On the Classical Pleasures and Subtle Ironies of The Makioka Sisters, Now at Film Forum

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05/04/2011 1:57 PM |

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The Makioka Sisters, which begins a week-and-change revival at Film Forum today, is an extended reverie of 1938 that belies its making in 1983: check the vaseline-smeared telephoto lensing of the annual family stroll through the cherry blossom festival, or the way time stops so the camera might glide over ornamental kimonos seemingly laid out on a black soundstage and lit by spotlight—all, all to the accompaniment of a tinny synthesizer score. The doubly dated aesthetic couldn’t be a better fit for Kon Ichikawa’s film, where a pervading sentimentality is woven through with surprising textures.

The long opening scene sets everything and everyone up: in a pavilion, shielded from the rain (framed in an open doorway like a triptych panel), the four Makioka sisters, the adult daughters of a deceased, revered merchant, discuss eldest daughter Tsuruko’s (Keiko Kishi) concern with the prestige of the family name; Sachiko’s (Yoshiko Sakuma) struggles as head of her household, where her two younger, unmarried sisters live; Yukiko’s (Sayuri Yoshinaga) idealized beauty and difficulty arranging a marriage; and Westernized Taeko’s (Yuko Kotegawa) ambitions to a career.

The film stays mostly inside throughout, notably within the old black walls of the family estate, where Tsuruko lives with her husband (who, like Sachiko’s fumbling hubby, married up and took the family name). The film is mostly close-ups, of faces and of objects, with cross-currents of affection or disapproval telegraphed in reverse-shots.

Ichikawa, a Golden Age director known for adaptations of Mishima, Soseki, Murasaki Shikibu and many others, had long hoped to film Junichiro Tanizaki’s nationally beloved source novel (serialized during after WWII, covering events about a half-decade prior). When he finally did, at age 68, he produced something that feels very consciously stagey and stylized, a classical prewar family drama about fond memories, ancient resentments, and arranged marriages (Yukiko’s meetings with potential grooms are often played for comedy as broad as the faces the servants sometimes pull), with lavish attention paid to the formal dress (Pauline Kael’s influential New Yorker rave was titled “Golden Kimonos“).

But the movie gets more sophisticated the more you think about it—like in the best Preminger or Sirk movies, emotions, motivations, and the implications of shared histories become more complex, not less, for being the primary subject of the dialogue, as the sisters behave counter to their well-established characters, or change their minds outright. Even the film’s sincerely melancholy attitude towards the passage of time—much on everyone’s mind, and lips—cloaks an elaborate play on our expectations. The ending seems a rather rushed, contrived way of resolving things happily for everyone—all they have to do is give up the things that define them and not look back.

The Criterion Collection, it should be noted, will release the film on DVD and Blu-Ray next month.