Monday, February 26, 2007

'The Makioka Sisters'

by Junichiro Tanizaki
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker

In Osaka in the years immediately before World War II, four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing.
Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepares to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing. Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters. The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family’s exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances. Filled with vignettes of upper-class Japanese life and capturing both the decorum and the heartache of its protagonists, The Makioka Sisters is a classic of international literature.
The writing seemed a bit choppy at times, but whether that is due to the original, or the translation, or the fact that it was originally published serially, I don’t know. But I was always eager to get back to the book when I wasn’t reading it and I thoroughly enjoyed this story of four very different sisters.

Commentary at wikipedia calls the story Austenesque, which helped me realise what kept drawing me back to it. Of course it’s set in Japan, and much more modern, and didn’t have Austen’s wonderful witty prose, but it did kind of have an Austen feel to it, with marriage as the main theme, and issues of class and propriety. So while in the background it hinted slightly at the history leading up to WWII, the women were the story.

It seemed to be a realistic glimpse at what life was like then, and I especially enjoyed the references to various customs, some that I knew of, and others that were entirely new to me. Some of the illnesses mentioned in the book were also very interesting. I’d never heard of ‘beriberi’ before, a thiamine deficiency seen primarily in Asian people who rely on white rice as their staple food (the polished rice contains virtually no B1 as the thiamine-rich husk has been removed). And the dark spot over Yukiko’s eye that would come and go in itself wasn’t remarkable, but the fact that it would, according to the doctors, only go away when she was married, was amusing. (She ended up having hormone injections which made it fade considerably).

Overall, a great read and I look forward to reading more by
Tanizaki.
I’ve already put Some Prefer Nettles in my basket, which Lotus didn’t like very much but I’m now curious about.

MISC: The original Japanese title, sasame yuki, translates approximately as ‘a light snowfall’ or ‘small snowflakes’.

My Rating: 4.5/5
(Book #8 for 2007; Book #4 for the Classics Challenge; Book #1 for the Chunkster Challenge; and Book #2 for my Japan Challenge)
“The cherries in the Heian Shrine were left to the last because they, of all the cherries in Kyoto, were the most beautiful. Now that the great weeping cherry in Gion was dying and its blossoms were growing paler each year, what was left to stand for the Kyoto spring if not the cherries in the Heian Shrine?”
I made a note of this quote because the garden of Heian Jingu (Heian Shrine) is one of my favourite places in Kyoto.


Heian Jingu, April, 2006

14 comments:

  1. hey you! yup it is so great to be back. as of tomorrow I get net acess at my new place which makes blog oh-so-much easier.

    I LOVE some prefer Nettles. I have read that and The Diary by Tanazaki and wrote several papers on him during my degree. Once again SPN takes place in Osaka which is great - I love the arts there.

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  2. Hey Nessie, I'll definitely have to get Some Prefer Nettles now. :)

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  3. Sounds like a terrific book. Congrats on finishing your first chunkster, Nat!

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  4. Took me long enough to get around to it! Now working on the 2nd chunkster, and it's a biggie! :)

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  5. "The Makioka Sisters" sounds like a great book,Nat and the fact that it acquaints the reader with Japanese customs and culture of that period has made it even more tempting to me! And don't listen to me about "Some Prefer Nettles", I have yet to learn how to appreciate Japanese literature, Nat. I hope you will read it and enjoy it...maybe I'll do a re-read some day.

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  6. Lotus, well I hope that if you ever get around to reading The Makioka Sisters that you'll enjoy it. I'm quite interested to read Some Prefer Nettles now so I hope to get to it in the next few months.

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  7. Hi,

    I came to your blog through a link from Lotus's blog. Your blog name is so beautiful and poetic.

    Enjoyed reading you review of The Makioka sisters - I loved the book when I read it a few years ago.

    Best Wishes!

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  8. A Reader From India,
    Thanks so much for stopping by. :)
    The name of my blog is actually the first line (in English translation) of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, so I can't take credit for it.
    As for enjoying The Makioka Sisters, I'm now looking forward to reading more by Tanizaki.

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  9. When I replied to your comment about Sword & Blossom a few minutes ago, I didn't realize you were living in Japan. You really should be able to appreciate it!

    Thanks for the heads up on The Makioka Sisters; I'm adding this one to my list.

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  10. Jenclair,
    I think I'm going to have to put in an order soon. I hope you enjoy The Makioka Sisters if/when you get to it.

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  11. I just finished The Makioka Sisters a few days ago. I loved it. It gives us a great look at life in a well off family in Osaka in the late 1930s. We get to know each of the sisters well. The plot line will be familiar to Austin fans, as you noted. Thanks for the good review.

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  12. mel u,
    It's a great story, isn't it? It was one of my top reads of 2007. I'm glad you enjoyed it too.

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  13. The book is Austin like for sure-but does it differ from Austin?-just a thought I had

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  14. mel u,
    I'm not sure I understand exactly what you mean. It's Austen-like in that the story revolves around the women's lives, the search for a suitable husband, issues of class - all common themes in Austen's work, but the setting and time period are, of course, very different. As is the writing style itself. Can you elaborate on what you mean?

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