The Japanese Literature 3 Challenge. It is the fifth book by Tanizaki that I have read. Vintage press has twelve of his works in translation in print and I will read them all.
The Makioka Sisters gives us a very intimate look at the lives of four sisters living in Osaka Japan. It is set from 1936 to 1940. Tanizaki is said to have written it during WWII to distract himself from the war. The book is considered his master work. The basic plot is simple. It is the story of a merchant family whose fortunes are not quite what they once were. They decide to remedy the problem by finding a wealthy husband for the second youngest sister, thirty year old Yukiko.
She has two older sisters. Tsurko the eldest has traditionally authority over her sisters now that their parents have passed away. Her husband took her last name when he was adopted by her family and he is, in theory, the head of the family. Sachiko is the second oldest and is considered to have the most gentle and warmest nature. Her two younger sisters live with her most of the time. Yukiko also has younger sister who is portrayed as distinctly more modern than her very traditional older sisters. She has a man in her life that she very much wants to marry, and everyone in the family likes the match as he is from a very good family. The problem is she is not allowed to marry until all of her older sisters have married. The fun of the plot turns on a husband hunt for Yukiko. Yukiko acts like the totally obedient sister she is supposed to be but some how every suitor presented ends up being rejected. One is simply way to old, one has six children, one has a mentally ill mother and one is simply too ugly. Along the way we get a very detailed look at life in an upper class family in Osaka. One sees in the work that there was a lot of regional conflict in Japan. People from Osaka looked at those from Tokyo as very ill mannered and money driven, people from the Nagasaki area were simply too country and so on. Of course people from Tokyo looked at those from Osaka as living in the past. One of the saddest moments in the book is when the older sister and her husband most move to Tokyo to pursue a business opportunity. We see what the sisters eat, how they feel about their husbands and how they exert control over their families. A very fun part of the book for me was when the sisters became friends with a White Russian Family who fled to Japan after the Czar was displaced. The sisters are amazed by the vitality of the grandmother of the family. When the Russia family invites them all over for dinner I could not help but laugh as we see them trying to cope with the food. I was happy to see the sisters said they had all read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. When the Russian family expressed surprise at this they said that all educated Japanese had read them. The sisters also become friends with some German neighbors. One of the best moments in the book was when the Germans, who returned because of political events in 1939, sent them a letter. There are several letters in the novel and each is marvelously done. One oddity, to me at least, was the pride of the sisters in their ability to drink alcohol, mostly sake. In fact it was sort of agreed that if a man was not a drinker at all he would not be considered an acceptable husband as he would simply be too dull. The sisters hire private investigators to check out the back grounds of possible spouses. A big issue seems to be how much time the men had spent in the pleasure quarters. Too much and he was considered a reprobate but no visits there also was a point to ponder. The sisters father was a habitual frequenter of gieshas after their mother died at an early age. This seems to be a sort of socially acceptable as long as you do not talk about it. We really are shown a lot about day to day life. Each sister has her own well defined personality and we really feel we know them. I liked all the sisters. One of the most suspenseful elements in the book concerned a dark spot that would come and go over the eye of Yukiko. We get a good look at child rearing practices. We hear a lot of gossip. There is conflict among the sisters, of course. It was interesting that the husbands of the older sisters had both taken the family name. Marriages were mostly arranged at the time and we get to see how that business works and meet the marriage broker. (She knows the in the closet secrets of every well off family in Osaka. Of course she is very discrete and only tells these secrets to the clients of her beauty parlor!)
Most goodreads commentators on this book have given it four or five stars. I gave it five. Some did say it was simply to dry and that it was boring. Those who disliked the novel seemed to feel it was too detailed in its treatment of the conversations and interior lives of the sisters and their friends. To me it was a wonderful book that took me into another world very much unlike my own. Only a few passing references are made in the novel to political events (the novel period is 1936 to 1940). I wanted to believe the family would some how survive World War II without terrible suffering.
This is my 3rd post for the Women Unbound Challenge. The Makioka Sisters is a very closely observed look at four Japanese women, their families and their relationships with their husbands and how they raised their children. We see how an unwanted pregnancy is dealt with. We see the sisters having a great time just being sisters. I could not help but smile when we slowly began to realize that maybe Yukiko did not want a husband to be picked for her by her older sisters or maybe she does not want one at all.
The Makioka Sisters is to me a great joy and a master novel. Readers of Jane Austin will at once relate to the themes of the book. I would suggest that those wanting to get to know Tanizaki first read The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot, if you like that read Quicksand, then Some Prefer Nettles. if you like these three works then read The Makioka Sisters. Tanizaki had an interesting life. For a brief period he was a dramatist in silent films. I could not help but think when I read this that if were with us now (1886 to 1965) he would be an ultra rich novelist whose every work is sold to Hollywood for millions.