’s household is known, tolerate this though the situation is unusual. The pressing challenge for Sachiko is to arrange a marriage for her sister Yukiko. In traditional terms, Yukiko must be married before Taeko can be married. However, Taeko is the ‘wild child’ of the family, already having been embroiled in a scandal which has harmed Yukiko’s chances of being married. She is more westernised in her approach, preferring western dress and being quite enterprising having started a business making dolls and with aspirations to become a dressmaker. This all sounds very ordinary to the western ear, but given the family status the idea of Taeko becoming a working woman is quite unpalatable to the family.
Yukiko herself is somewhat of a problem to her family. Very traditional in her outlook, being quite shy and introspective, she also has a stubborn streak which is the cause of many failures in prospective betrothals. She is getting well past the age where she should have been married and the continued delays leave Taeko at a loose end which proves problematic for the family. When Tsuruko’s arm of the family move to Tokyo things become even more uncomfortable. Technically both Yukiko and Taeko should go to Tokyo with them, but in practice only Yukiko complies yet her reluctance and her depression over the move are a constant source of dismay to the others. Reasons to return to Osaka are engineered, largely revolving around increasingly abortive attempts to get her married off. It’s unclear if it is the Makioka’s exacting and, perhaps, over-ambitious standards, or Yukiko’s own stubbornness that is the root of the problem.
Meanwhile events continue to unsettle the Makioka’s. There is a terrible flood in Osaka which threatens both Taeko and Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke. War looms. The German neighbours return home and there’s trouble in Manchuria. Yet there’s also a sense that these events only trouble the periphery of the Makioka’s lives. Instead they are clinging on to a kind of way of being which is doomed to end. Taeko is, perhaps, the most ahead of it but her family conspire to chain her to the past. In some respects this is quite amusing, the stuffy provincial nature of the Makioka’s fails to acknowledge how the world is changing, as Sachiko’s musings here reflect:
“For one thing, Taeko’s appearance, her manner, her facial expressions, her dress, her speech, were changing. Of the four sisters, Taeko had always been the most open and direct – to put her case favourable, the most modern – but lately that directness had been strangely transformed into a certain rudeness and vulgarity. It bothered her little to display herself naked, and sometimes even before the maids, she would bare her bosom to the electric fan, or she would come from the bath looking like a tenement woman. She seldom sat with her feet tucked properly under her. She preferred to throw them out to one side, or, worse still, to sit with her legs crossed, her kimono coming open at the skirt. Quite indifferent to the prerogatives of age, she would start eating or go into or out of a room ahead of her sisters, or take a place higher at the table. Sachiko was left wondering what horror might be coming next when they went out or had guests.”
For a book which is largely centred around the efforts to get one sister gainfully married, The Makioka Sisters is a compelling and fascinating read. It has a kind of gentleness to it, perhaps the gentleness of life lived by slow routine – the cherry blossom viewings, the festivals, the small dramas of everyday life when things don’t quite fit to the template we’ve come to believe they should. I found myself growing increasingly fond of the sisters, Sachiko in particular, with their small worries and routine lives so easily unsettled by a world which is changing quite drastically around them. Their problems are petty, by modern standards, and the slow decline of the family, the decay which comes from without and within, is steady and almost unobtrusive until close to the end when their fortunes both rise and fall quite unexpectedly. The main house with Tsuruko and her husband Tatsuo remain distant throughout, largely due to the move to Tokyo which seems to have been both a boon and a disaster for the elder sister. In the end it is Sachiko’s life whose is the least changed, yet her sisters lives have changed immeasurably. Not a great deal happens, and perhaps I miss something in not being completely au fait with the nature of Japanese society in that era, but there is drama and intrigue, the pressure of social expectations which weigh heavily on a family like the Makioka’s, and an ever-present sense that times are changing yet the Makioka’s are clinging onto a status which is as ephemeral as the cherry blossoms they visit each year. Yet it is an amusing, sweet and humane read. It is hard not to grow fond of these somewhat parochial yet very personable sisters. They have only care for each other, a desire to be seen to be behaving appropriately and an attachment to the expiring Japanese society. It could be a novel by Thomas Hardy, minus the heavy tragedy. I thoroughly enjoyed The Makioka Sisters. It is a gentle and uncomplicated read, quite different, indeed, to Tanizaki’s other more invigorated works.