Document type
14 December 2006
Format viewed

The Makioka Sisters

picture: The Makioka Sisters (1983)picture: The Makioka Sisters (1983)

Original title
  • Yoshiko SAKUMA
  • Keiko KISHI
  • Sayuri YOSHINAGA
  • Juzo ITAMI
  • Ittoku KISHIBE
  • Kobeicho KATSURA
Running time
140 mins.

picture: The Makioka Sisters (1983)

Jasper Sharp

Hailed by many as one of the finest works of Japanese literature of the 20th century, Junichiro Tanizaki's epic novel Sasameyuki (which translates as 'A Light Snowfall', though the book and this adaptation are better known under the English title of The Makioka Sisters) covers the lives of four sisters from a haughty upper middle-class Osaka family over the five-year period leading up to the Pacific War. Their parents dead, against convention, the two younger unmarried sisters - the classically refined but slightly conservative and aloof Yukiko (Yoshinaga), and her spirited, more modern-day sibling Taeko, or Koi-san (Kotegawa) - prefer to live in the household of Sachiko (Sakuma) and her more genial husband Teinosuke (Ishizaka) rather than in the upper house of the family with firstborn Tsuruko (Kishi) and the terse, humourless Tatsuo (Tampopo director Itami). Both of the older sisters are married to yoshi - only sons, who following tradition, have taken on the family name of their wives, Makioka.

The story follows attempts to marry off Yukiko, and is structured around a series of o-miai or formal meetings with potential suitors (5 in the book, 4 in the film). Increasingly approaching an unmarriable age, Yukiko's chances of wedlock have been ruined due to an incident several years before in which Taeko attempted to elope with the pampered son of a wealthy family named Okubata (Katsura). The scandal found itself reported in the newspapers, with Yukiko's name mistakenly printed instead of her flighty sister. Her slimming chances are compounded by the fact that the family has already turned down a number of perfectly adequate proposals, earning them a reputation for snobbery. Custom dictates that the sisters marry in age order however, leaving Taeko unable to marry Okubata until Yukiko finds a suitable match. But in the meantime, the fiercely independent Taeko is certainly not one to be bound by traditional mores.

Now in his 90s, Kon Ichikawa is still making films to this day (his remake of his own 1976 film The Inugami Family / Inugamike no Ichizoku should be due any time now), and though he is often associated with edgy modernist works such as The Punishment Room (Shokei no Heya, 1956) and Ten Black Women (Kuroi Junin no Onna, 1961), it has to be said that it is very difficult to generalise about a career which spans seven decades and has resulted in close to a hundred titles as a director. But one stand-out aspect of Ichikawa's filmography however is the large number of highly-regarded literary adaptations, and of prominent works by prominent authors which are available in translated versions and should be fairly well-known to those with more than a passing interest in modern Japanese literature: to name but a few of the more well known, Natsumi Soseki's Kokoro (1955), Conflagration (Enjo, 1958; based on Yukio Mishima's Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and Shohei Oka's Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959).

This particular adaptation is the third celluloid rendition of Tanizaki's story, following on from an earlier black-and-white version directed by Yutaka Abe at Shintoho in 1950 and Koji Shima's full colour 'Daiei-scope' contribution in 1959. Conceived to mark the 50th anniversary of Toho, it unfortunately represents the typically inflated kind of production that characterised the veteran director's work in the 1980s.

The Makioka Sisters was certainly not the first time Ichikawa had tackled Tanizaki. His An Obsession (1959) was the first and the best out of, as far as I can make out, five adaptations of the author's The Key (Kagi), including one by Italian soft-porn director Tinto Brass in 1983. What Tanizaki would have made of this particularly bloated heritage piece however is anyone's guess.

Of course, there was never much chance of achieving even a fraction of the density or nuance of the expansive and incident-ridden source material. Films and novels are two different things, after all, and structural changes to plot are a given with any adaptation. But it is important that the director at least remain true to the characters and spirit of the book. Aside from a necessary condensation of events and a shuffling of the novel's numerous set pieces, some of Ichikawa's decisions are downright distortions, a case of shoehorning a novel which very much depicted its time to fit into the tastes and concerns of a new generation. The omissions of incidents like the real-life 1938 Great Hanshin Flood documented by Tanizaki are justifiable enough. But tellingly this new film leaves out all of the novel's numerous Western characters, as well as alluding to an element of sexual chemistry between Teinosuke and Yukiko that was never present in the novel. Taeko's role in particular, seems miscast and misinterpreted, and Sachiko's daughter Etsuko barely appears at all. The film's greatest adherence to its source appears to be the sexualised scenes of the girls practising eating sushi with chopsticks without smudging their lipstick.

Shifting the emphasis from Tanizaki's tragic depiction of a family being overtaken by currents in the world around them in order to instil in contemporary viewers a sense of nostalgia and a pride in traditional values, Ichikawa invokes the home dramas of Ozu, but without the master's irony or visual style. Whilst technically solid, despite the obviously large budget that has been lavished on the production, what remains seems more ideally suited for television. Events unfold in lengthy, static set-bound scenes of seemingly endless dialogue, occasionally opened up with seasonal shots of the sisters strolling beneath the cherry blossoms or maple viewing.

I'll nail my colours to the post here. While enjoying a number of Ichikawa's individual titles, I have never had a huge amount of interest in this director - though there are plenty who do rate him highly, as recent retrospectives around the world clearly demonstrate. My own personal feeling about Ichikawa (and I will stress that this is just my own feeling) is that his finest work was all done in the 50s and 60s, and from the 80s on he has seemingly been content in re-making his own material. I never got much of an impression of the actual man behind the camera. His choice of subject matter seems all over the place, from beautifully polished period pieces like An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1963) through his exhaustive (and exhausting) documentary on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Tokyo Olympiad (1965) to the live-action puppet animation based on the Italian mouse character Topo Gigio and the Missile War (1967 - and wasn't this itself remade or reissued very recently?) Yes there's some fine films among his back catalogue, but also some rather lacklustre titles like Princess from the Moon (Taketori Monogatari, 1987) too.

This assessment may all be a little unfair of me, and I know many who will disagree, and perhaps justifiably. What they might not disagree with however is that this particular film is not among his best. It is dull, over-long and over-reverent, and certainly no substitute for actually reading what remains one of the greatest Japanese pieces of literary fiction.


Toho (Japan)

picture: DVD cover of 'The Makioka Sisters'

Region 2. No subtitles.