MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Makioka Sisters; Live Today, Die Tomorrow; Onibaba


The Makioka Sisters (Four Stars)
Japan: Kon Ichikawa, 1983
Kon Ichikawa’s
1983 film of the famous ‘40s novel by Junichiro Tanizaki — with its subtle and exquisite dramatization of a crucial period in the lives of four beautiful, upper-class sisters living in Osaka — is one of the great Japanese films, and perhaps one of the finest, most memorable and most visually bewitching of all cinematic renderings of an Asian literary classic.
Like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which The Makioka Sisters resembles in theme and mood, Ichikawa’s movie — set in Osaka, a bustling Japanese river city and commercial center — is suffused with an ironic nostalgia for a vanished time, and with regret for the vanished beauties which the authors (Booth Tarkington and Tanizaki) and their adaptor/filmmakers (Welles and Ichikawa) summon up with their films’ witty scripts, accurate décor, expert camerawork and flawless casts — but which they also show as perhaps inevitable.
Just as Welles knew the American Midwest — which is where the Indiana-born Tarkington set his sad, knowing tale of the fall of the once proud upper-class Ambersons — Ichikawa and Tanizaki, both Osaka natives, know well the city and milieu they depict here. We see Osaka, where the Makioka family once ran the city’s most celebrated and exclusive kimono factory/shop — mostly in a series of beautiful interior shots, almost wholly placed inside the feminine world of household and family that the four sisters inhabit. (Two of the sisters are married, and two are unmarried, which is the source of almost all the film‘s conflicts.)
Just as in an Ozu film, the home-life conflicts and crises engender both amusement and great sadness, even as the now vanished world of the Makiokas and their real-life counterparts inspire the film’s lush pictorialization of its time and place, 1938 Japan. We see this world through the eyes of the sisters and (less so) of their husbands, during the beginning of one of the major turning points in Japanese history, the onset of World War 2, before the world conflict had utterly consumed the country and its culture.
Yet we actually see and hear relatively little (almost nothing) of the outside world and populace of Osaka, or of the gathering storms of war, perhaps because the sisters themselves take so little note of it. They are too preoccupied with their family problems — mostly the dilemma of marrying off the last two younger Makioka sisters — to notice or comment here on the fact that their whole exquisite world may someday soon be gone.
The Makioka sisters are, going from eldest to youngest: first sister and opinionated family leader Tsuruku (Keiko Kishi), second sister and more malleable second-in-command Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), third sister, the quiet, sensitive and hard-to-marry Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and fourth sister, the rebellious, artistic and high-spirited Keiko (Yuko Kategawa). In 1983, when The Makioka Sisters was released, Kishi, Sakuma and Yoshinaga were all big stars; Kategawa was a newcomer. Rarely though, have four more beautiful actresses appeared together in a movie, in four juicier dramatic roles. The Makiokas, in Ichikawa’s great film, make up one of the loveliest feminine ensembles in all Japanese cinema. And, when Ichikawa, at the end, reprises stunning group and individual shots of the luminous quartet walking through the hills together, surrounded by massive clouds of new cherry blossoms, smiling, dressed in their inimitable finery (kimonos from their father’s famous shop), we realize, so strongly that it hurts, how special they were, how lovely they all were together.
But we also can see that their ties and bonds are now irreversibly sundered, that they will never, as a group, be together in that way again, that, just as their country will never be the same after the war that their government has so foolishly instigated, neither will they. It’s heartbreaking. And like too many family and national tragedies, it seemed inevitable.
Like Ozu, Ichikawa portrays the Makiokas with such intimacy and clear-eyed sympathy that their problems never seem trivial. The Makiokas, luminous as a group, are also strongly individualized. Tsuruku, custodian of the family code and pride, is something of a smiling dictator, and is married to Tatsuo, a stern, taciturn, bossy banker (played by Juzo Itami, the much-awarded actor-director of Tampopo and The Funeral).
Sachiko, more overtly humane and generous than her elder sister, is the wife of Teinosuke (Koji Inasaki), who is the family’s great diplomat, also a susceptible romantic, and a man probably in love with his sister-in-law Yukiko. (It is Teinoskue who has that shimmering, shattering cherry blossom vision at the end.) Both husbands, in recognition of the prominence of their wives’ prestigious family, and of the difficulties besetting such a family if they lack a male heir, have taken the Makioka name for their own — an example, among many, of the balance of family power, which will shift.
Both the younger sisters, Yukiko the homebody and Keiko the artist, are the sources of most of the family’s problems. They live with Sachiko and Teinosuke, Yukiko contentedly, Keiko with great, increasing discontent. According to custom, Yukiko must marry before Keiko — just as the two elder sisters married in order of age themselves. But Yukiko is a vulnerable, finicky soul who rejects suitor after suitor, all set up for her by her elder sisters and various matchmakers, and therefore has long blocked the marriage and departure of Keiko.
