For someone who intends to do an honours degrees in minority Japanese literature, I have recently realised I am woefully poorly read when it comes to mainstream Japanese literature. As such, I am desperately trying to fix the problem. And when Vintage Classics put out a beautiful edition of Tanizaki for me to read – at only $12.95 – who am I to do anything but follow what must be fate?
The four Makioka sisters are the end of a line. A line of Osaka nobility, who have been famous for many generations. But it is the 1920s, and things in Japan are changing. The sisters are fading from the public eye, and dealing with their own problems. Yukiko, for example, is still not married, despite being past her prime. As war looms, the sisters’ lives will go through the ups and downs of what it means to be human.
People, sometime unfairly, I think, deride soap operas for having storylines that go on forever and ever, and deal with intense, character based situations that border on the melodramatic. In many ways, yes, I agree. But I also think soap operas, when done well, have the ability to tell the story of normal people over many years, and we can watch them grown and change just as we would our own family. And so it is in the best way possible that I must compare The Makioka Sisters to a well written soap opera – this is a novel that has very little plot to speak of, but at the same time, so much plot based around the everyday lives of four women in early 20th century Japan.
There’s quite a large cast of characters to get a grip on here, too. The four sisters are quite different in their character, and while Tsuruko, the oldest, has moved the main branch of the house to Tokyo, the three younger ones remain in Osaka to keep the family going. There is Sachiko, the second oldest, who is in charge of the Osaka branch, and is constantly worried about her younger sisters who, not necessarily on purpose, are doing nothing to help the family line. Yukiko, as previously mentioned, is having trouble finding a husband, despite the huge number of miai she attends; while Taeko is, despite being of noble blood, quite happy to strike out by herself and do jobs that require handiwork. Also, she gets around a bit.
I have to give a special mention to Taeko, because I do think she is the star of the novel. At the very least, she is my favourite sister. Her desire to break out of the societal mold she’s been placed in, juxtaposed with her understanding that her family must maintain appearances, is nicely played. While Yukiko’s story is the one that starts us off, and often grounds the narrative, I find Taeko’s sidesteps to be far more interesting, and indeed, where she is left at the end of the novel is, while heartbreaking, perfectly formed.
Tanizaki, though, manages to keep this large cast of characters separate and distinct, and even the small bit characters have more than passing characterisation. Itani, the woman who sets up a lot of the marriage proposals, is the kind of busybody, always chatty, chubby lady you’d expect to be a matchmaker (see Mulan for comparison). The Makioka husbands are, I imagine, both turned on and terrified of the power their wives hold – because these sisters do hold a lot of sway, despite their husbands being the ones getting all the cash.
I wanted also to make a special note of the large number of foreign characters in the novel, which surprised me no end. Much like Japan, old school Japanese literature tends to be very inward looking, so to portray Osaka as a city where foreigners live was quite nice to see. I particularly loved the German family who lives next door, though there is an entire incident where the Makioka sisters pack up and go to a Russian family’s house that is just so pitch perfect, you have to read it to believe it. Their utter confusion at a culture that isn’t their own is poignantly recounted by Tanizaki, and I can only imagine based on an experience of his own.
Written over five years, this is not a short novel. But it is eminently readable, no small thanks to the translation, no doubt. Despite being translated in the 50s (which means there are notes to inform the reader what the strange Japanese dish “sushi” is), it’s slightly archaic language adds to the atmosphere of the novel. Anything more modern would, I think, lost some of the period atmosphere. For anyone who has more than a passing interest in Japanese literature, read this, not Murakami. Even if you don’t have a passing interest in Japanese literature, this is a well-formed, surprisingly deep, character study of a family on the brink of dynastic change.