Beginning with powdering a sweaty back and ending, quite literally, with diarrhea, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki captures the intimate everyday moments of a once-powerful family in a rapidly changing 1930s and ’40s Japan.
It was not an enjoyable read for me. Coming from both a Western perspective and a modern one, I found just about all the aspects of the dying Japanese upper-class culture to be dreadful. The attempts at an arranged marriage for the aging third daughter, the repression of the modern and talented fourth daughter, and the family and social politics (that is, trying to keep up appearances as a successful and happy family) all seemed pointless.
Yet, Tanizaki captured the family so exactly that I could not help believing that such a family did exist. I better understand the era of Japanese history and the pain that came from rapidly modernizing centuries-old traditions.
The eldest (and married) Makioka sister lives Osaka, and the two youngest (unmarried) sisters live with the second sister (Sachiko) and her family in the nearby suburb of Ashiya. The sisters are all quite different, and the ultimate goal of marrying off the shy and quickly aging third daughter, Yukiko, causes stress and strife among all personalities. Further, the youngest daughter, Koi-san, is intent on living a modern life, which constantly conflicts with the traditions of respectability the older sisters insist on conforming to.
Much as Jane Austen’s novels of social propriety surrounding marriage (as Tanabata mentions in the review that got me to pick up this book), The Makioka Sisters is a study of traditional social mores and necessary traditional steps to a proper marriage. With the clash of modern and western ideals, such traditions are not welcomed by all the sisters. Unlike in Jane Austen, the results of accepting such traditions are not altogether romantic and satisfying to the parties involved. This is a realistic novel.
I am not familiar with Japanese politics prior to World War II, yet all references to politics seemed to me to give the novel a sense of foreboding. Just as in their daily lives obscure events are deemed “lucky” or “unlucky,” various political events were deemed as positive developments not just for the future of Japan but for the sisters.
Tanizaki wrote the novel from 1943-1948, in serial form, meaning that he wrote the beginning (which was the late 1930s) before the war had ended. Reading the long (500+ page) novel at a slow pace myself, I found it interesting to consider the significance of the war on the development of the novel. Tanizaki increasingly mentioned the war at the end of the novel, because the end of the novel took place in 1940. It had been written probably eight years later, so Tanizaki’s perspective had changed in that time. I sensed that all would not be right in the end, either for Japan’s plans to dominate China or for the Makioka family’s arrangements. It ends, as I mentioned, with diarrhea. This is not a happy ending, although I cannot imagine it ending in any other way.
Most reviews include some indication of whether or not the reader liked it, and whether or not I’d recommend it. When it comes to The Makioka Sisters, I do not feel I can answer either direction, yeay or nay. I read it over the course of nearly two months, and at times I found it horribly dull. The characters were irritating and boring, their lives were boring, and there was no hope for change. But having finished the novel, I can look back on it as a whole. Such boredom was utterly realistic as it pertains to life. It was perfectly crafted, and Tanizaki’s ability to capture the social mores of the Japanese social world was exquisite. For those with the patience to deal with the gloomy details of everyday life, it is edifying. I am ultimately glad I read it for it is truly a classic Japanese masterpiece.
Translated from Japanese by Edward Seidensticker.