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Thursday, 6 February 2014

JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI The Makioka Sisters (1948)

Vintage Books US, 1995


It was nonetheless out of the question to have the younger sister marry first, and since a match for Taeko was as good as arranged, it became more urgent than ever to find a husband for Yukiko.  In addition to the complications we have already described, however, yet another fact operated to Yukiko's disadvantage: she had been born in a bad year.  In Tokyo the Year of the Horse is sometimes unlucky for women.  In Osaka, on the other hand, it is the Year of the Ram that keeps a girl from finding a husbandThe superstition is a deep-rooted one in Osaka, so strongly colored by the merchant and his beliefs, and Tsuruko liked to say that the Year of the Ram was really responsible for poor Yukiko's failure to find a husband.  Everything considered, then, the people in the main house, too, had finally concluded that it would be senseless to cling to their high standards.

Translated by EDWARD G SEIDENSTICKER (1958)



The Novel:  Say the word 'Japan' to most Westerners and two very different images will often leap to mind –– the devastated post-nuclear cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or grinning contestants eagerly stuffing centipedes, cockroaches and other forms of insect life down their underwear on wacky television game shows.  It can be easy to forget that Japan was, until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which saw the country modernize virtually overnight, an ancient, tradition-bound society which had hardly changed for a thousand years.  When change did finally occur Japanese society became a strange hybrid of Occidental modernity and the timeless Oriental traditions of its proud feudal past, a place where young women were allowed, even encouraged, to bob their hair and dress in Western-style clothes but were still expected, if they came from honorable families, to abide by the same strict rules of etiquette and conduct which had governed the lives of their forbears for centuries before them.

It is this clash of cultures, and the conflicts it inspires, that Junichiro Tanizaki examines and so faithfully re-creates in his 1948 literary masterpiece The Makioka Sisters.

The time is the late 1930s and the Makioka family –– four daughters, only the eldest two of whom are married –– is no longer the prestigious clan it was considered to be prior to the death of its art-collecting, pleasure-loving patriarch.  The new head of the household is Tatsuo, ultra-conservative husband of the eldest daughter Tsuruko, who runs the 'main' house in Osaka while the second daughter Sachiko, along with her more liberal-minded husband Teinosuke, maintains a separate residence in the nearby town of Ashiya.  Unusually, Sachiko and Teinosuke share the Ashiya house with the unmarried third and fourth daughters, Yukiko and Taeko, and their own daughter, a precocious schoolgirl named Etsuko.  Although the free-spirited, forward-thinking Taeko – known by the affectionate diminutive 'Koi-san' [youngest daughter] – attempted to elope with Okubata, the pampered son of a local merchant, when she was nineteen, she's been prevented from marrying him, despite the scandal their actions caused, because Japanese custom dictates that for her to do so while Yukiko remains officially 'unspoken for' is unthinkable.  Taeko continues to see her playboy lover in secret, hoping that a husband will soon be found for Yukiko so their thwarted liaison can be sanctioned by the family and formally legitimized.

Yukiko is the shyest, most outwardly docile and most accomplished of the four sisters, a talented musician who is studying French and has been trained to perform the tea ceremony and other 'feminine arts' believed to be essential accomplishments for a Japanese lady of her rank and social status to possess.  Her refinement is offset, however, by her age –– she has now reached thirty –– her delicate health and her family's rejection, for one reason or another, of every suitor who's approached them seeking her hand in marriage.  Tsuruko and particularly Sachiko are worried.  Will they ever find their slender, softly spoken sister – who has a visible blemish above her left eyelid that's becoming more and more noticeable over time –– a suitable husband?  Will the shame that Taeko's scandalous 'modern' behavior has brought upon the family ever be eradicated by her long expected, long delayed betrothal to the untrustworthy but nevertheless socially acceptable Okubata?  

Their friends share their misgivings and one of them, a gossiping hairdresser named Itani, takes it upon herself to arrange a match for Yukiko with an unmarried engineer named Segoshi.  The couple meet for dinner at a hotel –– under the strict supervision of Sachiko, Teinosuke and Itani herself –– and Segoshi is immediately captivated by the elegance, grace and beauty of his potential bride-to-be.  A second, more formal meeting known as a 'miai', during which the couple are briefly permitted to speak to each other unchaperoned, is enough to quell Segoshi's misgivings about Yukiko's health and the troublesome blemish above her eye which seems to appear and disappear at random.  Everything is on track for a happy and successful union until a routine investigation of Segoshi's background reveals that his mother suffers from 'palsy' –– a tactful pseudonym, it's soon discovered by informants employed by Tatsuo, for mental illness.  Tatsuo and Tsuruko cannot permit a Makioka to marry into a family afflicted by mental illness.  Segoshi, like every prospective bridegroom before him, is rejected and Yukiko, stoic as ever in the face of what has now become a familiar disappointment, is once again denied her chance to marry by her family's insistence on arranging the quintessentially 'perfect' match for her.

Vintage/Random House UK, 2000
Happily, Segoshi's is far from being the last proposal that Yukiko receives.  Another family friend, aware that the negotiations with him ended badly, arranges another miai with a conservative bank manager in his fifties named Nomura who, in addition to being a widower, is also the father of five children.  Unfortunately, this match also proves unsuitable, this time on the grounds that Yukiko finds Nomura too old, garrulous and insensitive to accept the idea that she might ever learn to love him.  Sachiko, more worried than ever about Yukiko's future and what signals their apparently unjustified fussiness and haughtiness might be sending to other prospective suitors, is sent to break off the negotiations while Yukiko herself is summoned back to the 'new' main house in Tokyo where it is hoped a better match can be arranged for her by Tatsuo and Tsuruko.

In the meantime Taeko, eager to establish a life of her own independent of her family, begins to question the wisdom of remaining perpetually engaged to a self-confessed hedonist like Okubata.  A talented dancer and dollmaker, Taeko wants to branch out and open her own dress shop where she hopes, in time, to design and create haute couture fashions for well-heeled ladies like her sisters.  This plan troubles Tsuruko, who is already concerned about Taeko's burgeoning friendship with Itakura, a low-born photographer who learned his trade during an extended trip to the United States.  They already have enough to worry about, she explains to her husband, without adding the possibility that Taeko might forsake Okubata and run off with this liberty-taking peasant adding to their troubles.  But Taeko, whose outlook is so 'modern' that even her sisters have begun to find her behavior vulgar, defies them and begins seeing Itakura in secret –– a fact it becomes increasingly difficult to hide when he selflessly risks his life, in a way that the dandified Okubata would never dream of doing, to rescue her when severe flooding unexpectedly strikes the Osaka/Kobe region.  Eventually, it is the spurned Okubata himself who reveals the affair to the Makiokas, writing a note to Sachiko which makes the truth of the matter painfully but undeniably apparent to them.

The situation worsens when Itakura develops a serious infection after undergoing what should have been a routine ear operation.  When the infection spreads, Taeko cuts short her visit to Tokyo to be at his side, only to watch him die as a result of his doctor's incompetence and his timid family's inability to decide whether or not he should have undergone a second operation which might have saved his life.  In time, his death pushes her back into the arms of Okubata, who is experiencing family-related troubles of his own in the form of being disinherited due to his inability to choose an acceptable and respectable career.  When they're seen behaving indecently together in public, their brazenness proves to be the last straw for Tatsuo and Tsuruko.  Taeko cannot live under the Makioka roof, they tell her, if she insists on behaving like a common tramp.  She leaves the Ashiya house and rents a cheap room in the center of town where she intends to support herself – and, by implication, her disinherited and unemployed lover –– by working as a seamstress.

None of this, of course, improves the family's chances of finding a suitable husband for Yukiko.  Tsuruko's sister-in-law attempts to arrange another match with a wealthy, aristocratic landowner named Sawazaki –– another widower with children older than Yukiko – but the family's visit to his impressive Nagoya estate, ostensibly undertaken on the pretext of hunting fireflies, seems doomed to failure from the beginning.  Sawazaki finds Yukiko too reserved for his tastes and quickly makes it known that he has no intention of making her family an offer for her hand.  Outwardly disappointed if privately relieved, the Makiokas return to Osaka only to discover that Itani has a new prospective husband in mind for Yukiko, a recently widowed pharmaceutical executive named Hashidera who, at first, seems as reluctant as she is to attend another miai.  Like Sawazaki, Hashidera expresses concern about what he calls Yukiko's 'moodiness.'  He wants a wife, he explains, who will be a kind and attentive mother to his twelve year old daughter and an asset to him in his professional life.  Acknowledging that Hashidera is the most suitable candidate they've met since Yukiko was in the first flush of her now-faded youth, the Makiokas set about the task of wooing him with an enthusiasm and forwardness they have seldom, if ever, displayed towards a prospective suitor.  Nevertheless, their efforts again prove futile.  A second, private meeting with Yukiko is enough to persuade Hashidera that he does not want such a 'spineless, quivering, old-fashioned woman' for a bride.

