In the spring of 1938, the proud Makioka sisters, daughters of a prominent merchant family, have gathered in Kyoto for their customary annual viewing of cherry blossoms (hanami). The film opens to the serene and idyllic image of rainfall against the picturesque natural landscape, and is unexpectedly truncated by the spoken word okane (money) as the elder sister, Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), addresses the headstrong, youngest sister, Taeko (Yûko Kotegawa). Socially progressive and independent minded, young Taeko wishes to claim her inheritance in order to finance her fledgling doll making business, against the advice of her older sisters who have set aside the money as her marriage dowry. With the arrival of the eldest sister, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi), the discussion soon turns to recent complications that led to her decision to abruptly cancel Yukiko’s (Sayuri Yoshinaga) proposed omiai (arranged marriage interview) after discovering that the suitor harbors a potentially scandalous family secret. Interweaving past and present, the film then chronicles the evolving lives of the Makioka sisters through the beautiful and enigmatic Yukiko as she engages in the outmoded, vanishing tradition and complex ritual of the omiai in search of enduring love and happiness amidst a profoundly changing society and national culture.
Based on the Junichiro Tanizaki wartime novel, the The Makioka Sisters is a poignant and affectionate elegy on the reluctant, but inevitable passing of a fading, cultural era. By correlating the changing of the seasons with the diverse geographic settings associated with the sisters’ introductory encounters of Yukiko’s potential suitors, Kon Ichikawa transcends the simple depiction of the dissolution of family to reflect the erosion of tradition and loss of culture in contemporary Japanese society. Note that the film opens with the Makioka family in the scenic, old world culture of Kyoto – the ancient capital of Japan – and ends with the head of the family, Tsuruko, accompanying her husband Tetsuo (Juzo Itami) to Tokyo – the modern, highly industrialized “new” capital of Japan (after the Meiji Restoration). Filmed in the early 1980s during the height of Japan’s global economic dominance, The Makioka Sisters further serves as an ironic chronicle of the increasingly obsolete mercantile economy of prewar Japan and the rigid formality of social customs represented by the Makioka family. In the end, Sachiko’s resigned remarks reflect the unarticulated longing and quiet tragedy of the transience of existence.
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