The year is measured by the Kyoto cherry blossoms, the uptick in cases of beri-beri, the annual visit of the Kabuki actor Kikugorō and the failed miai coloring Yukiko’s pursuit of marriage.
The Makioka Sisters has a steady cadence.
It’s good then that Junichirō Tanizaki was meticulous with his pen because his Makioka Sisters also has a steady repetition. Its mark is subtlety. Its direction is stagnant. Its view is inward. Its tone is one of depressive anxiety. Emphasized is the passage of time for a family that cannot wrench itself from the past and which, far from moving forward, only eddies its descent.
And finally, one year, it is too late even for the blossoms in Ormura.
The Makioka Sisters traces the decline of an old Osaka family. Decline is a time-worn sickness, a disease that takes hold of the old House, stems from the first patriarch’s industry, shows itself as an undue arrogance and grows from those wilted laurels more like choking weeds than as the new scions earnestly hoped for.
The old codes of family pride and cloistered propriety leave the younger families to live on bequeathed funds that amount to ever less with each generation until finally there is the rich-in-pride and poor-in-funds father – the new clan trustee – asea in a drift of fast-paced modernization and alien to a surge of imported social customs, who must finally set his foot down, change course and rebuild.
And of course the breaking point is most interesting. Decline of once prosperous families is a sort of subset to early 20th century literature. We’ve read its pathos across cultures and felt its sting through the Abd-al-Jawads of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo, the Buddenbrooks of Thomas Mann’s Lübeck, Galsworthy’s English Forsytes – and so on. It’s the preferred vantage for authors and it’s where we also find the Makioka sisters.
The Makioka Sisters is not a happy book; it’s rather quite a hurting novel. The sisters have an inability to learn from past mistakes and take an avoidant attitude to the changes around them. It’s almost pitiful because it’s through love of each other that they find it so hard to move forward.
Like steps, the tallest to shortest are the oldest to youngest: Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and little Koi-san, Taeko.
In a way, Tsuruko and Sachiko, already married, are grandfathered in to the new ways; the family name carried them to adulthood, security and domesticity. It’s they who try to prolong the Makioka name past its expiration, and their management of Yukiko’s and Taeko’s affairs becomes damaging.
Tanizaki repeatedly points to the slowness of the main house – Tsuruko and her husband, Tatsuo. It’s a slowness that was acceptable, even dignified, in Osaka, where the Makioka family enjoyed its recognition. Osaka, as we experience it through Tanizaki, is harmonious, clean, fresh and supportive of a slower way of life that offers clemency to a bygone Japan.
Tokyo, that bright new city of quick business, stands in contrast as cheap, brazen and judgmental, smelly, littered, a city unresponsive to national tradition and its Edo origin and unsympathetic to even the Osaka dialect.
It’s a battleground that pits old against new, traditional against modern, kimono against trousers. It’s a battleground that witnesses these clashes through the twists of character in two of Taeko’s loves as the Ashiya flood surges past, through the national attitude during the China Incident that shamed ostentation and through Sachiko’s correspondence with the Stolz’s, old German neighbors, as Europe slides into 1941.
Worry over Yukiko’s marriage muddies every aspect of the novel just like that dubious spot over the girl’s eye scares away her potential suitors. It’s Yukiko who is distinctly Japanese in Tanizaki’s understanding of the word. Demure and quiet, dressing in kimono and appreciating her native region’s sea bream, she is the last bridge to the family name.
Tanizaki emboldens this image of Yukiko’s inherently Japanese persona through youngest sister Taeko, who dons a newer, more cosmopolitan Japan in everything from her selection of Western clothing to her dreams of studying in France and her indulgence in a string of knotty love affairs. Taeko is the modern child but her adaptability makes her no winner. Her attempts at making her way are restrained by the family’s internal laws such that her efforts become soiled by a grime of degeneracy and looseness. In a spat of irony her delinquency is fostered by old laws of propriety to which her older siblings still pay obeisance.
It’s the same irony that manifests itself as the rudeness and alienation that are the inevitable result of living by the old creeds in a modern world. The Makioka name has no bearing in Tokyo and, really, has little left even in its native Osaka. A snub to others is now a mark above the eye, a blemish to besmirch the self.
The psyche of Tanizaki’s novel is sick with a metastasizing anxiety that grooves itself more deeply with each failure. While the first viewing of the Kyoto cherry blossoms is a jubilant family affair, the next one leaves Sachiko wondering why Yukiko is still there with her and husband Teinosuke when, at 34, she ought long ago to have married.
There’s a certain rigidity in age that shouldn’t be there until it’s found its niche; youth ought to be more daring and more enterprising in its pursuits.
There’s the lesson learned. Because it used to be that alongside the inherited money, status, a house and a husband were sought after and then given the daughters and, for the sons and sons-in-law, a bit of nepotism in the family business as well, however shrunken it had become. Youth needn’t be daring – until now.
Maybe the Makiokas have set in motion a new philosophy more amenable to the times and to their position. Or maybe they are trying and failing. The old way had it that there were more doctors administering incompetence than the sought-after “German” medicine, and there came from such clinging at least one death and much needless suffering.
Tanizaki wrote an ambiguous legacy for the Makiokas that, in two still-births, hints at a stunted progeny and, in the marriage of one of the younger sisters, at a future happiness. This new life, though, is in Tokyo.
The Makioka Sisters · Junichirō Tanizaki · 1946-‘48
Edward Seidensticker translation · Everyman’s Library, 1993 · 498 pages, hardcover