Literature / The Makioka Sisters

"If epic literature is based in the dramatic and forward-moving narrative of a male hero's journey, The Makioka Sisters is a female epic of inaction—trying to figure out what to wear, crying for no reason at the same time every afternoon. With each perilous, pathetic step, the sisters are heroes setting out for the new world. They're like Odysseus, except without the ship and without the sea."
—Reviewer Emily White on The Makioka Sisters.

The Makioka Sisters is a serial novel by Tanizaki Jun'ichirou. It is considered one of the greatest Japanese novels of all time. It tells the story of the four sisters of the Makioka family. The novel was originally published in serial form form from 1943 to 1948. the action takes place from Autumn 1936 to April, 1941.

Sachiko, the second sister, is the novel's main viewpoint character. She is outwardly very brisk and modern, actually quite introspective and traditional, and, one gets the feeling, Tanizaki's idea of what he would be like as a woman. Sachiko spends most of her time trying to find a husband for the third sister, Yukiko, who is thirty years old at the beginning of the novel and subtly being deliberately as unhelpful as humanly possible to register her displeasure with the situation and desire to stay with her sisters and niece rather than be forced to move away with an unfamiliar man. The youngest sister, Taeko, is something of a problem child and her overly modern behaviour (which manages to avoid Values Dissonance because it really is quite shocking and brazen) makes it harder to get Yukiko a match.

Nobody cares about the eldest sister, Tsuruko who has been Demoted to Extra in-universe, except when she forces Yukiko to move to Tokyo for no real reason.

Tsuruko and Sachiko are both married. Sachiko's husband, Teinosuke, is the most prominent male character in the novel; Tsuruko's husband, Tatsuo, is judging by other characters' reactions the closest thing the novel has to an antagonist. Sachiko's daughter Etsuko is also prominent, as are some of Taeko's boy-toys.

...Oh, what's that, you say? The plot?, this isn't really that sort of novel.

A film adaptation, directed by Kon Ichikawa, was made in 1983.

This novel contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Mimaki, Yukiko's eventual husband, who is chosen partially for his near-certainty of not paying any attention to her and allowing her to continue her life with her sisters and niece.
    • Don't forget Sachiko.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Hilda Stolz's letters from Germany as World War II rages.
  • As You Know: Quite a bit of expository dialogue in the beginning of the movie, like one of the sisters referring to "our late father".
  • Big Bad: Tatsuo, while not behind any grand evil plan or anything, is pretty much responsible for everything bad that happens in Yukiko's life purely by virtue of simply being a jerk.
  • Bittersweet Ending: "Weddings, I find, are not always gay."
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: The film has some lovely close-ups of cherry blossoms in the rain.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Makioka "Japanese D.W." Etsuko.
  • But Not Too Foreign: Averted. The Stolzes are 100% German and the Kyrilenkos 100% Byelorussian.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The flood and Itakura's death herald in a steadily darkening plotline for the second half of the book.
  • Cheerful Child: Etsuko.
  • Completely Different Title: See Pun-Based Title below.
  • Does Not Like Men: Yukiko.
  • Demoted to Extra: Tsuruko.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Getting Yukiko married.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Tsuruko is phlegmatic, Sachiko is choleric, Yukiko is melancholic, and Taeko is sanguine to a fault.
  • Fragile Flower: Yukiko seems like she is this but isn't; Sachiko seems like she isn't but (by the end) is.
  • Happily Married: Sachiko and Teinosuke; Tsuruko and Tatsuo.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Sachiko hits the bottle starting about halfway through the novel.
  • Hero of Another Story: Katherine Kyrilenko, whose story is actually more interesting than the main plot and would completely eclipse it were the novel not Slice of Life.
  • Hurting Hero: Sachiko. Dear God. Yukiko, too, but Sachiko, who starts out fairly cheerful, is implied to be self-harming by the end.
  • Jerkass: In addition to Tatsuo, Okubata. He's more of a prodigal son than anything else, though.
  • Lovable Alpha Bitch: The entire main cast, relative to the rest of Japanese society.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Yukiko is one. Taeko wishes she was.
  • Meaningful Name: Subverted. Sachiko means 'Bliss Child'. Yeah, RIGHT.
  • Monochrome Past: The flashbacks to Taeko's elopement are in black-and-white, except for one particularly long flashback segment, which starts out in black-and-white but shifts into color.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Sachiko and Teinosuke.
  • Politeness Judo: Yukiko's main survival mechanism. Sachiko and Tsuruko are also quite capable of this.
  • Pun-Based Title: The original title is Sasameyuki, a word referring to a type of light, powdery snow. Since the book takes place in Osaka, it doesn't snow very much; the title exists essentially as a pun on the third sister's name, which means "snow child" ("Flurries of Yukiko" might capture the meaning, but not the pun, in English). So greatly was this Lost in Translation that, rather than trying to replicate the meaning of the word "sasameyuki" or the nature of the pun, translator Edward G. Seidensticker just gave the book a completely new title.
  • Slice of Life: It's been described as 'pre-war Japanese Seinfeld'.
  • Subculture: Some wags have noted that each of the three main characters (discounting Tsuruko) have personalities that map nicely into some modern youth subculture or another despite living in pre-war Japan. To wit, Sachiko is Emo, Yukiko is Goth, and Taeko is 'Scene'. Obviously the actual subcultures themselves were non-existent in the novel's historical setting, but the personalities fit astonishingly well.
  • A World Half Full: Despite everything, and even as the firebombs start to fall.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Yukiko weaponizes it.
  • Youngest Child Wins: After her Trauma Conga Line, Taeko actually gets a decent, hardworking husband in a previously unknown character. Yukiko's new husband, by contrast, is drunk and irritable (though at least not a wife-beater). Sachiko is a nervous wreck, more upset about Taeko's miscarriage than Taeko herself is, and clinging to Teinosuke for dear life as their marriage is the only thing that either of them have left. Tsuruko is bitchy and discontent as always.