The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
Vintage International, New York, 1995
Borrowed from the library.
This novel, set in Osaka during the years leading up to World War II, tells the story of the four Makioka sisters, members of a wealthy merchant family now in decline. In gentle prose Tanizaki gives us a picture of each sister and of the struggle between traditional, aristocratic Japanese culture and the modern influences filtering in from Europe and America.
A main theme that weaves through this novel is the strict and appropriate behavior for young women in Japanese. Each of the sisters is different but all are expected to follow the same path, learning the arts of women, marriage and children. The family is trying to find a husband for Yakiko, the third sister. They have been trying for years. Each candidate has had his faults and, as the years go by, the offers of marriage become few and far between. The men become less and less “acceptable”.
The youngest sister, Taeko, known as Koi-San, is rebellious and struggles for independence. In the end she suffers great loss. Possibly Tanizaki’s idea of what women will suffer as punishment for turning away from traditional culture. Then again, the staid and honor-bound behavior of the family as not brought about the best outcome either.
I found the best parts of the book to be the quiet times, bits of daily life gently painted like sumi-e, with soft strokes. Tanizaki was wonderful at creating a sense of place and of ritual events.
The house was built in the old Osaka fashion. Inside the high garden walls, one came upon the latticed front of the house. An earthen passage led from the entrance to the rear. In the rooms, lighted even at noon by but a dim light from the courtyard, hemlock pillars, rubbed to a fine polish, gave off a soft glow. Sachiko did not know how old the house was – possibly a generation or two. At first it must have been used as a villa to which elderly Makiokas might retire, or in which the junior branches of the family might live. Not long before his death Sachiko’s father had moved his family there from Semba; it had become the fashion for merchant families to have residences away from their shops. The younger sisters had therefore not lived in the house long. They had often visited relatives there even when they were young, however, and it was there that their father died. They were deeply attached to the old place. Sachiko sensed that much of her sister’s love for Osaka was in fact love for the house, and, for all her amusement at these old fashioned ways, she felt a twinge of pain herself – she would no longer be able to go back to the old family house. She often enough joined Yukiko and Taeko in complaining about it – surely there was no darker and unhygienic house in the world, and they could not understand what made their sister live there, and they felt thoroughly depressed after no more than three days there, and so on-yet a deep undefinable sorrow came over Sachiko at the news. To lose the Osaka house would be to lose her very roots. From page 99.
They turned off the flash lights and approached in silence. Fireflies dislike noise and light. But even at the edge of the river there were no fireflies. “Maybe they are not out tonight,” someone whisperd. “No, there are plenty of them. Come over here.” Down into the grasses on the bank, and there, in the delicate moment before the last light goes, were fireflies, gliding out over the water, in low arcs like the sweep of grasses. On down the river, on and on, were fireflies, lines of them wavering out from this bank and the other and back again, sketching their uncertain tracks of light down close to the surface of the water, hidden from outside by the grasses. In the last moment of light, with darkness creeping p from the water and the moving plumes of grass still faintly outlined, there, far as the river stretched- and infinite number of little lines in two long rows on either side, quiet, unearthly… From page 342.
The book is dense and slow in places. At times I found myself bogging down and wanting to skim. That may have to do with the translation, or it may be Tanizaki’s way of portraying the distinctions between the traditional way of Japanese life and the struggle with modernity. This is my first book for the Japanese Literature Challenge. I enjoyed it and am excited to discover other Japanese authors.