Criterion Challenge #567
The Makioka Sisters 細雪
The date when this post is published (20/11/2015), it would have been the 100th birthday of Kon Ichikawa, a prolific Japanese director whose works spanned from 1946 (a short puppet film) up to 2006 with THE INUGAMIS (the second adaptation Ichikawa done from the same source, the first was made in 1976), two years before he passed away. His oeuvre ranged from early comedies to his most renowned output in literature adaptations, not to mention the monumental documentary TOKYO OLYMPIAD, centered on the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. However, one may not come up with Ichikawa’s name immediately when thinking of Japanese films or auteurs. His works are often overshadowed by other outstanding figures like Kurosawa, Ozu or Mizoguchi. Nonetheless, Ichikawa is credited with 89 directorial efforts on the IMDB page, including a number of works that are noteworthy for more attention and appreciation. Criterion Collection has been releasing a few of his works: THE BURMESE HARP (1956) and FIRES ON THE PLAIN (1959), two of the earliest Japanese films that indulged with the Pacific War, the out-of-print Olympic documentary TOKYO OLYMPIAD, and the lavish “house drama” THE MAKIOKA SISTERS.
Being described as “a late-career triumph” in the Criterion disc synopsis, it’s a no easy task to comprehend the THE MAKIOKA SISTERS immediately after a single viewing though. It requires the audience to equip with a consistent attention to details, a pre-existing knowledge of the atmosphere during the pre-war era as well as the by-gone traditionalism in Japan, a curiosity towards the complex and undeniably conflicting human relationship. Throughout the film, one have to fight to grasp the underscoring themes amidst all the extravagant cinematography and music. It’s a rewarding experience once you overcome this arduous task. I’m not attempting to scare off new viewers from watching THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, instead, I’m preparing for those who may find it as a common, lackluster drama only. It’s the third screen adaptations of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel with the same name, the first came out in 1950 (soon after the novel was published in 1948) and later in 1959, both are not readily available now, at least for foreign audience. Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation, being the most highly regarded one, is purposefully coincided with Toho Studio’s fiftieth anniversary, and understandably a crowd-pleasing commercial film with major stars portraying three out of the four Makioka sisters.
Kon Ichikawa was no stranger to the works of Tanizaki, he has adapted Tanizaki’s notoriously sensational short novel THE KEY, or more commonly known as ODD OBSESSION, in 1959 (the film can be streamed in Hulu Plus channel via Criterion at the time being). Numerous literature adaptations were done by Ichikawa, together with his long term script collaborator and wife, Natto Wada. Many critics partly regard the success of Ichikawa’s films with the witty, comical and humanistic input from Natto, and consider a downfall in quality when Natto retired from writing in 1963. This could be worthy for a further discussion when more of their collaborated films are available to watch. The screenplay for THE MAKIOKA SISTERS is cowritten by Shinya Hidaka and Ichikawa, narratively condensed the million-word novel which spanned five years of time, into a compact one-year story as a two hours and twenty minutes film. Unsurprisingly, a lot of story-lines are dropped and trimmed to accommodate the cinematic approach, notably a tremendous flood in Kobe is missing in the film. The differences between the novel and the adaptation warrant a separate essay, which is already written by Kathe Geist, therefore I would solely play the part of introduction in the following text, an attempt to celebrate the centennial anniversary of a remarkable director.
The first ten minutes scene before the opening credit is aThe Makioka Sisters vivid proof of the director’s resourcefulness in narration and mise en scène. It introduced the main characters’ background and relationships, their characteristics and personalities, proposed some of the major plot points and themes while demonstrating fast cutting close-up and the breakage of 180 degree rule in spatial orientation, creating a resemblance to Ozu which would come in full circle at the last scene. It was the annual gathering and blossom watching of the four Makioka sisters in Kyoto. From the conversation, we learnt their parents had passed away, the two eldest one were married with children, and they were finding a rightful husband for the conservative and traditionally behaved third sibling Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), while the youngest rebellious Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa) had her own plan in using dowry in establishing her doll-making business (the appearance of the dolls somehow recalled the first animated puppet film directed by Ichikawa). Yukiko’s marraige had to be arranged first before Taeko’s due to the seniority, this would lead to multiple match making scenarios throughout the film, as well as the underlining motivation for Taeko to be intermingled with several lovers. The eldest sister Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) was the head and the authoritarian figure of the family, her husband Tatsuo (Juzo Itami, who later turned into an acclaimed director himself) was adopted into the family by following the family name of Makioka, was missing from this family gathering due to business; the second sibling Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) served as the most understanding one, came head to head with Tsuruko upon an argument on the failure of the match making arrangement for Yukiko. Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka) was mesmerised by his sister-in-law Yukiko during the meal, foreshadowing a developing imitate crush.
The subsequent opening credits comprised of a series of landscape montage, with close-up on blossoms and the gorgeous kimono worn by the four sisters. The kimono served as the allegory of the lost Japanese traditional culture, in contrary to the westernization in the 30s portrayed explicitly in the novel and implicitly in the film. Yukiko embodied the idealized Japanese feminism while Taeko represented the modernized youth, reminiscent the Taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) or the self-righteous mind during the 60s “youth revolt”. The nostalgia and the reverence for the traditionalism were not without self-criticism. The conservative family obligations and rules were constantly challenged, including the strict sequence of marriage and the lack of freedom in choosing the true love. Ichikawa presented both side equally with merits and compromises in the ending, as Tsuruko, after initial refuse and several conflicts, decided to move to Tokyo as Tatsuo’s job promotion request, or Taeko determined to choose her own lover even being disowned by her family.
The melodrama resulted from Taeko’s love triangle amidst the playboy old lover Okubata (Kobeicho Katsura) and the lower class photographer Itakura (Itokku Kishibe) subtly demonstrated the gradual dissociation of the social class barrier. The flashback of Taeko’s scandal five years ago was presented abruptly in contrasting black and white, with one fierce dispute scene slowly regaining color. It’s confusing at first, but the scenes slowly picked up its pace and intention. Taeko would be the character that audience easily roots for, her occasional childish and selfish behavior was act for fairness and attention seeking. Meanwhile, the stubbornness of the traditional Yukiko in choosing her right match was respectful and courageous; the numerous “matching” scenes were surprisingly divergent, sometimes disastrous or unbelievably ordinary, sometimes awkward or falsely hopeful. In the end the fateful choice came unexpectedly, but would there be happy ending for everyone?
A trailer and a booklet only, the film deserved at least a short video essay on the subject like the novel and the adaptation, or an archival interview. But with a lower marketing price, it is still better than none.