The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki – review

makioka

If you’ve visited This Girl’s Book Room recently, you’ll definitely recognise this book as it’s been on my CR list for quite a while!  Well, I’m pleased to announced I’ve finally finished it, meaning I can stop tantalising you all with comments about how great it is and get stuck into a full review.

Or can I?!  I’ve had this sense of hesitation a few times now after finishing a book: more often than not I’m keen to dive straight into writing about something as soon as I’ve closed the last page, but occasionally I have a sense of needing to gather my thoughts and emotions for a while before committing anything to paper.  This was one of those times.  The ending left me with an unexpectedly blank feeling; not because the book was lacking in emotional depth – quite the opposite – but because there was just so much left to process.  Where were these characters’ journeys going to take them next?  How would some of them recover, if ever, from the traumatic events that had touched their lives?  What would the relationships, some strained and others strengthened throughout the course of the novel, look like as the subsequent years went by?  In The Makioka Sisters we are allowed to be part of the family for a limited period of time before being snatched cruelly away again, and left to imagine how the saga could continue.

It’s late 1930s Osaka where we meet the Makiokas.  The two eldest of the four sisters – Tsuruko and Sachiko – are settled with husbands and children, and the big issue facing the family is how to bring about a marriage for the third oldest sister, Yukiko.  Shy, reserved and serious, Yukiko doesn’t have the kind of sparkling personality that tends to win over a man on first meeting, and her sisters are smarting from previous failed attempts at making a match for her.  Japanese convention being what it is, moreover, the youngest sister, Taeko, cannot marry until her older sister has found a husband.  Taeko is everything her sisters are not – forward, unabashedly independent and already with a scandalous liaison behind her; what is more, the complications in her love life show no sign of going away, leaving the family in a state of anxiety lest any impropriety brings shame upon the Makioka name.

Yukiko’s marriage quest provides the backbone of the book.  The story covers a number of years (never precisely specified, but it starts in the run up to Japan’s entry into the Second World War and ends while the war is still going on), and other momentous events – a flood, a family illness, an affair – provide regular pulses of action and interest that keep things moving forward, but it’s the painful lack of a prospective husband for Yukiko that haunts both the family and the novel.  One of the things I enjoyed most was that it opened a window onto long-forgotten social conventions that seem completely alien to us now; at this time, for a relatively high-status family like the Makiokas, marriages are decided in large part by the rest of a woman’s family, in particular the male members – even those who are only part of the family through marriage.  Tatsuo and Teinosuke, as husbands of the two oldest sisters, are expected to have the final say on whether a suitor is appropriate to marry Yukiko. Throughout the novel, various well-meaning friends and acquaintances suggest potential husbands, and each time both parties “investigate” the other, sending mutual contacts to dig into the opposite number’s financial and romantic history, social standing and character traits.  It’s utterly fascinating to read, not least because something that on the surface seems underhand is simply accepted by everyone concerned as part of the marriage-brokering process, common practice as it was at this point in Japan’s history.

The synopsis so far may sound unappealing to anyone who can imagine themselves becoming angry and frustrated by the depiction of such a patriarchal society; I would have considered myself firmly in your camp too, but I’d urge you to read it nonetheless.  Yes, there are many instances when the extent to which men play an unfairly dominant role in the lives of their female relatives is teeth-clenching in its outdatedness; however, on closer reading the will and power wielded by the Makioka sisters is greater than it first appears.  Taeko, despite the consternation of her relatives, finds ways to lead the life she wants rather than the one others would prefer she had.  Yukiko has a calm and quiet determination to get her own way in the numerous marriage negotiations: when she says no, she means it, and her brother-in-laws’ desire to see her with a husband never crosses the line into trying to force her into a union with someone she is adamant she does not want to marry.  In fact, there are a few mentions in the novel of an incident prior to the story’s timeframe when she was so forthright in confronting Tatsuo, the head of the Makioka family, that he has been very wary of going against her wishes since.  As the novel progresses it becomes more and more clear that times are changing; Western culture is starting to exert its influence over some of the sisters and society at large, and the Makiokas, although still an important family, don’t have anywhere near the standing they had in previous generations.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Japan itself, which provides a vivid backdrop to the story.  The action moves between the tranquil gardens of suburbia, cherry blossom festivals and imposing mountains, and the bustle of a rapidly modernising Tokyo, which grates harshly against Sachiko in particular, who loves her more traditional hometown.  It’s been a while since a novel sucked me into its world so completely, and I’m going to miss it now I’ve had to take my leave.

