starring Keiko Kishi, Yoshiko Sakuma, Sayuri Yoshinaga, Yuko Kotegawa
screenplay by Kon Ichikawa, based on the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki
directed by Kon Ichikawa
by Angelo Muredda "So many things have happened in this house," middle child Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) tells her older sister Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) near the end of The Makioka Sisters, an expansive period piece in miniature that could be churlishly described as a film about the sorts of mundane things that happen in houses. In settling down to adapt Junichiro Tanizaki's 500-page tome about prewar Japan in a state of profound social and economic transition, glimpsed only through the intersecting marital and financial crises of the titular siblings, writer-director Kon Ichikawa inherited a difficult task, best appreciated by pausing to consider that there's no English equivalent of George Eliot's Middlemarch (though Sam Mendes keeps trying). If historical epics are hard to translate to a medium that doesn't allow for marginal notes and flow charts to keep track of the minor players, the cloistered setting of domestic ones are doubly tricky. Consider that Joe Wright's recent and thoroughly rotten stab at Anna Karenina adapts the first part of the novel as a self-reflexive essay about how difficult it is to dramatize tragedies that take place in drawing rooms, and the rest as an utterly banal dramatization of a tragedy set in drawing rooms. Ichikawa's solution, after his own flirtation with hyper-theatricality in the first reel (which unveils the ensemble in a series of spatially disconcerting close-ups, then medium shots establishing the siblings' relatives ages), is largely to mine the charismatic reserves of his all-star cast.
The first line, uttered by Sachiko in one of those alienating close-ups, is "Money?"--and no wonder: It's 1938, mid-Depression and on the verge of both modernity and war, and the Makioka sisters are in a tough place. The patriarch has died, the family kimono business has been sold, and the two youngest sisters, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), remain unmarried, with the former's best-before date near reached. The more naturally Westernized Taeko has the better prospects, including a sweet lug of an amateur photographer, but tradition dictates she can't marry before her older sister. That puts the burden of ensuring the family's survival through this trying time on the older pair, who set Yukiko up on a series of feeler dates with possible spouses, such as a widowed fishery owner who offers his diploma and deceased wife's death certificate across the table when they meet, in the interest of full disclosure.
There's a light touch to how Ichikawa portrays the mechanics of the sisters' courtships, as well as their almost political dealings with one another. He has a knack for social shorthand, delicately capturing the way that power is instantiated and upheld within rigidly-defined families: The elder sisters' husbands, working-class men who married into the family and took their wives' names, are an intriguing study, deferent to their higher-class spouses while flouting their trace of masculine authority whenever the opportunity presents itself. Koji Ishizaka is especially fun to watch as the gentler Sachiko's doddering husband, whose aesthetic and borderline-religious obsession with Yukiko prefigures the besotted beta male Michael Caine played in Hannah and Her Sisters.
But ultimately, it's the women's show, and, as nice as both the men and Ichikawa's more outré touches might be, it's the sisters who make this sprawling family drama as compelling as it is. (These include a surreal family visit to the cherry blossoms--staged early and recreated even more sublimely towards the end--that would not be out of place on "Twin Peaks", out-of-time synths and all.) Sakuma especially is terrific, navigating the soap operatics with grace, though Yoshinaga has the harder part, registering her awareness and forbidden appreciation of Ishizaka's un-brotherly love entirely with her eyes.
The Makioka Sisters screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on January 27, as part of TIFF Cinematheque's programme "Japanese Divas: The Great Actresses of Japanese Cinema's Golden Age," running from January 24 to March 31.