Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sachiko Makioka

Few 20th century heroines are as attractive as Sachiko Makioka. Though little happens to her in The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki [serialized in Japan between 1943 and 1948], everything that befalls her sisters is referred to her, as no one else has the understanding and tact which Sachiko has. There is a reason for this. Sachiko is a portrait of Tanizaki’s own beloved wife. Since Tanizaki was a writer of great power, a deep imprint of his wife and her sisters and their complex world view emerges.

The Makioka Sisters, 1983 movie
The Makioka Sisters tells the story of Yukiko, the third sister in the family, who is in need of a husband. The family was once very wealthy and respected, but when their father dies, their fortunes slip. Yukiko is the least modern of the sisters, wearing restrained Japanese clothes. She seems compliant in the search for a suitor, but she can be stiff-necked when it comes to actual acceptance. After meeting them, the family rejects one suitor because they believe his mother has an inheritable disease, and another because he is a widow and Yukiko thinks him unfeeling because he showed her a photo of his wife and children. Another suitor rejects Yukiko because she is so shy.

Finding a husband for Yukiko is complicated by Taeko, the fourth sister, who is at once the most modern and something of a rebel. Very young, she runs off with a male friend. When she is brought back, she settles down, but plans to marry this young man as soon as Yukiko has married. Taeko is very good with her hands and makes dolls, which she sells. She also enjoys sewing and hopes to make money at it. But she becomes entangled with one man after another to the point that she is disinherited by the Makiokas.

Sachiko herself was the favorite of her father. When the three younger sisters go out together, Sachiko appears to be exactly between Yukiko’s old-fashioned restraint and Taeko’s exuberance. Sachiko is sometimes asked not to come when Yukiko is to meet a suitor because her own modern and lively beauty overshadows her younger sister. Sachiko is married to an accountant, who was adopted into the family and took their name. He is very proud of his wife and involves himself in all of the Makioka affairs. The two have a daughter and are saddened when Sachiko has a miscarriage.

The events in The Makioka Sisters reflect Japan’s situation between 1936 and 1941. The book is mainly set in the suburbs of Osaka, where the sisters grew up. For Tanizaki, Osaka’s integration of tradition, beauty and cosmopolitanism compares favorably to Tokyo’s ugliness and disorder. Every sentence in the book describes the fine discriminations the sisters make in their choices and ideas. The Makiokas make friends with both Russians and Germans living near them. They talk to each other on the telephone, take trains to see their eldest sister in Tokyo and go to restaurants. Graphic discussion of several illnesses and hospital procedures increases the sense of utter modernity.

But the Makiokas also do not miss opportunities for concerts, dances, and rituals. Each spring they go to Kyoto for the cherry blossoms. There are cherry trees everywhere, but Sachiko does not feel she has seen blossoms at all unless she sees them in Kyoto. One spring while they are strolling along the banks of Hirosawa Pond, a photographer asks to take a photo of the three sisters and Sachiko’s daughter. “Ever since, they had made it a point to stand under the same tree and look out over the pond, and have their picture taken … those cherries said to be famous even abroad – how would they be this year? Was it perhaps already too late? Always they stepped through the gallery with a strange rising of the heart, but the five of them cried out as one when they saw that cloud of pink spread across the late afternoon sky.”

As the story of the Makioka sisters continues, Sachiko cannot reject her sister Taeko, who becomes pregnant and then moves in with a bartender. Sachiko feels she must take some of the responsibility for not watching over her sister more closely. When Taeko needs a good talking-to, it is Yukiko who gives it to her. And Yukiko does succeed in making a match with an interesting man, an architect. They meet in Kyoto and Yukiko accepts the proposal. At the end of the story, she is preparing the wig and kimono for her wedding. Sachiko thinks of how still the house will be without her two sisters.

It is Sachiko’s love for her difficult sisters, her husband and child which animates her portrait. The other fascinating thing about this story is the panorama which detailed description of ordinary life presents. It is so open-ended and without precedent. One thing follows another, all of it completely authentic in feel. In translation by Edward Seidensticker, the story of Sachiko Makioka is riveting.