Thank you for reading as always!  Do let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought.

Related posts: Japanese Journeys                                                                                                                                  A Day Out with Hokusai

 

 

Japanese journeys

A few days ago I came across a blog post by Amy from Curiouser and Curiouser talking about the books she’d been reading as part of the 2020 Japanese literature challenge, hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza.  The idea was to read and review fiction originally written in Japanese between January and March this year – sadly, I’m a bit late to the party as regards taking part in the challenge, but I hope both bloggers will forgive me for using it as inspiration to share some of the Japanese novels I’ve been reading over the past few months.  When I started thinking about it I realised there were quite a few!  Here are some of the ones that have intrigued me the most….

The Forest of Wool and Steel – Natsu Miyashita

forest wool

This novel tells the story of a young piano tuner and his lifelong quest to master his craft.  Not a virtuoso player himself, he nonetheless has an astonishingly acute ear for the different tones and styles in which his clients play, and sees it as his calling to tune each piano according to the unique needs of its pianist.  He develops a particular fascination with a pair of twins, Kazune and Yuni, both young prodigies but both completely different in the way they communicate through their music, and it’s this relationship dynamic that provides the novel’s backbone.  I really loved it; it was such an unusual subject matter, and even during the more emotionally intense moments the writing maintained an air of poise and gentleness in  keeping with the finesse of the music that it described with so much colour.

A Midsummer’s Equation – Keigo Higashino

equation

I’m not a huge crime person, but I do love Keigo Higashino’s crime thrillers.  His characters are always utterly believable and very well rounded compared to some thrillers I’ve read where the supporting cast is pretty two-dimensional.  This is one of the books that features his recurring character, the physicist Yukawa – a slightly unlikely-sounding protagonist but one who nevertheless has a natural instinct for investigation and crime-solving.  The Devotion of Suspect X is still my favourite of Higashino’s novels so far I think (although it’s a close call) but this is still extremely enjoyable, and the story has an interesting – and relevant – environmental theme running through it, as naturalists and environmental campaigners go head to head with a development company hoping to gain a foothold in a fading coastal resort town, with inevitably fatal results!  Even if you don’t think you’re a crime fan, I would definitely urge you to pick up one of Higashino’s books and give it a try.

Dandelions – Yasunari Kawabata

dandelions

Honestly, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this book, but I’ve decided to include it here because, if nothing else, it’s memorable for its strange plot and surreal atmosphere.  A fun read it may not be, but it sticks in your head afterwards nevertheless.  The story centres around a young woman who has developed selective blindness; in the beginning, she found a ping-pong ball disappeared inexplicably from view, and now she is unable to see her fiancé.  The book begins as her fiancé and mother leave the asylum in which the girl has been placed, and follows them over the subsequent day and night as they discuss her mysterious affliction.  That’s pretty much it in terms of plot: the whole book is essentially a conversation between two people with sometimes coinciding and sometimes conflicting ideas of what this bizarre occurrence means.  I’m sure there’s some thought-provoking philosophical stuff buried amid the peculiarity, but I found it hard to engage with and finished the book feeling I’d probably missed the point.  If you want to try something unusual though (and short – it’s only 132 pages, although even that felt long at times!) then there’s weirdness here in spades.

Tokyo Ueno Station – Yu Miri

tokyo

It was the stylish cover art that first drew me to this book, but the inside was just as fabulous.  It’s narrated by a ghost – although if that sounds too much like a gimmick, don’t let it put you off; the effect is so subtle that it becomes simply the tale of a man looking back on his life and watching a familiar world warp, change and disappear.  It’s a delicate and skillful combination of the tragically sad and exquisitely beautiful, as the narrator takes us through his experiences of love, death, homelessness, friendship and loneliness, all against backdrop of a changing Japan that feels like a living, breathing character in its own right.  I think if I had to pick one out of all the books I’ve talked about in this post, this would be the one I’d recommend you read.

Thanks for reading – I’d love to here about any Japanese fiction you’ve read recently, or if you’ve read any of these, what did you think?