The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

The Makioka Sisters
The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Makioka Sisters is the January 2016 selection for the SBC (Sisters Book Club). February’s book is The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. If you’d like to read February’s book—or any future selections—along with us, visit our Goodreads Group!

Reading this book was strange. I kept expecting something to happen, some major change to take place, but the daughters of the once influential Makioka family are just on the cusp of change. They’re in the last years in which they can focus on the minutiae of their lives while riding the tide of tradition.

That’s not to say that nothing happens. A lot of small things happen, the kinds of things that make up the majority of daily life—meals, annual trips, family squabbles, moving house—but on the periphery, we get rather chilling inklings of what’s going on outside the family in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. There are passing references to the “China Incident,” which appears to be how the characters refer the Sino-Japanese War in which Japan perpetrated horrific war crimes against China and massacred hundreds of thousands. There are casual mentions of Hitler Youth returning from visits to Japan. There’s the character who takes a quick trip to California in 1941. There are German neighbors who return home to Hamburg and write letters inviting the Makiokas to visit when Germany has won the war, assuring them they will love the “new Germany.” That last one especially gave me chills.

Despite myself, I felt drawn into the relationship between the sisters. Tsuruko, the eldest sister and mistress of the main house, raised to have total faith in the traditions within the family, tries along with her husband, to continue living as though those traditions still apply even with the modern world encroaching upon their lives. Tsuruko dedicates her life to controlling her sisters, and by the end she’s jealous and clinging as she seems to realize that her relationship with her sisters has been irrevocably severed.

Sachiko, the married second sister, finds herself with the responsibility for her younger sisters but still beholden by tradition to first-born Tsuruko and the main house, which retains its name even when financial need and loss of influence forces Tsuruko’s husband to move the household from Osaka to Tokyo. Sachiko is more driven by her love for her sisters and less concerned about reputation than Tsuruko, but she’s too caught between her willful younger sisters and her controlling elder to do just what her heart tells her to do.

Yukiko, the third sister, is ancient (over thirty!) and not yet married. At first the main house finds small flaws in each of suitor and refuses proposal after proposal. As the years pass and the main house starts to see that they can no longer be so selective, Yukiko herself refuses suitors primarily through her passivity. It seems clear that Yukiko doesn’t really want to be married, but because of tradition, the only way she’s been able to put it off is through passive resistance. She comes across as an annoying, wheedling milquetoast, but if she’d just be let out of the requirement of marriage, I think she could be a happy, fulfilled woman.

And then there’s Taeko, the youngest and most modern of the sisters. Where Yukiko controls through passivity, Taeko acts out, getting herself into one fix after another. The family always bails her out, not for Taeko’s own good but for the sake of the family’s honor. As the book progresses, it seems more and more clear that Taeko would do better if she were left to suffer the consequences of her actions.

Each sister is an individual, and even as their actions annoyed me, I felt a need to keep reading to see what they would do. Just like in real life, I got lost in the passage of the years and the daily and seasonal routines of the family. And just like in real life, the Makioka sisters keep doing the same things—or trying to do the same things—over and over and over again, undeterred by the fact that they are not in the least getting the outcome they seek.

The writing itself also drew me in. It was easy and pleasurable to immerse myself in the slow pace and rich imagery. It’s like the artwork and calligraphy the Makioka sisters’ father collected: a monument to a bygone era slowly being degraded by the passage of time.

Even now, I’m not completely sure if I like this book. If I do, it’s because reading it is like enjoying the calm view of a lake knowing that beneath the surface there’s a frenzy of activity as the drama of life and death plays out. This a book of entropy and decay, and at the end, the reader can only hope that the characters will eventually learn something of substance (or not, depending on how the reader feels about the characters).

But the last sentence of the book is perfect.

Yes, I guess I do like this book.
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