Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki: A review

The Makioka SistersThe Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The four Makioka sisters are a Japanese family living in Osaka in the late 1930s. They are members of a once prominent and powerful family now fallen upon hard times. The parents of the family are long deceased but their adult daughters continue to cling obstinately to the prestige of their family name and to pursue lives that are essentially unchanged from their aristocratic past.

As we meet the sisters, the two older ones are married and established with families of their own. Both of their husbands have taken the Makioka name.

The oldest sister, Tsuruko, is the mistress of the "main" house in Osaka, which by Japanese tradition wields authority over the collateral branches of the family. Her husband, Tatsuo, a bank employee, is now the acknowledged head of the family according to Japanese custom.

Sachiko is the second sister and she is mistress of a branch house in Ashiya, a small city just outside of Osaka. Her devoted husband is Teinosuke, an accountant with literary inclinations and a deep well of patience and empathy. He needs it with this family!

The two younger daughters are Yukiko and Taeko (also called Koi-san). They are technically attached to the "main" house in Osaka, but in reality they spend most of their time with Sachiko and her family as they find that household much more amenable and pleasant.

Yukiko is thirty years old and still unmarried when we meet her, and the main focus of the entire family during the years covered by this novel is the need to find an acceptable husband for her. This is made difficult by the fact that she is so shy and retiring that she finds it hard to even speak in the presence of strangers. Moreover, she has already refused - or her family has refused at her behest - many proposals over the years which has now given the family a reputation for haughtiness. A haughtiness that is not warranted considering their declining fortunes.

The youngest daughter is Taeko who is a bit of a free spirit at twenty-five. She is willful and sophisticated and is waiting impatiently for the family to find a husband for Yukiko so that she can get on with her own life. As a teenager, Taeko had eloped with a young man from a wealthy family who was just as pampered and spoiled as she. But the families had found them and brought them home before they could be married. However, Taeko still seems to be carrying on some kind of relationship with him. In fact, over the years that we come to know her, she carries on secret liaisons with various men, scandalizing her conservative family and eventually causing a breech in their relationship with her.

Over the years, friends of the family recommend various men as a husband for Yukiko, but always either Yukiko or the family find some fault with each candidate and the matchmaking efforts come to naught. The years pass and still Yukiko hasn't married and as she hasn't married, Taeko cannot marry, since the custom is that children should be married in the order of their births. And this is a society that is securely bound by custom.

As told by Junichiro Tanizaki, this book that was written in the late 1940s tells a poignant but unsparing tale of a close-knit family, and indeed an entire close-knit society, sliding into the abyss of societal chaos and change as the government takes a war-like stance in the world and the whole society is dragged protesting into modern life. Tanizaki creates a vivid picture of this changing society through his portraits of the four sisters and other family members and close associates.

I found it interesting that the author referred somewhat obliquely on several occasions to the "China Incident," which was actually the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1937. He also referenced, through the lives of some of the Makiokas' European friends, the Sudeten crisis of 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed parts of Czechoslovakia where German-speaking citizens lived. The world is sliding into war but the Makiokas and their friends seem generally unaware of and uninterested in what is happening. The "China Incident" does not affect them personally and so it doesn't really register on their radar.

I am not well-read in Japanese literature. I first heard of this book through my blogging friend, Judy Krueger, who read and reviewed the book several weeks ago. From what I understand, this book is considered a classic of international literature and one of the greatest Japanese novels (some say the greatest) of the twentieth century. I found it to be quite a mesmerizing read that kept me turning those pages to find out what catastrophe would befall the Makiokas next. It reminded me a bit of a soap opera or telenovela. Tanizaki, I think, offers a clear vignette of the stylized decorum demanded by the upper-class Japanese culture of that time, as well as portraying the heartache that often underlay it. It is a remarkable achievement.


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8 comments:

  1. Now you both got me curious about this novel. Judy thought it was Austen-esque if I remember correctly.

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    1. Austen-esque is a good way to describe it - a story of social commentary laced with irony and told through holding a mirror up to a close-knit but diverse family and examining its relations in minute detail. It's a fascinating way of looking at a larger picture by focusing on one of its constituent parts. I love books like this!

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  2. I am so excited that you read this one! And your review is excellent. Thanks for the shout out. I realized yesterday that I am developing some wonderful relationships with several bloggers, you included. I began to fantasize about meeting you and Carmen and a few others in person someday. Meanwhile it is a great thing to have these connections!

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    1. Other bloggers' reviews are a wonderful way to learn about some of the books that I should be reading. This one was certainly a winner! I'm so glad you introduced me to it.

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  3. Sounds very interesting.

    Thank you for your great review.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved February Edition. I am in the list as #10, #11, #12, and #14.

    Happy Reading!!

    Elizabeth
    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth. I'll be checking out your entries as well.

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  4. Great review, thanks. I've heard it called the Japanese Austen also, which for me would be a good enough reason to read it, but your comments on the author's references to historical events makes it even more attractive. Found your blog via Carole's Chatter.

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    1. The Austen comparison is an apt one, both for the well-drawn characters and the rather complicated and sweeping plot that focuses on family relations. It really is quite a mesmerizing read for those of us who enjoy such writing.

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