Yukiko's disappointment –– an emotion which, as always with her, is assumed rather than confirmed –– is quickly swept aside by the news that Taeko, who has been secretly living with her penniless fiancee for some time, has fallen ill with dysentery.  Taeko's life-threatening illness reunites her with her sisters, with Yukiko soon volunteering to replace the traumatized Okubata and personally nurse her back to health.  Seizing upon this opportunity to permanently separate Taeko from her disgraced lover –– and thereby avoid another scandal which may further restrict Yukiko's chances of finding a husband –– the Makiokas repay Okubata the money he spent on caring for her during the first stage of her illness and send him on his way, grateful to hear, a few months later, that he's applied for an administrative job in far-off Manchuria.  In time Teinosuke, admitting that he may have treated his invalid sister-in-law too harshly, finds it in his heart to forgive her and re-admits her to the family.  This symbolic gesture is followed by another visit from Itani, who has stumbled across yet another prospective suitor who might, she says, be the perfect match for Yukiko –– the charming, highly cultured, well-traveled son of the aristocrat Viscount Mimaki.  Another miai is swiftly arranged and a favorable impression is made by the worldly and sophisticated Mimaki, who declares his intention to buy a house in Toyko following his marriage and pursue a career there as an architect.  Unlike her previous suitors, Mimaki finds Yukiko's natural reserve enchanting.  A proposal, it seems, is imminent.  At last, thinks Sachiko, she will be free of the burden which has plagued her all these years, never suspecting that a new, more serious problem awaits her in the form of Taeko's thus far unspoken of pregnancy.

To make matters worse, Taeko informs her astonished sisters that the child she's carrying is not that of the still disliked but socially acceptable Okubata.  Her pregnancy is the result, she confesses, of her liaison with another peasant –– this time a bartender named Miyoshi.  Although Miyoshi behaves like a true gentleman when Teinosuke visits him to discuss what must be done, arrangements are soon made for Taeko never to see the man again and for her to have her baby in the country so as not to jeopardize the promising marriage negotiations the family is now engaged in with Mimaki and his aristocrat father.  Sachiko's fears, however, prove groundless.  The proposal is offered and accepted and even Yukiko, shy and reserved as always, seems pleased at the thought of becoming Mimaki's wife.  Fate then does the family another favor, bitter though it is, by taking the life of Taeko's little girl – an event which, while tragic for the new mother, doesn't prevent her from going off, once the shock of losing her child has passed, to share an apartment with the kind if still thoroughly unsuitable Miyoshi.  She takes her leave of the Ashiya house as Yukiko, feeling glum now that her wedding day has at long last arrived, prepares for the train journey to Tokyo that will result in her finally becoming the wife she's never quite managed to convince herself she wants to be.

Vintage/Random House UK, c. 2008
While The Makioka Sisters is often referred to as the 'most Japanese' of Japanese novels, it also reveals Tanizaki as a writer  thoroughly familiar with Western idioms who clearly had no problem with the notion of adapting and replicating them in his work.  The four Makioka sisters share much in common with the five unmarried Bennett sisters in Jane Austen's best-loved novel Pride and Prejudice (1813).  Like Elizabeth Bennett and her unmarried elder sibling Jane, Sachiko and Yukiko are prey to social forces they neither control nor possess the power to change, tradition obliging them to do what their families demand of them even though, in Yukiko's case, these demands clash with their own wishes and continually fail to take their own unvoiced feelings into account.  Only Taeko, who's fortunate enough to have youth on her side, is permitted to break with tradition and only then at the cost of her respectability and the life of her newborn child.  

But Tanizaki is careful not to overlook or diminish the beauty, grace and elegance of this world –– a world that was to vanish forever when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, just eight months after Yukiko's long-awaited wedding –– or, by contrast, its sometimes stifling banality.  The novel's lyrical passages –– describing, among other things, cherry blossom time and the loveliness of a nighttime firefly hunt –– are skilfully juxtaposed with images of the sister's often very mundane day-to-day lives.  They see doctors (an activity which seems to consume a disproportionate amount of their time), care for their children, shop, visit the theater and cinema together, deal with servants (Sachiko's sturdy young maid O-haru features throughout the novel as a minor but crucially important character) and complain about each other's character flaws as privileged members of a privileged class which, while still respectful of Japanese tradition, is also willing to include and even embrace 'foreigners' like Sachiko's German neighbors the Stolzes and the Kyrilenkos, a White Russian family who sought refuge in Japan after fleeing the 1917 Communist revolution. 

It's also worth noting that the censors of Japan's wartime government suspended the novel's serial publication in 1943 on the grounds that it highlighted 'the very thing we are most supposed to be on our guard against during this period of wartime emergency: the soft, effeminate, grossly individualistic lives of women.'  It is a priceless social document and a valuable reminder of a happier, more genteel time in Japanese history, before the militarists took over and led the country into a war of conquest that would see it conquered in turn and then occupied by the US Army until 1952.  War is a constant if undefined presence in The Makioka Sisters, be it the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937 or the impending world war that would, with the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, make the rarefied, tradition-bound lives of Yukiko and her sisters seem as remote as those led by their equally demure and perhaps over-refined ancestors.


JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI, 1913
The Writer:  Junichiro Tanizaki, the grandson of a printer, was born in the Tokyo suburb of Nihonbashi on 24 July 1886.  Although he grew up in modestly privileged circumstances and attended Tokyo First Middle School, his family's fortunes had sunk so low by 1911 that he was forced to leave Tokyo Imperial University because he could no longer afford to pay his tuition fees.  This setback did not prevent him from becoming infatuated with all things Western or from co-founding a literary magazine which published his first one act play in 1909 and his first widely read story, Shisei [The Tattoo Artist], the following year.  This story was followed by many others which combined the same elements of eroticism and sadomasochism in what, despite its Western influences, was still considered to be a uniquely 'Japanese' style.

Tanizaki married in 1915 but the marriage, perhaps because of his own interest in erotica and Western-style Bohemianism, began to falter after producing one child, a daughter, in 1916.  Its demise was hastened by Tanizaki himself, who encouraged his wife to have an affair with one of his friends, the writer Haruo Sato –– a situation he was to explore time and time again in much of his early work, including his provocative 1928 novel Manji [Quicksand] which depicts an unhappy ménage-à-trois that ends with two of the three participants committing suicide.  

In 1918, the successful young author moved from Tokyo to Yokohama to be closer to the Westerners –– the city was home to a large expatriate population at this time – and the Western ideas, literature and fashions which continued to obsess him and directly inspire his work.  This remained the case until 1922, when the Great Kanto earthquake, in addition to destroying his house and justifying his lifelong fear of earthquakes, sparked an interest in traditional Japanese culture that eventually saw him lose interest in Western art and literature and relocate to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital.  It was in Kyoto, between 1923 and 1924, that he wrote his first truly successful novel Chijin no ai [Naomi], the serio-comic tale of a Japanese man who strives to transform a Eurasian girl into his idealized version of a modern Western woman.  The clash between Japanese traditionalism and Western Modernism, combined with his insightful examinations of sexuality and its sometimes devastating impact on individuals torn between lust and their strong sense of social duty, were to recur frequently in his writing and, in time, would help secure his reputation as Japan's most widely read novelist after his Meiji-era forerunner, the justifiably revered Natsume Soseki.  Tanizaki's most successful novels of the pre-war period –– Manji [Quicksand, 1928], Tade kuu mushi [Some Prefer Nettles, 1929] and Ashikari [The Reed Cutter, 1932] –– managed to combine traditional Japanese aestheticism with his interest in exploring the social, erotic and personal impact of what some Japanese felt had been the country's over-eagerness to modernize.  This did not prevent him from translating the classic The Tale of Genji and other ancient works into modern Japanese in the hope they would be read and appreciated by new generations of his countrymen who, he feared, were in danger of permanently losing touch with their cultural and spiritual heritage.

JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI, c. 1960
Tanizaki spent the war years working on The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki in Japanese, which literally translates as 'Lightly Falling Snow' in English) moving to the eastern resort town of Atami to escape Allied bombing raids and find the peace and quiet required to re-submerge himself in a past that was literally being destroyed day by day right before his eyes.  He remained in Atami after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and did not return to Kyoto until 1946, where he finally completed what is generally regarded to be his masterpiece, and one of Japan's truly outstanding works of modern literature, in 1948.  It was followed a year later by Sosho Shigemoto no haha [General Shigemoto's Mother, 1958], a moving statement on a favorite Tanizaki theme of a son's secret longing for his mother.  The success of this novel, plus his winning of the Asahi Prize and the Japanese Order of Merit award he received in 1949, set the seal on his reputation as Japan's greatest living author.

Although he suffered from paralysis in his right hand from 1958 and was diagnosed with angina pectoris two years later, neither condition prevented Tanizaki from writing and publishing his last major novels Kagi [The Key, 1956] and Futen Rojin Nikki [Diary of a Mad Old Man, 1961] and the memoir Yosho Jidai [Childhood Memories, 1957] prior to his death, from heart disease, on 30 July 1965. 


Many works by JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI have been translated into English (and many other foreign languages).  Click HERE to view a list of what's currently available.  Many of his novels have also been adapted for the cinema, including Manji [Quicksand] and Sasameyuki [The Makioka Sisters].  A fully restored and remastered version of the latter film, made by Japanese writer/director KON ICHIKAWA in 1983, was released as a Region 1 US DVD as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection in June 2011 and can be read about by clicking HERE.  

You might also enjoy:
FUMIO NIWA The Buddha Tree (1956)
RK NARAYAN The Guide (1958)
BARBARA PYM Excellent Women (1952)

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