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.  

13 comments:

  1. I did enjoy this book! I wondered too how the war would affect the family - and as long as the book was, I wish he had taken the story ahead just a little further - or perhaps written a sequel!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know!! I wish there'd been a sequel. But now I'm really interested in reading more Japanese works in translation. I have some Murakami on the TBR shelves so he'll probably be next.

      Delete
  2. This was one of my favorites last year. I don't think I'd ever read a book that focused on daily life in Japan... such an interesting look at traditional vs modern. I'll keep an eye on the comments for novels about life in Japan during the war. No suggestions, sorry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It'll definitely be on my list of favorites for 2013!! I thought it was great, a very easy read and so interesting. I agree, I could see the conflicts between the older siblings who were very traditional, even Yukiko, and the youngest sister Taeko.

      Delete
  3. I've wanted to read this since Lisa posted her thoughts last year. I love domestic novels and think I would enjoy reading one set outside of England (my usual). I'm kind of disappointed there isn't a Japanese Mr. Darcy, though :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love domestic novels too. I'm always trying to read more books in translations so it was nice to find one that was such an easy, absorbing read.

      Delete
  4. This is one of my favorite books of all time. So glad to hear you enjoyed it. I'd never made the Austen connection, but it absolutely fits. It'd be a good choice for someone who's gone through all of Austen and is looking for a similar fix.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think I would have made the Austen connection myself -- I first heard it at the Jane Austen Society convention a few years ago (and the presenter spoiled some major plot points as well, which irked me). I'd like to read more Tanizaki but I think his other novels are somewhat different.

      Delete
  5. This is on my wish list primarily because of the reviews I've read about it. I know so little about Japanese culture and life and I think the time period is really interesting.

    Personally, I think most of the things compared to P&P these days are just trying to hitch a wagon to a star

    Interesting review--thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved learning about Japanese culture from the Japanese perspective -- it wasn't just all "oh, how quaint and foreign this all is" blah blah. They had quite modern, normal lives that most Westerners could relate to, but with some traditions thrown in. A lot of it is about the transition from traditional Japanese ways to the modern era.

      And I agree, so many people keep trying to grasp on to Austen's greatness. I'm not a fan of sequels and retellings in general.

      Delete
  6. Have you read "An Artist of the Floating World" by Kazuo Isiguro? Admittedly he left Japan at a very young age and writes in English, but this is an interesting novel set in Japan in the 1950s and deals with the aftermath of the war. It is the book he wrote just before "The Remains of the Day" and has some themes in common, since its central character created wartime propaganda.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hadn't thought about Ishiguro! Somehow I always think of him as an English writer but of course he's Japanese too. I've read Remains of the Day and liked it a lot. I also read Never Let Me Go but that's really more dystopian. I should try Artist in the Floating World, thanks for the the recommendation.

      Delete
  7. I watched the adaptation last year on Netflix and it's been on my reading list since.

    ReplyDelete