Customer Review

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a Japanese modern classic, 19 Aug 2007
This review is from: The Makioka Sisters (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
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.
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