By Steve Vineberg

Though he remains almost unknown in this country, the masterly Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa had a career of remarkable range and longevity ~ more than 75 movies over six decades.  (He died in 2008 at 92, two years after releasing his final picture.)  And his work provides a touchstone with some of the great twentieth-century Japanese writers ~ Shohei Ooka, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki ~ whose novels he adapted to the screen.  A gorgeous new Criterion DVD showcases one of these, a 1983 film of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters that played only briefly in American art houses and has been lost to audiences since the videotape went out of print years ago.  It’s one of the great movies of its era and one of the finest modern film adaptations of a literary source.

Tanizaki wrote the novel, published in Japan under the title A Light Snowfall, during the Second World War and published it in the late forties, and Ichikawa was the third director to film it.  Hardly a surprise ~ the book has a marvelous narrative and it’s extremely cinematic.  It’s the story of the four daughters of an aristocratic Osaka shipbuilding family that struggles to retain a dignified old-world image even though it has faded unmistakably.  After the father’s death, Tatsuo, the banker husband of the eldest daughter, Tsuruko ~ both he and his brother-in-law took the Makioka name when they married, out of deference to her family’s standing ~ sold the business to sidestep bankruptcy.  Then there was a minor scandal involving the youngest sister, Taeko, who tried to elope with her boy friend, Okuhata, a wealthy jeweler’s son, when they were teenagers; the police retrieved her but one of the newspapers carried the story, erroneously identifying the second-youngest, Yukiko, as the runaway.  As a result of Tatsuo’s failure to get the paper to print a retraction ~ let alone to do what the sisters are certain their father would have, bribe the paper to bury the incident altogether ~ the two unmarried younger sisters have chosen to live not in the “main house” but with the second eldest, Sachiko, and her husband Teinosuke.  As long as they remain single, Yukiko and Taeko are of continual concern to their sisters.  Tsuruko and Sachiko have made several unsuccessful attempts to find a husband for Yukiko, and by tradition Taeko can’t wed until her older sister does.  Taeko, the most modern of the four, has become a dollmaker, over the objections of the family, who are unsettled by the idea of her going into business.  She still sees Okuhata, a playboy and wastrel whose family refuses to bankroll his lifestyle, and she’s also courted by Itakura, a photographer from a humble background.  In their different ways both Yukiko (who comports herself with old-fashioned Japanese delicacy and reserve) and Taeko (who wears western dress, prefers to make her own matches and has a penchant for making scenes) rebel against the control that their sisters ~ and especially Tsuruko ~ would like to exert over their lives, and both have a tendency to keep their own counsel.

Tanizaki’s subject is the modernization of Japanese culture, which produces one shock after another and is reflected in the inevitable mixing of classes.  (Tatsuo is the son of an office worker.)  The novel uses peripheral incidents, like the death of a dancing teacher and Tsuruko’s efforts to see the work of an aging kabuki master while he is still able to perform, to underscore the accelerated disappearance of the old world, while it touches on the political realities of the new one through occasional references to both Japan’s military adventures and those of its ally Germany.  Their presence and the allusions to Japanese soldiers on trains are small but persistent reminders of the country’s irrevocable march into a radically altered future that will all but eliminate the last remnants of the society that formed the Makioka sisters.  The book’s other theme, which is linked to the first, is money (and “money” is the first word we hear spoken in the film).  Money motivated Tatsuo’s decision to sell the Makioka business, and it’s a bone of contention between Taeko, who wants her inheritance for her dollmaking concern, and Tsuruko and Tatsuo, who hold the purse strings.  Okuhata is so demoralized by his inability to be financially independent that he steals jewels from his family’s shop to shower Taeko with gifts and make her loans; he’s caught and disowned, and out of desperation he extorts money from Teinosuke ~ the amount that he claims to have squandered on Taeko ~ threatening to spread rumors about her if he doesn’t get what he asked for.  Okuhata is a thief and finally a blackmailer, but he is appalled at Taeko’s taking up with men of inferior status ~ first Itakura and then, when he dies of an ear infection that spreads to his brain, the bartender Miyoshi, whom she moves in with toward the end of the novel after she gets pregnant.

