Criterion // 1983 // 140 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 14th, 2011
A poignant evocation of changing times.
"You're both so selfish!"
Japan, 1938. War is looming on the horizon, but the Makioka sisters are far more concerned with small domestic troubles. Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi, The Yakuza) and Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma, Samurai Banners), the two older sisters, have been married for quite some time. Tradition demands that the sisters marry in order of their birth, but marrying off the shy, conservative Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) has been a difficult process. The challenges of finding a suitable mate for Yukiko have been particularly frustrating for youngest sister Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), who is eager to marry and move on with her life.
Tanizaki Junichiro's novel The Makioka Sisters is generally regarded as the esteemed writer's masterpiece and one of the finest novels of its era. It is a sprawling, complex book that uses the central plotline of romantic entanglements to explore a wide variety of social issues and changing cultural attitudes. It's a little surprising, then, to discover that Kon Ichikawa's film adaptation feels so thin at times. While the movie admittedly does capture the complications caused by the clash between centuries-old Japanese tradition and encroaching elements of modern society, much of the film simply feels like a gentle, stately, somewhat overlong romantic drama.
The film is most involving during its first third or so, as the viewer must work rather hard to get a grasp on who these characters are and what they're situation is (the film simply throws us into the middle of what appears to be an ongoing drama rather than making any effort to fill us on the details; western viewers unfamiliar with Japanese culture will also have the added challenge of determining why certain things are handled the way they are). I actually found this approach surprisingly satisfying, as it provides the viewer something to grapple with as the plot plods along at a rather glacial pace.
However, once you've gotten a solid grip on who everyone is and what they're up to, the film shuffles quietly along a predictable and inconsistently engaging path. On some occasions, the film will spring to life with a sequence loaded with humor, tension and fascinating subtext (particularly some of the scenes involving Yukiko's potential suitors). Just as the film has you in its grip, it lets go and delivers scenes in a curiously flat manner. It continues like this all the way to the finish line; delivering fascinating tidbits that may not be enough to sustain viewers during the duller passages.
The film's gentle tone and domestic drama may remind many of Ozu, but The Makioka Sisters lacks the deep emotional current and incomparable elegance of Ozu's films. The pace is actually a little faster than the average Ozu movie, but it seems to move slower because it doesn't offer enough involving material. The characters also lack the depth they ought to have; the sisters have been given basic personality types but little else (the conflicted Sachiko comes the closest to creating a complex character; she tends to side with her stern older sister but nonetheless has a great deal of empathy for her younger siblings).
I certainly don't want to beat up on The Makioka Sisters, as it's a respectable film in many ways (the lush cinematography is spellbinding at times) and was clearly a labor of love for Ichikawa (who was forced to work with a smaller budget than he required and was coping with the loss of his wife and longtime collaborator Natto Wada). Still, by the time the film concluded I couldn't help but feel that I had seen little more than an overlong, inconsistent, underdeveloped romanticizing of an era that arguably doesn't need to so eagerly romanticized. Yes, Japanese society has undoubtedly lost some beautiful traditions over the years. However, the film's rather blatant endorsement of arranged marriage and conservative tradition over choice and personal freedom isn't going to sit well with many viewers (an accompanying essay by Audie Bock repeatedly compares the film to Gone with the Wind, another film which indulged in some unhealthy romanticizing of troubled times).
The Makioka Sisters arrives on Blu-ray sporting a decent 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. I mentioned that the cinematography is spellbinding at times. So it is (particularly during the gorgeous cherry blossom sequences early on), but at other times the film has a very dull, flat look. Considering the movie's low budget and age, I suppose the occasionally dingy look is understandable, but the transfer doesn't sparkle the way it keeps threatening to. The image is actually quite soft at times, and detail suffers a great deal in a few shots. Still, depth is impressive overall and colors are sharp and well-defined. Flesh tones are warm and accurate, too. The audio is decent, though the terribly dated '80s score proves a huge distraction on numerous occasions (there are brief cues that sound like they ought to be accompany scene transitions on Family Ties). The film's sweeping final cue sounds uncharacteristically awful, suffering from severe distortion. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and sound design is minimal. Sadly, the only extras included are a trailer and the aforementioned booklet. However, Criterion has adjusted the price of the disc accordingly (it retails for $30 as opposed to the usual $40 -- still a bit pricey, but fair enough).
I wanted to like The Makioka Sisters, but too much of this literary adaptation proves underwhelming. Rent it if you're curious, but I can't recommend a purchase.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated