An Intriguing Look at Japan Before WWII

“The Makioka Sisters” is a splendid, thoughtful movie of a Japan only three years away from Pearl Harbor and the devastation of war with the United States.

World War II ended the type of society portrayed so clearly here, although the war did not erase the attitudes and some of the behavior depicted. The barons, counts and others in the nobility were stripped of their titles after the war, and the sharp line between the moneyed few and the scraping-to-get-by many became blurred. In today’s Japan, however, families of prospective brides and grooms still hire private detectives to investigate their son’s or daughter’s betrothed, and Japanese still make the pilgrimage to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms of spring.

The movie is set in 1938 in and around Osaka, where the four Makioka sisters live. The elder two are married; the problem comes in fixing up the two younger ones.

Yukiko must be the next to marry, but she keeps rejecting suitors. And Taeko, the youngest, is a rebel who would stand out even in today’s Japan. In the prewar years, however, she would have been startling: She wants to open a doll manufacturing factory in town; she smokes; and several years before, she had briefly run away with a young man.


Director Kon Ichikawa uses color flamboyantly, from the pale pink cherry blossoms of spring to the red and yellow maple leaves of fall to the stark whiteness of the still snow of winter. The emphasis on color substitutes for action--this is a movie without a samurai in sight; the only swords remain in the scabbards of the soldiers who are in the background.

The movie is based on the novel by Jun’ichiro Tanazaki, a writer rare among his colleagues because he features strong women. The main theme is the family’s pride, especially that of Tsuruko, the eldest daughter, and the change in the family’s fortunes. Tsuruko remembers when her parents were alive and her father ran one of Japan’s biggest shipping companies. Now her husband and her sister’s husband work for others.

Ichikawa does not gloss over the quarrels familiar to all families, but he does show the love uniting the brood, underscored by one comment that “sisters must be kind to each other.”

“The Makioka Sisters” (1983), directed by Kon Ichikawa. In Japanese with English subtitles. 140 minutes. Not rated.