Based on a sprawling novel by Junichirô Tanizaki—a book so popular, according to Audie Bock’s liner notes on the new Criterion DVD/Blu-ray edition, that adapting it would be akin to bringing Gone With The Wind to the screen—The Makioka Sisters follows four sisters living in Osaka in the years leading up to World War II. The elder two are married, and tradition dictates that the youngest has to wait until the third-oldest sister finds a husband, which has become increasingly difficult as the sheepish, traditional woman inches past marrying age. There’s a key scene when the third sister, chaperoned by her family, has a dinner with a middle-aged suitor (also with an entourage) who has lost his wife and children in some unspecified tragedy. After boring everyone with a detailed description of his job as a fish harvester, he produces a folder with copies of relevant documents, including his college diploma and death certificates for each of his dead family members. In doing so, he’s following a morbid form of protocol that horrifies even these traditionalists around the table.
And so it goes with The Makioka Sisters, a film about the generation gap between siblings, and the reluctance of some to acknowledge that the times are changing and traditions are changing with them. These are themes most familiar to Westerners from Yasujiro Ozu classics like Tokyo Story and Late Spring, a comparison that does Kon Ichikawa’s late-period costume drama no favors, in spite of its similarly transfixing and symbolic attention to the seasons. Ichikawa, whose prolific career includes the anti-war masterpieces The Burmese Harp and Fires On The Plain and the gorgeous documentary Tokyo Olympiad, was given a tough assignment in adapting Tanizaki’s novel, which not only had to be condensed, but also had to accommodate the prestige expectations of Toho Studio, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary. The notoriously miserly studio required a decorous production that properly showcased a few of Japan’s most glamorous stars, all within a tight budget.
Given those narrow parameters, The Makioka Sisters succeeds more at suggesting seismic changes through décor and customs than through the oft-turgid melodrama. As the film opens, the sisters are hanging onto the lifestyle afforded to them by the family kimono business, and the succession of costume changes show off the extravagance of the kimonos as well as the fading traditions that go along with them. When the youngest sister appears later in a simple, casual sweater, it expresses more about her break from the family and the past than the drama ever could.
Key features: A slim package by Criterion standards, with only a trailer, new and improved subtitle translation, and the aforementioned Bock essay.