4 July 2020 | rooprect
"The Makioka Sisters" is Japan's "Gone with the Wind" ...only, um, nothing like it.
In 1983, director Kon Ichikawa made this film adaptation of the epic 1948 postwar novel "Sasameyuki" ("light snow"). Like Hollywood's "Gone with the Wind", it depicts the decline of the aristocracy through a deceptive romance angle. There's an even greater deception in this film which I'll get to in the 4th paragraph, but let's start with the plot first.
This is the story of an aristocratic Osaka family over a period of 4 years beginning in autumn 1936 and ending in spring 1941, just as Japan entered World War II. So already we see a direct parallel to Gone with the Wind which depicted 4 years 1861 to1865 leading up to the American Civil War. As such, this is the story of a traditional "polite society" that is slowly and unavoidably heading into an era-changing storm. The plot focuses on 4 sisters of a proud family who, following the deaths of their parents, cling to ideals of propriety and nobility even as events around them--and they themselves--begin to deflate this bubble. In particular, the story revolves around the elder 2 sisters' unsuccessful attempts to arrange a suitable marriage for the 3rd sister, while from behind the 4th sister (the rebellious one) chips away at the pomp by getting herself involved in multiple scandals and general bad behavior.
"The Makioka Sisters" is a quiet, slow moving & poetic film, so don't expect the riveting drama of Gone with the Wind, and definitely don't expect the explosive performance of Vivien Leigh, Hollywood's greatest Scorpio haha. But if you have the patience to read into this film, here beneath the veneer of polite Japanese gentry is brewing a serious Tara-burning fire. And that leads me to the great deception I mentioned earlier.
The deception happens on two levels. First there is the artistic level, where director Kon Ichikawa chooses to avoid overt shocks in lieu of subtle, unspoken storytelling: the lingering stares that the elder sister's husband casts on his young sister-in-law, or the way the sister-in-law "accidentally" shows her kneecaps to the staring husband; the way the 2 elder sisters "argue" not with shouts but by staring at each other like cats; or the youngest, rebellious sister's chain smoking habit when she's not in the house. No, we don't get any rousing, fiery "AS GOD AS MY WITNESS...!" turnip-eating scenes, but instead we get just as much electricity in what is NOT shown.
And this leads me to the 2nd level of deception. This is regarding the culture of 1983 Japan when this film was released. As Japanese film historian Audie Bock says in her essay on this film, "Japanese audiences of the 1980s, flush with the wealth that came with being banker to the world and possessing an even higher standard of living than the United States, could no longer bear to look back on wartime poverty. While the book chronicles the decline of the Makioka family ... Ichikawa presents only luxury."
And right there, you have the reason why "The Makioka Sisters" is an amazing experience. Just as the fictional Makioka sisters deceive themselves into upholding their illusion of wealth, so the actual audience (of 1980s Japan) was deceptively kept in this same illusion. Just as the Makioka sisters don't want to confront poverty, scandal and essentially *truth*, so this film also acts like a silent 5th character telling us that the aristocracy is alive and well.
Did Kon Ichikawa truly believe this, or is the entire film a very clever tongue-in-cheek jab that's putting one over on the nouveau-riche? I suspect it's the latter. So in that respect, perhaps this film isn't like Gone with the Wind so much as it's like the 1971 classic "Fiddler on the Roof" - tradition vs. change (and you know who always wins). But this last bit is just my opinion. Check out the film and decide for yourself how to interpret this magnificent work.