Makioka Sisters, The (1983)

Review #1,062


Director:  Kon Ichikawa
Cast:  Keiko Kishi, Yoshiko Sakuma, Sayuri Yoshinaga, Yûko Kotegawa, Jûzô Itami, Kôji Ishizaka
Plot:  This sensuously beautiful film chronicles the activities of four sisters who gather in Kyoto every year to view the cherry blossoms.  It paints a vivid portrait of the pre-war lifestyle of the wealthy Makioka family from Osaka, and draws a parallel between their activities and the seasonal variations in Japan.

Genre:  Drama / Romance

Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  140min
Rating:  PG

It could have been retitled 'A Tale of Four Sisters' and it would have worked fine.  But of course, The Makioka Sisters sounds more posh, and if anything else, it immediately poses a mental question: who are the Makiokas? 

Director Kon Ichikawa's late career effort is one of his top-tier works; I haven't seen a better Ichikawa film... yet.  Don't be discouraged by its 2.5 hours runtime, because first the picture takes its time to develop its characters, and second and more crucially, it does so in a slow but well-paced manner. 

Think of the film as a leisurely locomotive ride across a picturesque Japan with strangers whom you will grow to like.  These strangers, whose individual personalities and attitudes toward life are brilliantly conveyed through dialogue and facial expression, muted or otherwise, become your friends by the end of the journey.  They are friends whom you know, but will never meet.

The Makioka Sisters can be seen as a family drama dealing with issues that would have been commonplace in an Ozu film – marriage, family issues and time passing amid a changing Japan.  Instead of the backdrop of an increasingly industrialized and urbanized post-war Japan as profoundly captured by Ozu in films like Tokyo Story (1953) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), we witness a less complicated Japan. 

We see cherry blossoms. 

Split into four loose chapters based on the seasons, The Makioka Sisters affords us an intimate position to observe sibling dynamics in action.  The two older sisters try to find a suitor for the quiet and demure third sister, while the youngest seeks to live an independent and carefree life with the man she wants.  All the joy and pain of life as bounded by being in a traditional noble family serve up a full cup of tears, packing an emotional wallop that its melodramatic restraint seems intent to hide. 

With a distinctive electronic score, so typical of films from the 1980s, The Makioka Sisters' jarring (but unobtrusive) soundscape when set against its late 1930s periodization, provides a tonal contrast that feels surreal, perhaps playing out as a precious memory of those golden days when life was just as complicated but… so much simpler.  In a nutshell, Ichikawa's film is sensuous, affecting and culturally rich.  It is also surprisingly funny.

Verdict:  One of Ichikawa’s top-tier works that is a sensuously beautiful tale of four sisters filled with rich characterizations and emotions. 


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