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The Makioka Sisters

Based on Junichiro Tanizaki's 1948 epic novel about four sisters navigating the turbulent era between the depression and World War II, Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters is a sweeping family saga that Japanese cinema scholar Audie Bock has compared to Gone With the Wind. That may seem a bit of a stretch -- The Makioka Sisters remains resolutely small in scope, taking place over the course of a year, mostly in homes, without any of GWTW's huge set pieces -- but it shares that epic's focus on how war and the decreased emphasis on tradition affects a family.

The film (the third adaptation of the novel) begins the spring of 1938, as the sisters gather for a family ritual, a trip to Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms. The women are the daughters of a well-to-do Osaka industrialist, now deceased. The family fortune has been considerably reduced, and all that's left is dowries for the two unmarried daughters, who live with second sister, Sachiko, and her husband, Teinosuke. The real purpose of the gathering, though, is to come up with a plan to find husbands for the unmarried sisters. The youngest, wild child Taeko, has no lack of boyfriends; however, they are unsuitable, and Taeko wants to get away from her more conservative older siblings and to spend her dowry on her creative craft of dollmaking. But there is a problem: tradition demands that third sister Yukiko marry first. And Yukiko, in her own quiet way, is very particular.

The Makioka Sisters was a late career high point for Ichikawa, who directed his first feature in 1945. When his wife and collaborator, screenwriter Natto Wada, retired in 1965, he moved away from features and concentrated on documentaries and animated films (Wada died as Ichikawa was preparing for the production of The Makioka Sisters). Although he had since returned to drama and had a history of successful adaptations of literary works, The Makioka Sisters was a much more ambitious undertaking than most of his recent films. According to Bock, the studio, Toho, was "notoriously tightfisted," and that may have played a part in Ichikawa's decision to keep his focus narrow. Even if world events were partly responsible for the family's reduced circumstances and changing mores, the film mostly takes place in homes, or at family events such as the cherry blossom trip. The outside world is rarely seen, and the director's choice to concentrate on traditions and family interaction is very effective. Critic and film historian Michael Sragow notes that Ichikawa's best films, including The Makioka Sisters, "reward viewers with both a renewed appreciation of surfaces and an ironic awareness of depths."

In the novel, the source of the family's wealth is never specified. According to Bock, Ichikawa and his co-screenwriter Shinya Hidaka made the business a kimono factory "to show off his actresses... to fabulous advantage in their rich silks and brocades. Some critics have disparaged the film as a mere kimono show, but the celebration of this traditional art is very much in keeping with the book's tone of cultural nostalgia."

The sisters were played by three established stars and one relative newcomer. The best-known to western audiences is Keiko Kishi, who began her film career in the early 1950s and who plays the eldest, most traditional sister. Among her films are Ozu's Early Spring (1956), Ichikawa's Her Brother (1960), and Sydney Pollack's Japan-set noir The Yakuza (1974), co-starring Robert Mitchum. By the time Yoshiko Sakuma appeared in The Makioka Sisters as second sister Sachiko, her film career, which had begun in 1959, was winding down. She worked more frequently in television into the 21st century, with an occasional film role. Sayuri Yoshinaga (Yukiko) also made her film debut in 1959, and became one of Japan's leading actresses. Her performance in Ichikawa's Ohan (1985) earned her the first of her four Japan Academy Awards. Taeko, the youngest sister, was one of the first important film roles for Yuko Kotegawa, who made her film debut in 1976. She has had a very successful career in Japanese television, film, and anime voice acting. Juzo Itami, who plays Tsuruko's assertive husband, made his debut as a director the following year. He became well-known for comic films such as Tampopo) (1985. Koji Ishizaka plays Sachiko's mild-mannered husband, who nurses a quiet crush on Yukiko. The role was a departure for the actor, who had shot to fame as a 19th century detective Kindaichi in Ichikawa's hugely successful series of five films in the 1970s.

For New York Times critic Vincent Canby, something was apparently lost in translation. He was impressed by The Makioka Sisters, but not moved, calling it "a rather sad comedy of manners," and "always beautiful to look at, [it] is more stately than emotionally or intellectually involving. " Decades later, crtic Michael Sragow better understood the nuances, calling the film "a magisterial achievement: a barbed, poignant and seductive elegy....[a] lyric and moving remembrance of Japan past."

Director: Kon Ichikawa
Producer: Kon Ichikawa, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Screenplay: Shinya Hidaka, Kon Ichikawa, based on the novel by Junishiro Tanizaki
Cinematography: Kiyoshi Hasegawa
Editor: Chizuko Ozada
Costume Design:
Production Design:Shinobu Muraki
Music: Shinnosuke Okawa, Toshiyuke Watanabe
Principal Cast: Keiko Kishi (Tsuruko Makioka), Yoshiko Sakuma (Sachiko Makioka), Sayuri Yoshinaga (Yukiko Makioka), Yuko Kotegawa (Taeko Makioka), Juzo Itami (Tatsuo, Tsuruko's husband), Koji Ishizaka (Teinosuke, Sachiko's husband), Toshiyuki Hosokawa ((Hashidera), Ittoko Kishibe (Itakura),
140 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri