Monday, July 4, 2011

The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters from the movie

Do you love Jane Austen and her detailed description of families and the social conventions that frame their lives?  Then you'll love The Makioka Sisters, by Jun'ichiroTanizaki.  Much like Jane Austen's writings, it's an intimate portrait of a family, especially the women and their marriage prospects, embedded in a description of Japanese societal conventions just before World War II.

The Makioka Sisters,Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko, are navigating a changing Japanese society through the years 1936-1941.  They can be insulted by a note written on the wrong kind of paper, they dress in traditional kimonos, they observe significant anniversaries of the parents' deaths and make an annual pilgrimage to Kyoto for viewing cherry blossoms; yet the youngest daughter Taeko symbolizes modernity by dressing in western clothes and trying to support herself and her independence.

The two oldest sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko are married, and the book chronicles the efforts to marry off the third sister, Yukiko.  With the parents dead, the final verdict on suitability rests with the 'main house' and Tatsuo, the oldest sister Tsuruko's husband.  Yukiko and Taeko 'should' be living in the main house. However, since they don't get along very well with Tatsuo, they manage to spend most of their time with Sachiko and her kind and supportive husband Teinosuke.  Thus Sachiko feels responsible for finding her sister a husband.

The Japanese custom is for the family to arrange marriages for the daughters, and detailed research is carried out by private investigators to assess worthiness. The Makioka family was once a merchant family of high standing; however it's been slipping lately.  In the past, the family has haughtily rejected many suitors for Yukiko's hand, based on very stiff requirements.  Now the tables are turning, and with the family fortunes in decline, they are relaxing those requirements.  But the potential suitors are dwindling and getting choosier themselves: the family is reduced to producing chest X-rays to reassure suitors Yukiko is healthy and starting a regimen of injections purported to clear up a blemish above her eyebrow.

Yukiko's unwillingness to speak in the presence of a suitor or on the telephone dooms some prospects and drives Sachiko to distraction, but still the Makiokas do not force the meek and passive Yukiko's hand.  Indeed, Yukiko seems passive-aggressive - apparently disinterested in marriage she virtually sabotages some approaches, without ever saying outright that she is unwilling.  As the desperation intensifies,  the Makioka family does nothing proactive to seek a husband; they must wait for proposals from matchmakers, most notably their aggressive no-nonsense hairdresser.

Meanwhile Taeko, the youngest sister, is at the mercy of these negotiations, because she can't marry before her older sister.  Taekio has been foiled in her desire to marry the man he loves.  Admittedly, Okubata is a lazy, cheating dandy but prohibiting Taeko to marry or see him hasn't been a very effective countermeasure.  Taeko's aborted elopement with Okubata was unfortunately reported in the newspaper and has clouded Yukiko's chances.  As she strains for independence, she ricochets from one undesirable liaison to another.  For such an introverted novel, there's a lot going on!

There is little mention of the political situation going on outside the family.  The Sino-Japanese war is refered to as 'the China incident', and in these difficult times, social events have to be more muted, but there's little sense of the impending war (Pearl Harbor is just a few months away).  This is definitely a novel whose stage is inside the house, with the outside world merely a blurry backdrop to the main action. 

I highly recommend this book.

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