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Literature / The Makioka Sisters

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"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 highly regarded Japanese novel by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki telling the story of the four sisters of the Makioka family. The first part was originally serialized during World War II but the book as a whole was only fully published after the war due to running afoul of wartime censorship. The action takes place from Autumn 1936 to April 1941.

Sachiko, the second sister, is the novel's main viewpoint character. Loosely based on Tanizaki's wife, she is outwardly brisk and businesslike but in fact very introspective and conservative. 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 amoral and acquisitive behavior makes it harder to get Yukiko a match.

The eldest sister, Tsuruko, has been Demoted to Extra since before the beginning of the main plot and mostly appears to pass judgment on the other sisters' actions, although she and Sachiko maintain a positive relationship most of the time.

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 boyfriends.

There is no central driving plot.

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

This novel contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic:
    • Mimaki, Yukiko's eventual husband, is a heavy drinker and chosen partially because his probable neglect of Yukiko will leave her on a longer leash than a marriage to a more upstanding man.
    • Sachiko.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Do Yukiko's engagements keep failing through no fault of her own due to her Love It or Hate It personality or (as This Very Wiki assumes) is she sabotaging them on purpose?
  • 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".
  • Badass Longcoat: Itakura wears an overcoat that is explicitly stated to look like one out of an American Film Noir.
  • Big Bad: Downplayed with Tatsuo. He is manipulative and demanding towards the rest of the family. He and Tsuruko force Yukiko to move to Tokyo for no real reason and constantly pass unedifying moral judgment on the other sisters' actions. The lack of a core driving conflict and the novel's refusal to sermonize prevent him from being presented as an outright villain.
  • Big Sister Bully: Tsuruko often pulls rank on the other sisters and attempts to circumscribe or pass judgment on their behavior, usually with good intentions but often in an unhelpful and self-righteous way.
  • Epunymous 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Subverted. Sachiko means 'Bliss Child'. Sachiko is not a happy person.
  • Monochrome Past: The flashbacks (in the movie) 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.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: A Signature Move for the women (and, on occasion, the men) of the Makioka family.
  • Politeness Judo: Yukiko's main survival mechanism. Sachiko and Tsuruko are also quite capable of this.
  • The Quiet One: Yukiko, who in one scene sinks a marriage prospect by answering a phone call from her suitor but being unable (or refusing) to speak into the phone.
  • Random Events Plot: The more action-heavy parts of the novel can feel like this due to the serial format and generally loose plot structure.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Tanizaki's wife's abortion is split into two different plot points: Sachiko's (involuntary) miscarriage early in the story, and her contemplating coercing Taeko into aborting a socially scandalous pregnancy towards the end. (She eventually decides not to because putting Taeko through it would be more trouble than it would be worth.)
  • Rule-Abiding Rebel: Tanizaki writes characters who quietly dissent from a lot of the most toxic social and political trends of wartime Japan, but only very quietly.
  • Seasonal Baggage: The novel is famous for this (somewhere between the Motif and Montage variants). Stand-out scenes include spring cherry blossom viewings and a midsummer firefly hunt.
  • Self-Made Man: Itakura, Taeko's second plot-relevant suitor, which horrifies the other Makiokas.
  • Slice of Life: It's been described as "pre-war Japanese Seinfeld".
  • Tamer and Chaster: Far less racy than most of Tanizaki's other novels (many of which have pronounced BDSM themes), although several of the characters' sex lives are still relevant within the story.
  • Three-Act Structure: The book is divided into three sections that do follow somewhat different sets of events and relationships, although any given event in one section may or may not be relevant in later sections (see Random Events Plot and Slice of Life).
  • Trauma Conga Line: Taeko gets put through the wringer late in the novel (broken relationships with her sisters; ilness; her daughter dying during birth).
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Yukiko weaponizes it.