As WWII approaches, a Japanese family is ostensibly run by the household of an oldest sister, Tsuruko. However, Tsuruko’s household does preciously little other than give marching orders in the crisis faced by the extended Japanese family…finding a marriage for an aging middle daughter Yukiko and then one for a younger and increasingly troublesome daughter Taeko. Instead, these problems are primarily addressed by the household of the second oldest daughter in the family, Sachiko, as Tsuruko’s household leaves the family seat for Tokyo as part of an increasing focus on money making and thrift as opposed to family obligations. This is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Valerie Martin, 10th for David Mitchell, and 9th Cathleen Schine.)
Arranging Yukiko’s marriage is a difficult matter. Many years have passed as suitor after suitor was refused due to inflexible standards due to the Makioka family standing. Yukiko herself creates problems when the family decides to let their standards slip a bit:
Most unfortunate, thought Sachiko. Yukiko’s dislike for the telephone was no secret, and when—rarely—there was a call for her she usually had someone else do the talking and went to the telephone herself on very special occasions. No one had objected up to now, but this was one of those special occasions. Whatever Hashidera’s reasons for calling, it seemed imperative, since he had asked for her, that Yukiko take the call. He would receive quite the wrong impression if Sachiko were to talk to him instead. Yukiko was after all not a sixteen-year-old. Though her sister understood this shyness, they could hardly expect a stranger to understand. They would be lucky if Hashidera was not offended. Perhaps Yukiko had gone to the telephone, timing and protecting? But to go reluctantly after having made him wait, to say almost nothing—she was even worse over the telephone than she was face-to-face—and as a result to have him break on the negotiations—the better alternative might be to let him go on waiting. There was always that stubborn core. Possibly she had refused to go near the telephone, and was waiting for Sachiko to rescue her. Even if Sachiko were to rush home, however, she would probably find that he had given up, and if he had not, what could she say by way of excuse? This was one time when Yukiko herself should have taken the call, and promptly. Something told Sachiko that this trivial incident could mean the end of the negotiations on which they had worked so hard.
Taeko is an entirely different problem. She almost eloped when she was younger (causing a newspaper story), wants to work for herself, sponges off a man she no longer intends to marry, and worse:
Taeko nodded apathetically. “I know what is wrong without calling a doctor.”
“Oh? What is it then?”
Her face against the chair, Taeko looked sluggishly up at her sister. “It looks as though I am three or four months pregnant.” She spoke with the usual calm.
Sachiko gasped, and stared as though to bore a hole through her sister’s face. It was a moment or two before she could ask the question: “Is it Kei-boy’s?”
“Miyoshi’s. I think Yukiko heard about Miyoshi from the old woman.”
Taeko nodded. “I am sure that is my trouble.”
This all doesn’t help the family’s attempts to get Yukiko get married, much less help Sachiko figure out what to do about Taeko.
Of course, this is all going on as WWII is about to explode. We can see it coming, and the characters think about what they see and hear, but they are inescapably wrapped up in their own family problems above and beyond any of that. They just can’t see how insignificant their personal problems are about to be. WWII will change Japan forever, but until then Yukiko must get married and something must be done about Taeko.
The Makioka Sisters is an enthralling picture of pre-World War II Japan. The characters are vividly human, the described world is tangible, and the interrelationships are meticulously ordered. It involved a declining family as opposed to a destroyed one, and that gives a different kind of urgency to their preservation efforts and struggles. All is not yet lost, meaning that their efforts have more significant weight. All in all, The Makioka Sisters is quite beautiful.