Ichikawa builds the story of the tensions among this quartet of women almost entirely on visual rhythms, with the help of his cinematographer Kiyoshi Hasegawa.  The movie ~ one of the most magnificent-looking ever released ~ is conceived largely in terms of wide, carefully composed long shots that emphasize the formality of traditional Japanese life; of the astonishingly graceful, flowing movement of the four sisters; of the sumptuous silk kimonos they wear, which glide and slither (and are never supposed to squeak), and in one breathtaking scene are hung and layered like screens for the set of a bunraku puppet play; and of the lyricism of the landscape, which Ichikawa and Hasegawa capture in different seasons.  (Intriguingly, the music Ichikawa chooses is western:  it’s by Handel.  But its stately classicism seems ideal for the material.)  Ichikawa dramatizes Japan’s transition from the old world to the new by interrupting the formality of the film and the look and behavior of the beautiful Makioka sisters ~ who, as Pauline Kael points out, walk as if they’re perfectly conscious that they’re visual poetry ~ with small details that are startling enough to explode its magnificently calm and composed surface:  the moment we first see Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa) wearing a western outfit rather than a kimono or smoking a cigarette, or when she returns from the hospital where Itakura (Ittoku Kishibe) has died and weeps hysterically on Sachiko’s shoulder, or when we see the run-down, sordid apartment she shares with Miyoshi (Kazunaga Tsuji), startling after the spacious, impeccably appointed houses that Tsuruko and Sachiko inhabit.  In another scene Ichikawa underscores the intensity of a domestic argument ~ a quarrel between Tatsuo and Taeko that turns into a more serious one between Tatsuo and Tsuruko ~ by using the elements of composition that make the movie so exquisite to create a sense of claustrophobia:  the characters seem hemmed in by the screens, the low ceilings, and each other.

Though Taeko is the overt renegade among the sisters and her behavior presents the most obvious challenges to the family, the relationships between Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) and Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and Sachiko and Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) are the most complex and intriguing in the movie.  The fact that Sachiko and Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka) are housing the two youngest places Sachiko in a difficult position vis-à-vis her older sister, to whom she feels she should defer but doesn’t really want to.  They don’t often square off, but when they do Tsuruko always triumphs:  stunningly elegant, with the formidable face of an aristocratic figure in a nineteenth-century portrait, she’s immovable, and she wins by holding out longer than Sachiko can, wrinkling her nose slightly as she trounces her sister and signaling victory with a smile that carries an implied element of superiority.  Sachiko likes the idea that her younger sisters feel more comfortable living with her because she’s the more sympathetic one, but she doesn’t enjoy having to deal with the responsibilities that come along with her adopted maternal role:  when Okuhata comes to see her to ask permission to resume his courtship of Taeko, her discomfort is reflected in her anxious, darting eyes, and Yukiko’s habit of shying away from the suitors Sachiko has negotiated with various matchmakers constantly makes her feel compromised.  Only at the end of the picture, when his company transfers Tatsuo (Juzo Itami) to Tokyo and Tsuruko has to say goodbye to Sachiko, do the sisters truly reconcile:  Sachiko sees how much it has cost her sister to put her love for her husband ahead of her attachment to her family home and realizes for the first time how much of a burden she’s shouldered since their father’s death.  (It’s a lovely scene.)

Yukiko is even more of a challenge to Sachiko than Taeko.  She’s reticent and retiring; she looks delicately inward when her family discusses her future (“She doesn’t say what she’s thinking about her own marriage,” Tsuruko complains, exasperated).  And she plays the role of an object of her sisters’ marital machinations, subject to their whims.  But she keeps the suitors she doesn’t desire at bay, declining at first to talk on the telephone to one and then to meet him, by acting as if his requests were too forward for her old-fashioned sensibilities.  She’s more alert than she seems, and more willful; she shakes off the men she doesn’t want like water.  She’s secretive but she doesn’t always hide her feelings; certain things animate her ~ the look of a soldier on a train; the company of her niece, Sachiko’s young daughter Etsuko, with whom she spends more time than her own mother does, caring for her when she’s ill because Sachiko is prone to fevers and Yukiko isn’t (her physical hardiness is part of her mystery).  And she and her brother-in-law Teinosuke have an ongoing flirtation.  (This is an invention of the film ~ Ichikawa’s only major addition to the narrative.)  Sachiko sees them kiss, but Teinosuke denies that there’s anything untoward between them and even grows angry when Sachiko finally comments on it.  Her coming upon the kiss is another moment when the sublime Makioka surface is ruffled.  She slips out of the room unnoticed, then stubs her foot, losing her careful balance, and crushes a piece of fruit with her hands and shoves it greedily into her mouth, an action we see in striking contrast to the images of the sisters eating their meals in tiny, orchestrated bites.

The opening images of the movie ~ of cherry blossoms in the rain ~ set the visual style for the film and introduces the seasonal cycle that’s tied to the movements of the characters’ lives.  The sisters go to Kyoto every spring to view the cherries in bloom, showing off their most magnificent kimonos, their languid, strolling bodies matching the sedentary beauty of the trees.  In this scene Ichikawa encourages us to see the sisters as part of the landscape, like the blossoms and the blur of magenta reflected in the surface of the lake (and then he begins to reveal the tensions underneath that surface).  This is one of several rituals that dot the film, like the sessions where the women dress in preparation for public occasions (courtship dinners for Yukiko, evenings out at concerts or plays), helping each other choose kimonos and make up; the memorial service for their father; and the courtship dinners, or miai, themselves.  We don’t see the actual memorial service but we witness the aftermath, where the fussy, unsatisfiable old aunt (Kuniko Miyake) complains about every choice Tsuruko and Tatsuo made and objects to Tatsuo’s transfer to Tokyo ~ she claims he’s “acting hungry” (i.e., ambitious), which is unseemly for a Makioka.  (We can see where Tsuruko’s stiff-necked quality comes from, and guess how difficult her father must have been.)  The miai are stiff and uncomfortable, and utterly fascinating.  Ichikawa includes several, including a hilarious one where one suitor, a widowed scientist, is so upfront about his family history that he produces papers to prove that his first wife is really dead and that the child he lost didn’t die of a hereditary disease.  It’s expected that a family of distinction trying to make a match will hire a private detective to investigate the suitor’s background (one is turned down when the Makiokas learn that there is mental illness in his family).  When Tatsuo’s supervisor suggests one prospect and Yukiko rejects him, it produces a minor crisis because the supervisor loses face.  At these dinners, the matchmaker is always expert at making small talk, teasing about the feminine entrapment of men.  It’s all a remnant of the old world; you can’t imagine Taeko would ever sit still for a miai.  (And her attachments, first to Okuhata, then to Itakura and finally to Miyoshi, make it irrelevant for her.)

The visual emblem of the movie is women gliding across the floor in silk kimonos against geometric settings, while the men wear business suits; even the juxtaposition of the female and male costumes suggests the intrusion of the modern world in an ancient culture.  Ichikawa hints at the big changes going on in Japan:  a soldier on the train, a newspaper blowing down the street informing us that the Japanese army has taken Canton, the death in action of the brother of one of Tsuruko’s domestics.  But the movie focuses on the ways in which the characters’ private lives are altered.  At the end, Sachiko visits Taeko and as they look out at the snow she says, “We’ve had upheavals and the seasons have changed, but after all, nothing has really changed.”  But of course everything has changed.  Taeko, carrying Miyoshi’s child and stuck in an industrial flat, already looks harsh and unhappy, grown old beyond her years.  Tatsuo and Tsuruko are uprooting themselves and their children and moving to Tokyo, bringing an irrevocable end to a long chapter in the Makioka sisters’ lives.  The snow drifts through the air like cherry blossoms as they set off from Osaka train station and Tsuruko cries because she realizes she will have to miss the cherry blossoms at Kyoto this year ~ a symbol, of course, of all that she loves about her Osaka life and has agreed to put behind her.  Yukiko has finally become engaged (to a viscount’s son) ~ and we realize how much losing her means to Teinosuke when we see him in the final scene getting drunk at a teahouse.  He too looks out at the snow, and the last image we see is in his memory:  the four beautiful Makioka sisters in their kimonos floating like angels through the temple grounds at Kyoto, under the cherry blossoms, just last spring yet so long ago.