Review of The Makioka Sisters
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/20/11
Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1948 novel, The Makioka Sisters (細雪 or Sasameyuki, whose Japanese title is Light Snow), is often referred to as the greatest of last century’s novels from Japan. Inevitably, this sort of hyperbole is difficult to live up to, and the book, classically divided into three ‘books’ and 101 chapters, fails in that claim. It’s not a bad novel, and not even a particularly good one, although it has many merits. The biggest drag on the book is its running 530 pages in length, in the Vintage Books edition, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, in 1957. That’s because it is, at its core, a melodrama, a juicy soap opera set in the upper classes of Japanese society- a sort of Japanese version of the television shows Upstairs, Downstairs or Dynasty, set in Osaka, about a mercantile family whose ‘stock’ has been in decline for a few decades.
Another comparison that is often drawn is between Tanizaki’s work and the films of Yasujiro Ozu. While I’ve only read this book from Tanizaki, it seems the comparison fails. That’s because what works well on film- a medium that, by its nature, must condense the action of most novels, does not work in novels, Whereas an Ozu scene can play out slowly, with static framing of a room and the characters that move within it, and focus on the seemingly banal utterances of those characters, yet combine all these elements into something dramatic and/or poetic, Tanizaki’s prose does not yield to that sort of exposition. Yes, we get detailed renderings of the lives of the main characters, the four titular Makioka sisters, the two older sisters’ husbands, the family’s hangers-on, hired help, suitors, children, neighbors, and so on, but these renderings are prosaic in the extreme. Whether this is particular to this novel or a part of Tanizaki’s natural tendencies I don’t know, but it is surely not merely the difference between the art form of prose fiction and film. Furthermore, we get many repetitions of the same behaviors, conversations, exchanges of quoted letters written between the characters, as well as the requisite dramas and traumas that affect the clan- from natural disasters to the seemingly minor recurrence of a dark spot near the eye of the third sister, Yukiko, whose ongoing miais (or prospective marriage introductions), and subsequent rejections of suitors she feels she is better than (although the reality seems much different), serves the interior narrative purpose of frustrating the marriage efforts of the sexually wanton youngest sister, Taeko (aka Koi-san), which propels most of her character’s narrative, and the exterior one of providing comic relief from the fulfilled dullness of most of the rest of the narrative.
And this is not a case of a critic desiring mere plot-driven action so that lowest common denominator readers can be satisfied with cheap thrills. Rather, it is desiring to see a writer at least attempt a higher purpose or function in a work of such length. There are a number of extended scenes that dwell on ‘classic’ dramatic tropes. There is, as example, a flood that occupies dozens of pages of the 530 page book’s narrative; but the problem is that nothing much of depth is revealed about the characters in that whole passage. The characters run about, worry of this or that other character’s fate, but then speak banally to each other of trivia surrounding the flood- from getting dry to, well, nothing much of substance. Repeated moments of gushing water appear but there is no sense that the characters ever grow from it; and not just in the flood episode, but throughout the book, through ‘small moments,’ and through melodramatic standards, like medical crises. Now, one might ask, well, is not that like real life? Do not most people fail to grow? The answer, of course, is yes. But, the novel is art. In order for even dull readers to be pulled in to a book there needs to be movement of the characters, internally. Instead, the whole novel treats its characters as means to an end- that of sketching pre-World War Two upper crust Japanese society, rather than giving us real characters within that society. This lack of penetration is what ultimately undoes the novel’s chances for excellence or better.
That stated, there are wonderfully descriptive passages scattered throughout the text, such as this:
The house was built in the old Osaka fashion. Inside the high garden walls, one came upon the latticed front of the house. An earthen passage led from the entrance to the rear. In the rooms, lighted even at noon by but a dim light from the courtyard, hemlock pillars, rubbed to a fine polish, gave off a soft glow. Sachiko did not know how old the house was – possibly a generation or two. At first it must have been used as a villa to which elderly Makiokas might retire, or in which the junior branches of the family might live. Not long before his death Sachiko’s father had moved his family there from Semba; it had become the fashion for merchant families to have residences away from their shops. The younger sisters had therefore not lived in the house long. They had often visited relatives there even when they were young, however, and it was there that their father died. They were deeply attached to the old place. Sachiko sensed that much of her sister’s love for Osaka was in fact love for the house, and, for all her amusement at these old fashioned ways, she felt a twinge of pain herself- she would no longer be able to go back to the old family house. She often enough joined Yukiko and Taeko in complaining about it- surely there was no darker and unhygienic house in the world, and they could not understand what made their sister live there, and they felt thoroughly depressed after no more than three days there, and so on-yet a deep undefinable sorrow came over Sachiko at the news. To lose the Osaka house would be to lose her very roots.
It’s worth noting, though, that, while there is some interior penetration of Sachiko’s being, this is carried out via her relation to a thing, rather than another character, or even herself. But even these high points of description are followed by the utter anomy of the tale and characters. The two older sisters are ciphers. Tsuruko, the eldest, lives in another city, Tokyo, in the Main House, and seems to act merely as a device to speed the sluggish tale along, as she (and the reader) are often informed by too many tiresome letters of the goings on of the other sisters. The second oldest sister, Sachiko, houses Yukiko and Taeko, and she and her accountant husband, Teinosuke (who has taken the grand Makioka name) spend most of the novel as glorified matchmakers for Yukiko and enablers of Taeko’s bad behavior- mostly sexual promiscuity that, to no surprise, ends up with her getting pregnant (a stillbirth) out of wedlock, by a man, Okubata (aka Kei-boy) from a lesser family. His and Taeko’s relationship has the usual ups and downs and infidelities, but by novel’s end they seem on the path to marriage. Yukiko is not as lucky, and she is a bigger worry, despite her pristine behavior, save for the constant rejection of suitors which seemingly will get her family’s name soiled, especially since an earlier sex scandal (by Taeko) has been pinned, in name, upon Yukiko, in the local press. Tsuruko and her husband, the family dynast, and a banker, Tatsuo (who also assumed the Makioka name) even worry of Yukiko, but do very little to actually effect any positive changes.
That’s on the personal level of the novel. On the larger scale, the novel succeeds a bit more. Aside from the family troubles and the flood, the novel gives an overview of the stultifying routines of Japanese life: obligatory family trips to view springtime cherry blossoms, or writing doggerel to show hoe literarily inclined the characters are. One might prefer the more satiric nature of a Dickensian portrait of the Victorian England of his day (and like Dickens’ novels, The Makioka Sisters was serialized in a leading Japanese literary magazine of the era), but there’s no denying that the novel does an efficient job of portraying its milieu. Traditions crumble as newer modes of thought come in o view. Oddly, despite the novel’s being set between 1937 and 1941, little is mentioned of the rise of the Right Wing Militarists in government. More, actually, is discerned about Germany’s pre-war and in-war life via letters to the family from a German family that lived nearby. Most of this is done through the overdone missive method, but, of all the letters quoted in the book (at least two dozen), the most effective are easily those that come from the Germans, after leaving Japan.
The book is, despite many hyperbolic critics’ claims, not ‘epic’ at all. It is so relentlessly family-centered, as mentioned, that little of a historical nature seeps through, save for an occasional reference to Japan’s attacks on China. This is often praised as ‘realism,’ which, in a broad sense, it is. But artistic ‘realism,’ at its best, uses the mundane realities of existence as a portal to something deeper, more poetic, more profound. Nothing of that sort of ‘poetic realism,’ so deftly displayed in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. A perfect example of how this novel fails to meet the exemplar set by Betty Smith’s novel comes at its end. In the Smith novel we get an almost full circle of what opens the book, but with an added uplift that makes one feel that novel’s lead character is going on to something more, perhaps better. At the end of The Makioka Sisters, we get Yukiko, probably the most annoying of the quartet, riding a train to Tokyo to meet her prospective, agreed upon, husband (himself a ‘black sheep’ of another ‘fallen clan,’ and getting diarrhea. But, the novel just ends there, sans even any humor in the moment, and it is this sort of banality, lacking any reflection, that typifies almost all the major ‘scenes’ within the narrative, even as, in some other moments- those not ‘essential’ to the narrative, Tanizaki shines:
They turned off the flash lights and approached in silence. Fireflies dislike noise and light. But even at the edge of the river there were no fireflies. ‘Maybe they are not out tonight,’ someone whispered. ‘No, there are plenty of them. Come over here.’ Down into the grasses on the bank, and there, in the delicate moment before the last light goes, were fireflies, gliding out over the water, in low arcs like the sweep of grasses. On down the river, on and on, were fireflies, lines of them wavering out from this bank and the other and back again, sketching their uncertain tracks of light down close to the surface of the water, hidden from outside by the grasses. In the last moment of light, with darkness creeping up from the water and the moving plumes of grass still faintly outlined, there, far as the river stretched- an infinite number of little lines in two long rows on either side, quiet, unearthly. Sachiko could see it all even now, here inside with her eyes closed. Surely that was the impressive moment of the evening, the moment that made the firefly hunt worth-while.
Yes, we see that the Makioka clan (sisters and husbands) are all petty minded folk who are seeking to social climb even as they seek to maintain their shrinking status but….so what? It’s just not that compelling. For a soap opera? Perhaps- if done right. For a serious, literary novel? No. Well, maybe; but not done in the straightforward, unadorned, and prosaic (in the worst sense) way this novel does it. As a work of cultural anthropology or sociology, The Makioka Sisters can be highly recommended. As a work of art it cannot be. And, as the latter is what it strives for, and misses, my recommendation is clear.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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