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June 16, 2011

The Makioka Sisters

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Kon Ichikawa - 1983
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

One of the best things I might have done for myself was to shell out $60.00 for the Japanese DVD of Shunji Iwai's documentary on Kon Ichikawa. It may have also been a disservice to myself as well. My biggest problem with the new DVD release of The Makioka Sisters is knowing how many other, better films by Kon Ichikawa are unavailable, except in some cases, in VHS versions. Yes, it's good to know that another Ichikawa film is available on English subtitled DVD. Sadly, this is not a very good Kon Ichikawa film. To put it another way, I usually like John Ford, too, but I'm not one to speak up for Donavan's Reef. The Kon Ichikawa adaptation of a Junichiro Tanizaki novel that should be available is Kagi, released in the U.S. under the title of Odd Obsession. The brief clip I've seen with Machiko Kyo and Tatsuya Nakadai packs more heat than the entire 140 minutes of The Makioka Sisters.

I've only seen a few Ichikawa films, with two older films on DVD from Masters of Cinema waiting on a shelf. But based on what I have seen, I would have to concur that Ichikawa's best films are the ones he made in collaboration with his wife, screenwriter Natto Wada. The lethargic pacing of The Makioka Sisters might even be explained by the film being made during the same year Wada died of cancer. This seems more like a film made due to obligation, and lacks the snap and style of the films I've seen that Wada and Ichikawa made together. Even Iwai spends significantly more time in his documentary on the film Ichikawa made in the Fifties and early Sixties, even though Ichikawa continued steadily producing films through 2006.

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Tanizaki's epic length novel probably would be better served as a mini-series. Ichikawa's is the third version so far, and with Tanizaki's novels constantly getting new film versions, it probably won't be the last version. Simply based on star power, I would love to see the previous two films. The first film, made in 1950, boasts Hikeko Takamine as the youngest, impulsive sister, Taeko. The second version, made only nine years later, stars Machiko Kyo as the second youngest sister, Sachiko, and Junko Kano as Taeko. Curiously, Kyo and Kano both starred in Kagi that same year. The actress with the most name recognition in Ichikawa's version is Keiko Kishi, as the eldest sister, Tsuruko. Kishi would be best remembered by western viewers as the woman caught between Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura in The Yakuza. Ichikawa's film also provides an opportunity to see Juzo Itami, better remembered as the filmmaker of Tampopo, in the part of Tsuruko's husband.

Ichikawa's film might be described as a distillation of Tanizaki's novel. The drama of the sisters represents the tensions between tradition and the increasing westernization of Japan. That the film takes place in 1938 serves as a reminder that in a very short time, Japan and Japanese identity would change radically. Most of the story is concerned with finding a husband for the third daughter, Yukiko, which in turn is keeping the youngest daughter, Taeko from getting married. Family pride and various family skeletons keep popping up to interfere. Tanizaki's wry observations don't find their cinematic equivalent here except for one scene when Tsuruko, horrified at the thought of moving to Tokyo with her husband, declares that she has never in her life been east of Osaka.

Sayuri Yoshinaga does not resemble who I would have imagined as Yukiko. The least outgoing of the sisters, Yoshinaga charms on those special moments when she smiles. It's enough to make me want to see her early films when she was one of the house starlets at Nikkatsu in the early Sixties. Yoshinaga hooked me in a scene where she's riding the train with Sachiko to meet with another prospective suitor. Sitting across from Yukiko is a soldier. She steals a glance toward the soldier, and smiles, continuing to keep her feelings to herself.

The saddest aspect of The Makioka Sisters is that the best parts of the film are the nature shots, montages of cherry blossoms. Only someone supremely incompetent could screw up photographic images of cherry blossoms. I even shot a photograph that got published in a Japanese newspaper. Also, in keeping with the title, there are shots of snow falling. The chintzy sounding synthesizer score doesn't help. I also find it inexcusable for a period film to allow the male actors to have inappropriately long hair. If you're a Kon Ichikawa completist, then by all means see The Makioka Sisters. If you're less than familiar with Ichikawa, make a beeline to the films Ichikawa made with Wada, and hope that more of these works become available for western cinephiles.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 16, 2011 08:07 AM


I always see the novel in my library, always on th main shelf. For some reason I never got myself to grab it and give it a try. I might give the movie a shot also someday.

Posted by: Will at June 21, 2011 01:00 PM