Keiko is a gifted dollmaker who makes beautiful dolls, but is discouraged from making a career of it — because, as a Makioka, she doesn’t have to. In fact, Keiko is so impatient to leave home that she eloped years earlier with Okuhata, a caddish rich boy, a jewelry shop owner’s black sheep son and the movie‘s major villain, and they triggered a major local scandal. Now she is in love with one of Okuhata’s friends,  Ikatura (Ittoku Kishibe),  a photographer who will become part of a major tragedy. For me, the disruption of Keiko‘s career as a dollmaker is also one of the movie’s tragedies — since we are told (and can see) that her dolls are works of art. and that she is an artist, with an artist’s special temperament.
What Ichikawa gives us in The Makioka Sisters is a brief look at the family at its peak, and then a longer look its inevitable decline. Like The Magnificent Ambersons, it’s a sad story, but Tanizaki’s book, according to Audio Bock, is even sadder than the movie, darker in portraying that decline. Even so, the film’s most sublime moment — the last shots of the lovelorn Teinosuke sipping sake in a dark room and recalling the sisters at their zenith, in their lovely kimonos and that great pink and white cloud of cherry blossoms — is Ichikawa’s invention. It has no counterpart in the novel, where Teinosuke’s possible infatuation is never suggested.
In both book and movie, the Makioka sisters’ decline is also obviously a microcosm of the decay of Japan;s upper classes during and after the war. Perhaps I‘ve suggested that Tanizaki‘s book and Ichikawa’s film ignore the social context around the family. But, in a way, that’s not true. In the film, we sense the presence outside the walls, of the oncoming war and the changes to come, even if they aren’t shown. And Tanizaki saw the original publication of his book, begun as a serial in 1943, disrupted by a long government ban, as “prejudicial to national discipline.” He didn’t publish it publicly until after the war and Japan’s defeat; it came out, in three parts, in 1946, 1947 and 1948. Like some of the greatest Japanese filmmakers –Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi among them –, Tanizaki perhaps sensed the tragedies to come. It was only after the full national catastrophe that he was able to share his masterpiece, and the Makiokas, with his countrymen.
Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters was released by its studio Toho, in 1983, in a special “50th Toho Anniversary” prestige presentation. Ironically, it was Toho, and its legendary cheapness, that was probably responsible for the film’s few flaws, mainly the sense of claustrophobia engendered by the heavy reliance on studio-shot interiors (especially in the first half.) The Makioka Sisters, as Bock persuasively suggests, was a possible Japanese equivalent to Gone With the Wind, which Ichikawa was forced to shoot on an unreasonably low budget.
But Ichikawa, like Keiko, was an artist. He was resourceful, brilliant and seemingly tireless, even though he was 68 (and became a recent widower) while he prepared the film. Still, he was able to surmount most of the difficulties, and he made one of the masterpieces of his career — a career that included such gems as Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp, Enjo, Odd Obsession or The Key (also adapted from a Tanizaki novel), Being Two Isn’t Easy, An Actor’s Revenge, Alone on the Pacific, Tokyo Olympiad, The Devil’s Ballad, Ohan, I Am a Cat, The Inugami Family, Princess of the Moon, The 47 Ronin and a  26-part animated TV adaptation of what is often considered one of the greatest Japanese novels (and a work that was also translated by Tanizaki) Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji  –a film so far, unreleased in the U.S. It was an incredible career that lasted until very recently — Ichikawa released his last film, The Inugamis, in 2006, at the age of 89, and he died, in 2008, at 92 — and The Makioka Sisters was one of its highest high points. 
In 1983, at 68, Ichikawa was still in his prime, if indeed, he ever left it. And in the gorgeous, moving classic he made from Tanizaki‘s great novel, Ichikawa painted a vision of the Makioka sisters, in all their radiance, foolishness, happiness and sorrow, that becomes an unforgettable portrait of the evanescence of both family ties and of life’s  beauties. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.) (Chicago, Gene Siskel Film Center)
Live Today, Die Tomorrow! (Two and a Half Stars)
Japan: Kaneto Shindo, 1969
Kaneto Shindo, one of the most staunchly leftsit of all classic post-war Japanese filmmakers, prefigures Shohei Imamura’s superb crime movie Vengeance is Mine, in this black and white psychological/social chronicle, based on fact, of the making and career of a serial killer. Dajiro Harada plays the teenage murderer, whose career of kiss-kiss-bang-bang slaughter begins almost accidentally, proceeds impulsively and makes a mockery of the sacrifices endured by his impoverished mother (Nobuko Otowa). For the film, society is to blame for the crimes; as usual in a Shindo film, especially after 1960, this movie also has heavy erotic content. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.) (Chicago, Gene Siskel Center.)
Onibaba (The Hole) (Three and a half stars)
Japan: Kaneto Shindo, 1964
One of Shindo’s best and most justly celebrated hfilms: the blood-freezing horror story of two women during a time of war, who seduce samurai and then kill them. Sex`and murder dance their deadly tango against a stunningly pictorial way-rural background. With Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura. In Japanese, with English subtitles. (Chicago, Gene Siskel Film Center.)
Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: The Makioka Sisters; Live Today, Die Tomorrow; Onibaba”

  1. Erik L. says:

    Sounds like I have a pretty good movie and book to take care of. Why have I never at least seen the movie?


awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon