on 21 October 2006
The Makioka Sisters (Sasame Yuki, Light Snow), first published in 1948, was written by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). Tanizaki wrote The Makioka Sisters after translating the Tale of Genji into modern Japanese and the Murasaki novel is said to have influenced his own. It tells of the declining years of the once powerful Makioka family and their last descendants, four sisters. It has been translated by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1957. Powerfully realistic, it mourns the passing of greatness while celebrating in wonderfully evocative detail the beauty of a particular time and place, Osaka in the 1930s. In its creation of beauty out of sadness it can be compared to another family saga, The Maias (1888), by the Portuguese master E'a de Queiroz (1845-1900).
Why is this long book, largely concerned with trivial family procedures, one of the finest novels written? It is not concerned with great events, causes or philosophies. It has little concern with the war Japan was fighting with China, and then the USA, when the book was first published. Indeed its characters don't think about the war, and in a positive way, which doesn't trivialise their concerns at all (most people in fact don't think about the reasons for a war: perhaps it's better that way). This doesn't mean the book is escapist or superficial, just as the concern with women's lifestyle, dress, makeup, etiquette or social vanity make it something written just for women (books and films were once made - by men - to capitalise on what were considered women's 'little' concerns). Tanizaki does that wonderful thing a great artist can do, he finds the universal in the most exact examination of the particular, and makes a work of relevance to us all. Read another family saga, The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and my candidate for the greatest novel yet written (though I'm more than cynical about the word 'great') and marvel at the many routes artists find to the universal.
My review is impossibly partial: The Makioka Sisters is the most beautiful novel I've ever read. The language (translation) is so smooth and flowing, the characters and situations so gentle and muted, yet precise and meaningful, that reading the book is like seeing the universe in a drop of water - you see, which is moving, and awareness of where and how you see brings amazement and then a real pleasure.
In this beautiful book the characters have a greater degree of reality than many real people - Tanizaki is a great master of characterisation. I know more about them than I do about most of the people I know. It is done by the accumulation of enormous amounts of detail, but detail which, trivial though it may appear, is just right. The result is the creation of a most ethereal and delicate beauty, a lovely world crumbling to extinction yet all the more precious because of its inevitable passing away.
Sachiko, the second sister and her husband Teinosuke are that rare achievement, a convincing depiction of really good and admirable people, though in no way heroic. They are very ordinary people, but their goodness, their little troubles and worries, their faults, even weaknesses, all serve to charm and captivate. Of all the characters in the book these two are the loveliest. It is a real affirmation of humanity to have created two such kind and gentle and sensitive people, and to have made them so real and convincing.
The careworn life of Tsuruko (first sister), the hesitations of Yukiko (third sister), the unhappiness of Taeko (Koi-san, fourth sister) all gain from contrast with the stability and happiness of Sachiko and Teinosuke. And what an evocation of the old ways of Japan. Changing rapidly even as Tanizaki writes of them.
Detail by detail - Etsuko's games with the German girl Rosemarie, Itakura's leather coat, the 'old one', Koi-san's mimicry and mingled love and resentment of Yukiko...there are literally thousands of details. Teinosuke's love of Spring in his garden, the vitamin injections the sisters take, the forthrightness of Itani - all, everyone, is so precise, not random at all, chosen to evoke mood, reveal character, show milieu.
So powerful and evocative has the book been - yet nothing really happens, except to Koi-san. The war approaches, the old Japan changes, Yukiko gets married - unforgettable!
I've seen advertised a TV serialisation of The Makioka Sisters, but can't imagine how it could succeed. So much of the book's effect is through language. Visually, certain scenes stand out, such as the cherry blossom viewing or the flood. The narrative though is largely uneventful, small actions that dramatically and convincingly reveal a character's state of mind, early history or personality.
Written with love, a strong love of people and place, the book creates love in the reader. Because of Tanizaki I have loved Osaka in the late 1930s and have learned to treasure and respect its people. For those hesitating to undertake reading such a 'Japanese' work as The Makioka Sisters there is the perfect bridging novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru, 1995) by Haruki Murakami, which does mention the war - and Charlie Parker and 'hard-boiled' detective stories and Jungian archetypes and the surreal: a roller coaster of a novel and one of the best as well.
on 10 December 2015
The Makioka Sisters (Vintage Classics)
by Junichiro Tanizaki
Rating: 4.5 out 0f 5
This is probably one of the most sensitively written books I have ever read. The story is set mainly in Osaka during World War II. However, it focuses less on current events and more on the life of one declining family in Japan during this time. The story focuses on four sisters whose parents are dead and the eldest has adopted the Makioka name, hence becoming the "head" of the household and she lives with her husband and children in Tokyo or the "main house".
The four Makioka sisters are: Tsuruko, the eldest married to Tetsuo (a bank employee); Sachiko, married to Teinosuke (an accountant); and the two unmarried sisters, Yukiko and Taeko (or Koi-San), who live with Sachiko and Teinosuke in Osaka.
As per the tradition in the country at that time, the older sister Yukiko should marry before Taeko (the youngest) and both should live at the "main house". However, both sisters live with Sachiko (second sister) who is very indulgent and more of a friend to both sisters than the eldest, Tsuruko. However, despite the main house's attempts to get Yukiko to come live there, she manages to go back to Sachiko (I really found her passive aggressive personality very interesting!). There are also numerous attempts to get her married which fail for one reason or another. Taeko, on the other hand, is an independent young woman who is trying to earn her own living and is prepared to wait for her older sister to get married before marrying her long term love. Her personality, however, is so fierce for the time that she is considered "bad" or "evil" by the main house and they make no attempt to get her to live with them.
This is such a well-written novel. The characters come to life and you feel like you know them so well - you can really empathize with each character as you follow them over four years. The book further provides such an insight in Japanese traditions and upper class Japanese family life during that period.
Extremely well written and a fantastic read
on 1 September 2014
An absorbing insight into the social niceties of early 20th century Japan. The Makioka family has known better times and now, with war looming and austerity taking hold, they are finding it difficult to maintain standards. They are also reaping the consequences of their past aloofness in marriage negotiations in trying to marry off the third sister. The youngest sister is a modern woman, champing at the bit to live an independent life. Second sister Sachiko and her husband Teinosuke do their best to navigate their way through society's expectations and the changing times they live in. I was torn between feeling sympathy for Sachiko's frustrations with her younger sisters and empathy with youngest sister Taeko's nonconformity. The characterisations are beautiful, and I was immersed in the story completely. The ending is a little abrupt, but as I'm not always a fan of neatly tied up finishes, it didn't bother me too much.
This story, primarily set in Osaka, spans a period of four years (from 1937 to 1941). This period, is a tumultuous period for Japan, and we view it from the perspective of one family. The Makioka is a family in decline and after the death of the parents, the husband of the eldest daughter adopts the Makioka name and becomes the head of the family. There are four sisters: the eldest is Tsuruko, married to Tetsuo (a bank employee); Sachiko, married to Teinosuke (an accountant); and the two unmarried sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, who live with Sachiko and Teinosuke.
Tradition dictates that Yukiko should be married before her younger sister, Taeko. Tradition also dictates that unmarried sisters should live with the head of the house. Some traditions, it seems, are easier to ignore than others. A number of attempts to marry off Yukiko fail: Yukiko herself, seemingly passive in many ways, exerts considerable influence from the shadows. Marriage to someone at some stage is seen as inevitable but Yukiko does not seem enthusiastic. In the meantime, Taeko is trying to live her own life.
This is an amazing novel. The shifts in fortune for the Makioka family, the changes within Japanese upper-class society, and the influences of the Western world all shape the story. On the face of it, this novel is about the minutiae of the lives of sisters during a period of four years. The turmoil of Taeko's life, the attempts to arrange a marriage for Yukiko and the challenges faced by the careworn elder sister Tsuruko with both social standing and family to maintain contrast with the comparative happiness of Sachiko's life. The detail of the lives of the sisters provides an intricate view of upper-class Osakan life immediately before World War II: tradition and obligation as well as moments of great beauty. Simply superb.
on 22 July 2014
One becomes a sister in this weekend long read.... but which sister? portrayal of attitudes and self interests in the family's attempt to stay noble. I wouldn't have married any of the men at the arranged miais either... recommended summer read, you need time to slip into the japanese culture and absorb the importance of each character, by the time of the flood you are totally present in the drama. This writer left me thinking I could remember something that had happened to me... the Makiokas entered my mind's memory.
The imagery is as good as Tanizaki's 'In Praise of Shadows'
Tanizaki was one of Japan’s great mid-century literary figures, and this is probably the best introduction to the author. Not a great deal happens, and yet this makes for compelling reading. The novel also is a portrait of a world in transition: a modernising Japan stuck in old-fashioned mores and ideas that are nevertheless, we are relentlessly notified, about to crumble under the impact of war and the American occupation.
The Makioka Sisters follows the fortunes of the four daughters of a once-wealthy, department-store owning family in the years between the two world wars, and especially the late 1930s and last years before Pearl Harbour. None of the sisters work, and inevitably marriage is a prime preoccupation. The two eldest, Tsuruko and Sachiko, already have families, one in Tokyo and one in Osaka, but the other two, Yukiko and Taeko, remain single. Both are moreover very different. Yukiko is loyal to traditional feminine ideals, meaning that she is strong at home but a shrinking violet in public, that she dresses in kimonos, and scarcely ever expresses any of her feelings. Taeko, the youngest, dresses Western-style and is more individualistic and wilful. She earns her own money as a dress and doll-maker, keeps company with suitors, and is prepared to travel abroad and live independently. Yet all is not always what it seems, and as the plot progresses both surprise in their own way. Meanwhile the family is incredibly hidebound, with a deep sense of honour, propriety, and hierarchy, making what ought to be simple unbelievably complicated. Any marriage has to be arranged, and this has to follow proper procedure as set by intermediaries, the lengthy backdoor control of any suitor’s family and personal references, and approval by the ‘main house’, or Tsuruko’s household, especially the patriarch that is her husband. The constant danger, moreover, is that Taeko’s over-liberal behaviour will cause scandal and ruin Yukiko’s prospects at the last moment.
The Makioka Sisters paints a picture of the old-fashioned, bygone society that was bourgeois Japan in the early twentieth century. What makes it a complex and fascinating work, though, is that change and modernity nevertheless constantly intrude. In many ways, the Makioka are considered excessively proud and crusty by those who surround them and try to help them. They have foreign neighbours and friends who move internationally and help provide broader chronological markers to the story. Nor are the Makioka the denizens of some antiquated rural utopia: they are sophisticated urbanites who listen to imported music and watch foreign films as well as going to the Kabuki, they buy German medicine and eat foreign foods, and in many ways they represent the industrial and already modern Japan of the 1930s. The book ends at the beginning of 1941, with the clear implication that much that makes their world is nevertheless about to be transformed forever. Its last line is priceless, a masterpiece of ambiguity all by itself.
on 12 June 2011
The war in Asia is already going on, and Pearl Harbor hovers on the horizon. The readers are very well aware of this, as was Tanizaki. The book was published between 1943 and 1948. To the Makioka sisters, the war is still very distant, though. The concerns that are urgent to them are of a more everyday character, not least important the matter of finding a suitable husband for Yukiko, who is past thirty. That we have this knowledge about the future will probably make the final chapters of the book seem heavy with irony to most readers.
The fortunes of the house of Makioka have been declining for some time. The junior branch, the family of Sachiko (the second sister) and her husband Teinosuke, nevertheless lead a comfortable upper middle class life near Osaka. The younger sisters prefer to stay with them. Sachiko is the center of the story, insofar as it is told mostly from her point of view. The events, however, revolve around the two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko. There is drama and some tragedy, but much of the book simply records fairly undramatic events in the lives of the Makiokas in the years leading up to the Pacific War. Above all, the story conjurs up a world that was already disappearing at the time of the story - and was soon to be in flames. I would describe the book as bittersweet.
To me, The Makioka Sisters was not exactly a page-turner. It took me more than a month to read all 530 pages. It was, however, a highly engaging book, beautifully told and easy too read. I never felt bored.
on 19 August 2007
This is, in short, a wonderful book. The New Yorker (quoted on the cover) said, 'An extraordinary book, which can truly be said to break new ground.' One way it breaks new ground is that, while it is a family saga, the story of the Makioka family, a formerly prosperous merchant family in Osaka, it is told all in the present of the novel which moves through a period of a few years in the late 1930s; the details of the family's past are evoked only in memory. Perhaps due in part to its origin in a (wartime) newspaper serialisation (if I'm remembering that correctly), the story, not short at over 500 pages, is told with a startling economy of means. (It is presumably not entirely irrelevant to the details that Tanizaki himself came from a family whose financial fortunes declined during his adolescence.)
Tanizaki, Tokyo-born, started out as a convinced Western-oriented modernist. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 he changed direction, moving to Kyoto and developing an interest in the history and traditions of the Kansai region, which includes Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka (in which much of The Makioka Sisters is set). There are many oppositions at play in The Makioka Sisters (original Japanese title, 'A Light Falling of Snow') -- and 'at play' may well be exactly the right term, for there is no heavy-handedness in any of this, and, importantly, no judgment. I say this aware that many find a nostalgia for an older Japan in Tanizaki but I think of him, on the evidence of this novel, more as a clear-eyed observer of change than one with a sentimental longing for a Japan before ... when? The Showa period? The Taisho period? If rigid Japanese tradition were followed, the set-up of the novel could not exist -- and one of the recurring variations on the traditional vs. modern theme is the series of stratagems used to allow the unmarried third and fourth sisters to live with the (married) second sister in Ashiya, close to Osaka, rather than, first, Osaka itself, then, Tokyo, with the eldest sister and her husband who is, in accordance with tradition and more or less actively so, head of the extended family.
Yukiko, the third daughter, is of an age, more than of an age, at which she must be married (off). In so far as there's a single thread binding the novel together, it is the family's efforts to find a husband for Yukiko. Yukiko is the most traditional of the Makioka sisters: she never wears Western dress. Taeko (familiarly called 'Koi-san' in accordance with Osaka usage) is the youngest; she rarely wears anything but Western dress, has a Russian friend (among many details of a life lead that is far from Japanese tradition), and cannot wait for Yukiko to be married -- by the start of the novel, she has already tried an unsuccessful elopement. (By tradition, she cannot marry until Yukiko is married.) Sachiko, the second daughter, falls in between, neither dead set on tradition, nor obsessed with things western. (Her children have German playmates, through the accident of to whom a neighbour's house may be rented.) Sachiko's increasingly difficult task, shared with her husband, Teinosuke (who, like the eldest sister, Tsuruko's husband, has taken the Makioka name), is to maintain a semblance of order and normality in the Ashiya household while maintaining good relations with her eldest sister and brother-in-law.
Oppositions: the obvious one is Japanese tradition vs. Westernization (in all its many forms and both political and cultural, both public and familial); family vs. individual; commerce vs. culture; Kansai vs. Tokyo (or Kanto region). None of these, but perhaps most obviously, because most prominent, the first, is at all straightforward. Taeko is the most modern, most westernized of the sisters, but, in an attempt to make her own way, a very non-traditional thing to do, she takes up doll-making, a traditional activity, and later traditional dance. Japan has changed enormously since the Second World War (and the reader interested in immediate post-War Japanese reaction to those changes could do worse than read Fumiko Hayashi's Floating Clouds), but it was already changing, and had been changing since the 1860s. As always with a family saga, one has to engage with local details, and with The Makioka Sisters perhaps more of these are unusual, sometimes (for this reader) quite unexpected -- e.g., the family's casual use of vitamin B injections to counter beri-beri. But this is not a classic of exoticism. It is one of the great novels of the twentieth century because of its human qualities; the three sisters in Ayisha and Teinosuke are characters one is very quickly involved with and very quickly comes to care about.
I suspect -- I don't know nearly enough about this to do more than merely suspect -- that this novel reads rather differently in Japan than in the West. It's my guess that western readers are less shocked at, and more supportive of, Taeko's bids for independence; conversely, we may find Yukiko less sympathetic than did Japanese readers of the 1940s, and possibly even today. If I'm right about this then maybe we're getting something wrong in terms of the author's intentions but even if we are, it's still a wonderfully involving read: Nobel Prize material. (Tanizaki, it is said, deliberately blotted his prospective Nobel copybook with Diary of a Mad Old Man.)
Few novels end on such a disconcertingly unresolving note as 'Yukiko's diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.' BTW, this shows that the translation into English is American. Seidensticker's translation dates from the late 50s; it shows its age here and there but mostly reads well enough.
on 10 September 2014
A classic tale of dysfunctional family, but also an epic of Japanese historical hubris and a parable of the emotional casualties of conservatism. Read it Japan which brought alive the ideas and places.
on 27 September 2013
A beautifully written novel, with a fantastic level of detail of civilian life before/during WWII in Japan. The characters and their relationships are enriched by the cultural context and provide a universal account of the issues that predominate in many people's lives.