Sunday, May 19, 2013
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Set in the late 1930s, this is the story of the four Makioka sisters who are from an affluent family, originally successful merchants in Osaka. The parents have passed away and the family's fortunes are somewhat in decline. The two eldest are married (both the husbands have taken the Makioka name, which surprised me), and the two younger, in their mid- to late twenties, are still single. Most of the story centers around the second sister, Sachiko, and her relationship with her two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko. Yukiko is nearly thirty and the family is anxious to marry her off. She's had several proposals, mostly men she hardly knew, but either she didn't like the man or the family has found something unsuitable about him. The youngest, Taeko, has a suitor, but she seems more interested in a career than marrying. Also, the family is traditional and would prefer she wait to marry until her older sister has a husband.
The story spans several years of the sisters' lives. Much of the action involves Sachiko's attempts to find a suitable husband for Yukiko, but it's really a story about the day-to-day life of an upper-middle class family in the 1930s. It's mostly a domestic novel, but there are more and more hints about the war to come. Sachiko's family has neighbors who are a German family, and their children are playmates. Eventually they move away and we learn from letters aspects of the coming war in Europe; also, towards the end of the book there are more and more mentions of the "China Incident" -- the second Sino-Japanese war that began in 1937.
I kept hearing that this book was a sort of Japanese version of Pride and Prejudice, but I honestly did not make that connection at all while reading it. If I hadn't heard it earlier, I would never have compared the two. In the beginning of the book, the only things they have in common is that they are about families with unmarried sisters trying to find husbands, and a backdrop of imminent war (though wars are barely mentioned in Jane Austen). Later, I did find that one of the Makioka sisters has a pretty strong resemblance to one of the Bennet sisters, but I won't say which one since I don't want to spoil it for anyone. But I really couldn't find any other parallels between the plot nor the characters. Sorry, no Japanese Mr. Darcy!
I liked learning about the minutia of daily life in Japan during the era, and I especially liked that it was by a Japanese writer contemporary to the time. I lived in Japan for more than two years, but sadly, I've read very few books by actual Japanese writers, and none of their classics. I thought the characters were really well developed and I got a lot of insight about what it must have been like in that time. However, I couldn't help thinking that the Makioka family members were so wrapped up in their own domestic troubles they couldn't see the war looming ahead of them; I couldn't help wondering which of the characters would survive WWII and how life would change for them. I'd really like to read a Japanese novel about life in Japan during the war, so if anyone could suggest one I'd love a recommendation.
This book counts as the third read for my TBR Pile 2013 Challenge; my 20th Century Classic for my Back to the Classics Challenge; my second read for the Chunkster Challenge; and my 24th book from my Classics Club Challenge.