Kon Ichikawa, “The Makioka Sisters” (1983)
Admittedly this is a beautifully shot film and its style is very graceful but even the skill and experience of a director like Kon Ichikawa – who lacks the flair of a Kurosawa or a Mizoguchi – can’t hide the fact that the source material novel by Junichiro Tanizaki is an extended soap opera. From what I’ve read about the film, it follows the novel quite faithfully. The film revolves around the activities of four sisters living in Japan in the late 1930s, during a period of greater militarisation in the country, though if you’re not paying deep attention, the historical background can escape you as the main characters tend to ignore events around them but are obsessed with maintaining family traditions and status. In that aspect of the plot alone, one theme of the film is people’s preoccupation with fading traditions and customs to the extent that they completely ignore political, cultural and economic changes around them until too late the results of those changes hit them hard and force the abandonment of the very rituals that had been sedulously cultivated over and over.
The older Makioka sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, both married to men of lower class who have taken their surname, busy themselves with finding a suitable husband for their third sister, Yukiko, who is painfully shy and who prefers the company of Sachiko’s young daughter Etsuko. The fourth and youngest of the Makioka sisters, Taeko, cannot marry until Yukiko is disposed of appropriately, so she spends her time making dolls in her studio and rejecting the advances of dissolute ex-boyfriend Okubata. She becomes attracted to photographer Itakura, of whom her older sisters disapprove because of his lower class background. Itakura dies from an ailment and Okubata tries to pressure Taeko to return to him. Taeko rejects Okubata emphatically and becomes involved with a bartender, Miyoshi, whom her sisters eventually accept because at least he is honest and hard-working. Meanwhile Yukiko is introduced to various prospective suitors, all of whom are twice her age, and nearly all of whom are found wanting in some way.
The film traces the decline of a once-prosperous merchant family and its eventual break-up: Tsuruko must follow her husband to Tokyo after he is promoted at work and this transfer forces her and her husband to rent out the Makioka family mansion for who knows long. Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke is an ineffectual clerk lacking in leadership qualities who has an eye for pretty ladies and is not really looking forward to Yukiko leaving his household in the event that she accepts a marriage proposal. Tradition and custom clash with the realities of a changing, Westernising society, and not always for the better.
The plot seems quite fragmented, with plot strands developing but being resolved off-screen, which may annoy Western viewers. At one point in the film Okubata threatens to blackmail Teinosuke and Sachiko and create a scandal over money he spent on buying jewellery for Taeko but the frisson this provides is very brief because the film then cuts immediately into a scene taking place in a future in which the money has been paid and Okubata has gone his own way. All characters seem to represent types and are rather one-dimensional. Male characters generally seem quite ineffectual and inadequate in some way. The women tend to be much firmer and more resolute but they waste their energy trying to preserve customs and ideas that have long outlived their usefulness and relevance.
Adherence to tradition and ritual, repeated over and over, as in the constant match-making rituals that Yukiko is forced to undergo, starts to look ridiculous. No-one ever asks Yukiko if she even wants to marry, let alone find out what kind of suitor she would prefer. The other alternative, becoming modern and finding one’s niche in the commercial world, does not look appealing either: Taeko gives up her doll-making enterprise, rejects her financial inheritance and becomes a seamstress to support herself and Miyoshi; and Tsuruko resigns herself to giving up the family mansion and its heirlooms to follow her husband to Tokyo when his employer requires his transfer as part of his job promotion. In all of this, the choices presented by the nature of the capitalist society of the period are stark and unyielding, and one must bend to the system’s demands or be left isolated and unwanted.
The film is lavish in its visual style though the use of nature-based scenes to indicate the passage of time and the impermanence of life is a well-worn stereotype in Japanese film-making; it seems ironic that a film about fading traditions that have lost their meaning through repetition should itself rely on film techniques that through over-familiarity have also become tired.
When all is said and done, the film seems very flat: a hack work by a hack director. Whatever the merits of the original novel are – it is a highly regarded work of 20th-century Japanese literature – may have disappeared in transition from page to screen. A work that appears ready-made for cinematic or television mini-series adaptation turns out to be more resistant than it first seems to be. We may read in that failure a final criticism by the novel on capitalist society.