Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, November 13, 2009

"The Makioka Sisters" by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1948, 530 pages, translated by Edward Seidensticker) is the

longest work I have read so far for 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.  


Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

Great choice for the challenge! It sounds really intriguing. I'm also joining Women can see my choices here:

claire said...

I absolutely loved The Makioka Sisters! It's the only Tanizaki I've read, however. Plan to read more in the future. Will keep the titles you mentioned in mind.

JoAnn said...

This book has been on my radar for several years but, after this review, I vow to read in 2010!

Paperback Reader said...

This is the novel by Tanazaki that I was most interested in reading and I definitely will now and can see how perfect a choice it is for the Women Unbound challenge.

Anna said...

Thanks for introducing me to this book. Sounds like there's a lot going on in this one. I've added it to my to-read list.

Diary of an Eccentric

Unknown said...

Mel -
Very nice review and I liked how your connected to Jane Austen and brought in the issues which pertain to women for the challenge. :)

ds said...

Great review as always, Mel. I have added this book to my list. A collection of Tanizaki's short stories has been staring at me for a very long time; will fix that. Thank you.

Mel u said...

Mrs B.-I will look forward to your reviews

Claire-I loved the book also-the more I think about it the more I like and admire it

Joann-I will look forward to your review

Paperback Reader-I will look forward as always to reading your thoughts

Anna-there is a lot going on in the book and in fact it could also be taken as a WWII book as it gives the home backgrounds of Japanese families in the early days of the war and we are forced to reflect a bit when we read of the sisters Russian and German friends

Shellie-thank you-

ds-I will look forward to your review of Tanizaki's short stories=

Anna said...

Are you counting this one for the WWII challenge? We're going to be finishing all the updates to the site hopefully by mid-December and I just want to make sure to include it if you'd like me to.

Diary of an Eccentric

tanabata said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this book. Like claire, I loved 'The Makioka Sisters', but I have yet to read anything else by Tanizaki. I've just been reading your reviews of the other Tanizakis that you read, and they all sound great. I have the first 2 already and plan to get 'Some Prefer Nettles' soon as well. The fact that he's now on your 'must read all of their books' list makes me even more impatient to read another one. Maybe we can read something by Tanizaki for the Japanese Literature Book Group.
BTW, I'm going to open nominations for future reads soon. I hope you'll suggest some titles that you think would be good to read together.

Anonymous said...

I just finished The Makioka Sisters and loved it too! I loved the warmth of the sisters love for each other and was impressed by Tanizaki's portrayal of the four sisters. I haven't read the other books by Tanizaki that you've listed, but am planning to do so in the future.

Tea said...

Wonderful review, wonderful book, thank you.