The Makioka Sisters was first published in 1943 in Japan, banned during the Second World War, and fully published in 1948. It was known as one of the best novels by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō/谷崎潤一郎.
The time frame of the story is from 1936 to 1941. Most of the stories happen in the second sister’s house in Ashiya, which is between Osaka and Kobe. The place name is still on the map, along with many other place names mentioned in the novel. In fact there is a house in Ashiya called Isyouan/倚松庵 where the second sister’s house was modelled on. You can go and visit today.
This is the first thing I like about this novel. The setting is real. The street they lived in, the local train lines they took frequently, the small restaurants they ate fish in, the parks and temples they went to for cherry blossom viewing every spring. Go now and you can still find them there.
I didn’t like Yukiko at the beginning. She is supposed to be the main character, but her quietness and shyness made me just want to grab her shoulders and shake her. The text looked thin and sparse when someone had a conversation with her. She missed good opportunities to be married off because of her character. She appeared ungrateful to her family who tried everything they could to find her a good husband. However later on, she showed selfless care, patience and courage to look after her niece and her sister. She saw the wrongs in her sister, Taeko, and confronted her like a completely different person. I sometimes think, if the age and society at large can leave her alone, she probably would do fine as a single woman.
Taeko is completely the opposite. She is lively, young and independent right from the beginning. She learns skills and tries to support herself financially, which is rare in her time. She can perform traditional dances. She’s popular. However, when the truth is revealed in the end, I couldn’t even believe it. I kept hoping there is a reason for all she does. She becomes a deceitful and indifferent stranger in the family.
Sachiko is my favourite. She’s just an ordinary woman, a wife, a mother, a sister to three completely different siblings. Although there are endless things for her to worry about, she’s the most happy one.
I’m amazed at how the author can write about the most mundane events, conversations and encounters and make them feel real, interesting and easy to relate to. The author must either understand people very well, or observe people very closely (probably both).
For example, there was an incident where Sachiko was feeling very ill but had to go out to a very formal meeting. She couldn’t refuse at the beginning because it was one of few Yukiko’s match-making meetings and the doctor said she would be fine. Although they had confirmed with taxi drivers beforehand, the car was parked a long way from the restaurant and Sachiko wasn’t well enough to walk. Then although they had confirmed with the restaurant, a room with hard chairs was prepared instead of a more comfortable Japanese style room. After the meal, the cars were arranged in a way that Sachiko had to go on an extra long and bumpy journey to drop someone else off first. When they arrived at this person’s home, he insisted on inviting everybody in for a cup of tea and started to boast about the view from his balcony.
I can sympathise with Sachiko in this whole event, the feeling of “I only have to pluck up all my courage/patience to complete this one task”, then when one unexpected thing happens, thinking “I only have to cope with this one thing extra so the previous effort wasn’t wasted”, but unexpected things happen again and again. The worse thing is, during the whole process, Sachiko’s husband was furious about all the unthoughtful arrangements, but “not to ruin the possibility of a good marriage for Yukiko”, and to save “face”, he didn’t say a thing. He even felt relieved of the responsibility to protect his wife when Sachiko said “OK then” again and again, at the price of her torture physically and mentally.
I just hate these kinds of things happening. But I think I’ve learnt to say “no” now.
Various versions of book covers and film posters of The Makioka Sisters.
Every year, Sachiko would bring her sisters to Ninnaji Temple in Kyoto for Omuro Sakura as a family tradition. If she didn’t go, she felt like “there’s something missing and the spring is wasted” – I like her childlikness. We had the opportunity to go and enjoy the same view this April. It was one of the best cherry blossom views. I don’t know if it was still the same as it was in the Makioka Sisters’ eyes, but it was romantic enough for me just standing under the pure white blossom and thinking of them.