My last book of 2017 is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (if you want to be pedantic, it’s Jun’ichirou – which implies him being the first born son, but I couldn’t find much information on this). At 530 pages it’s no mean feat for me, and actually took me 2 months to finish. But I’m very happy to have finally read it. This is only my second book by Tanizaki. I really liked The Key, which I read aeons ago, and I had been meaning to read more of his books. I still do, after reading The Makioka Sisters.
You can probably guess from the thickness that this is a sweeping, ambitious novel. Not a family saga though! It tells the story of the four sisters of the Makioka family from Osaka, who is a respected, wealthy family, but is in the state of decline since the death of the patriarch – the father of the sisters. After the father’s death, the head of the family role is taken by the husband of the first sister, who took the Makioka name. The husband of the second eldest sister similarly formally joined the Makioka family and took its name. This shows how the two men’s birth family were ‘below’ the Makiokas, and hence they gained status by marrying into the Makioka family.
In fact class and good name are the main themes running throughout the entire book. The two eldest sisters have married well, but the third and the forth sisters are yet to marry. They have to marry in order, so the last sister cannot marry before the third one does. This causes an amazing amount of troubles and may sound ridiculous. But coming from an Asian family myself, this concept of marrying in order is actually quite familiar and not uncommon. Sure in my generation, people are not strict anymore, but the preference is still to have siblings marry in order. There’s a kind of bad luck attached to ‘skipping’ an older sibling, and a lot of the times the ‘skipped’ sibling stays unmarried.
Tanizaki weaved some historical events into the story: natural disasters like a big flood and typhoon, and the foreboding war. It’s also a period when everything western starts to seep into Japan, fashion being one of the most defining interestingly. I read Mishima’s The Sound of Waves in between this book, and I could tell the setting is after the Makioka Sisters, from the clothes the characters wear! The Makiokas also befriend a few foreigners from Russia and Europe, which was slightly jarring somehow, but further emphasised that ‘Westernisation’ period.
I haven’t read enough of Tanizaki to comment for certain, but I picked up many of East meets West elements, old Japan vs. new Japan (and the author’s seeming preference of old Japan). The decline of the Makioka family seems to reflect the decaying of old Japan.
I reckon less people finish this book than the ones starting it because of the thickness, which is a shame because I think the whole book is a beauty. It takes some time and patience (don’t read it when you’re in a rush) but it’s constructed very finely, building and building up to a poignant ending. I enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with keen interest in Japanese culture.
Mee’s rating: 4.5/5