First things first, autocorrect keeps changing the title to the “Manioca” sisters. So just in case you see that, please ignore it.
Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say that The Makioka Sisters is one of the most lovely things I’ve read in a long time. That is, if one can put it out of one’s mind that life in Japan in the late 1930s and early 1940s was not a fantastic time for women. This was my first Junichiro Tanizaki book and I was rather surprised at how well he wrote these women. It is odd especially as Tanizaki has a reputation for writing about characters with erotic obsessions and desires.
I may have read this book sooner if anyone had told me that it was a sort of Japanese version of Pride and Prejudice. Well it is, sort of, and it also isn’t.
The Makiokas were an old family, of course, and probably everyone in Osaka had heard of them at one time or another. But still – Sachiko would have to forgive her for saying so – they could not live on their old glory forever.
There are four Makioka sisters. The older two, Tsuruko and Sachiko, are married and have their own families. Yukiko and Taeko (also known as Koi-San or ‘small daughter’, a common endearment in Osaka).
Yukiko is to be married off, if anyone will have her. The family has already scared off several suitors, for a variety of reasons. The Makioka family’s wealth is a mere shadow of what it used to be, but still they hold their heads high and hold out for the best. Until matchmakers begin to avoid making matches. It doesn’t help that her younger sister was involved in a bit of a scandal and a minor tabloid printed this affair (must have been a slow news day), but mistook Yukiko for Taeko.
Unfortunately Yukiko is extremely soft-spoken and rather pale and frail-looking, to such a point that one potential suitor even asks for medical tests to be done, to prove that she is of good health.
“It was reasonable enough for such a well-behaved man to insist on an elegant, refined girl, but for some reason – maybe as a reaction from his visit to Paris – he insisted further that he would only have a pure Japanese beauty – gentle, quiet, graceful, able to wear Japanese clothes.”
Poor Yukiko. She’s quiet among strangers so although she’s actually a really interesting person and quite modern in her tastes, liking for instance, Western music, she is overshadowed by her more colourful older sister Sachiko and her vivacious younger sister Taeko. It’s so bad that Sachiko is often asked to tone down her dress, dress older, or perhaps not show up at all, to meetings with prospective husbands. As an introvert, I feel for Yukiko. I so want her to be happy. I want her to be less meek and speak up but she never really does. She is quite a traditional, conservative Japanese woman, letting her older sisters and their husbands determine who her future husband is to be, never seeking the independent life that her younger sister has.
It was fascinating to learn just how traditional Osaka society at the time was. Taeko, being the youngest, could not marry until Yukiko was married. As the youngest, she also wasn’t supposed to eat before her older siblings did, had to sit at a certain place at the table and so on. And to learn that Tokyo life and culture is so different and even a bit strange to the three younger Makiokas, whose society remains largely confined to Osaka, although they venture to nearby Kobe for meals and shows.
The Makioka Sisters was serialized from 1943 to 1948 and was originally titled Sasameyuki (細雪) in Japanese, which means lightly falling snow. The “yuki” character or “snow” being the same character in Yukiko’s name, showing her central importance in the story. As suitor after suitor is no longer, well, suitable, one cannot help but feel worried for her, as she is certainly not the kind of woman who can survive on her own.
Oh how I loved this quiet, regal story. It is gentle in its depiction of Japanese traditions vs the inevitable creeping modernization and westernization of society, the Makioka sisters representative of the old families, struggling to hold on to the last vestiges of their good name. It is a beautiful story, one that has taken me far too long to read and write about, as I couldn’t bear to leave the Makiokas’ world.
Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) – works published in English
- Some Prefer Nettles, tr. Edward Seidensticker,
- The Makioka Sisters, tr. Edward Seidensticker
- The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man, tr. Howard Hibbert
- Seven Japanese Tales, tr. Howard Hibbett
- In Praise of Shadows, tr. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker
- Naomi, tr. Anthony H. Chambers
- Childhood Years: A Memoir, tr. Paul McCarthy
- A Cat, a Man, and Two Women, tr. Paul McCarthy
- The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot, tr. Anthony H. Chambers
- Quicksand, tr. Howard Hibbett
- The Reed Cutter and Captain Shigemoto’s Mother, tr. Anthony H. Chambers
- The Gourmet Club: A Sextet, tr. Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy
- Red Roofs and Other Stories, tr. Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy,
The Makioka Sisters was made into a film in 1983. Have you seen it? What did you think of it? It does look so very pretty!
I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 –
A classic by a non-white author
Also for the Diversity on the Shelf challenge