Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizake

The story of four sisters from Osaka, two married and two unmarried, in the years immediately leading up to WWII, this is the portrait of a time coming to a close and an aristocracy already in its twilight. The narrative here is slow and elegiac. Nothing much happens in the infinitesimal crumbling of the Makioka sisters' way of life but the novel is beautifully rendered nevertheless. The two unmarried younger sisters live not with their oldest sister, as would usually be the case, but with their second sister, Sachiko and her husband and daughter. The youngest sister, Taeko (or Koi-san), cannot marry until the thrid sister, Yukiko marries and so Sachiko and oldest sister Tsuruko want very much to find a match for the self-effacing but somehow stubborn Yukiko. Through the several years of the narrative, matches are found and discarded for various reasons. But with each new match, the prospective groom is somehow a less and less appealing prospect, mirroring the decline of the once great Makioka family name.

While the family dithers about a match for Yukiko and she herself stays quiet about the prospect, younger sister Taeko is being seen about town with the man she ran away with several years prior, defying decorum and jeopardizing Yukiko's chances for marriage. Frustrated by the protracted wait for Yukiko to marry so she herself can marry, Koi-san quietly goes about running her own life, in spite of her older sisters' admonitions and cautions. Meanwhile scenes of placid, unseeing domesticity intrude on almost every page as Sachiko sits thinking or crying or resting in her home with only the occasional company of her young daughter to enliven the room.

The three younger sisters are very well fleshed out and individual in this most domestic of novels although the reader's sympathy with each of the characters changes as the novel progresses. Japan during the "China Incident" is exquisitely rendered although very little of the gathering political storm clouds penetrate the novel's pages since the four sisters are mostly ignorant of the coming calamity, and indeed of anything much beyond their own sphere. The writing is luxurious and fulsome despite the fact that so much of it chronicles the ennui of the aristocratic housewife. This is most assuredly not the novel for people who want to have action in their novels. Almost nothing whatsoever happens here and yet somehow Tanizake has managed to make it an important and weighty nothing. Written during the Second World War, this shows perhaps most clearly, the traditions and the propriety that Japan stood to lose so clearly, really had already lost by the time of the writing. Full of faded beauty, stagnant hopes, and honor-bound duty, ancient and new, this is a tour de force.


  1. This is such an exquisitely crafted novel. Like you say, nothing happens much in comparison to its length, but like you I loved it.

  2. I love this novel also-great review


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