SJF Seeks SJM For Cherry Blossom-Viewing

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 10, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

"It is a truth universally acknowledged," begins Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, "that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Equally acknowledged perhaps is that the English novel used to be concerned mainly with the acquisition of husbands, often by women too spirited to settle for a dreary landed gentleman or too principled to settle for a rake. Marriages apparently still occur in the Western world as something other than pompous and expensive precursors to divorce, and I myself have seen some last beyond the return date on a toaster oven. But because modern marriages are based more on preference than on suitability, little of the anxiety of Pride and Prejudice or Portrait of a Lady has been transmitted through the ages -- or of The Makioka Sisters, Japan's answer to the marital works of Austen and James.

First published serially in the 1940s, Junichiro Tanizaki's novel is a contemporary world classic. In part this is due to its resemblance to a Western novel, and its direct and therefore easily translatable style. Unlike Kawabata and Lady Murasaki, writes translator Edward G. Seidensticker, "one seldom has to make a guess at what Tanizaki is talking about." Even the novel's characters are somewhat Westernized. They eat cheese and drink white wine. They often wear "foreign" dress and watch foreign movies. Their traditions of courtship are continually beset by Western liberality. Some characters have been to France or America, and in a peculiar way this foreign travel is both a status symbol and a cause for suspicion. Recent arrivals from the states, not surprisingly, are noted for their "Yankee coarseness" -- exotic all the same.

Introducing the Makioka sisters, from eldest to youngest: Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko. First two married, last two not. Traditionally, elder daughters were to be married before younger: thus Taeko must wait for Yukiko. But Yukiko is a difficult case. Though her family deems her "bright" and "lively", she becomes dim and dull in the presence of a potential husband, and she is indifferent when her family or one of its matchmakers announces the latest suitable boy. ( Miai, incidentally, is the Japanese word for a pre-marital meeting, ominously followed by an "investigation" and "negotiations".) Poor Yukiko also has a troublesome blemish on her face, and the family actually requires her to seek medical treatment to erase it; Tanizaki commits pages to Yukiko's damned spot.

Her family's high expectations make matters worse. One promising beau gets dumped for having an insane family member; and all the men are expected, bizarrely, to withstand a formidable amount of alcohol. "Good drinker" is seemingly as important as "good provider". Taeko has rather more romantic guidelines: the perfect man "must have a strong body, he must have a trade, and he must be willing to offer up his very life for her."

While the conveyor belt of men passes before Yukiko, her younger sister takes a more familiar path. Stringing along (and living off) an idle playboy, she falls for an upstart photographer because he offers up his very life for her during an epic (and factual) flood. When the photographer miserably dies, Taeko finds herself with child, but not his or the playboy's. Thus is the novel often called a "novel of decline" and Tanizaki compared to Chekhov.

The novel is remarkably silent on its historical context. Early on we learn of the "China Incident", an oblique reference to the 1937 outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. The novel ends in early 1941, well before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the only reference to strained Japanese-American relations is a show of concern for Mrs. Itani, the Makiokas' chief matchmaker, as she departs for a year stateside. The family does however count among its acquaintances some Germans, who upon their return to the Fatherland write glowingly of Hitler, fawningly of the Hitlerjugend, and hopefully of victory. The Makiokas also hear from England, where a White Russian friend claims to enjoy the German bombing raids -- or, rather, the dancing and drinking in the bomb shelters. The war scarcely alters the Makiokas' behavior, as though Japan's brutal conquest of Asia were another festival, although they do sometimes try to preach severity and limit their luxuries. The worst -- the very worst imaginable, one might say -- was yet to come.

Seidensticker rejects the notion that The Makioka Sisters is a "medical novel", as one critic asserted. But there is easily more sickness here than in your average tale of matrimony. The sisters often give each other Vitamin B injections in order to ward off beriberi. Sachiko miscarries and gets dysentery. Poor Taeko, well before bearing a dead baby, gets so sick that none of the doctors can figure out the cause: the diagnoses range from dysentery to chronic gonorrhea. Her photographer friend is felled by gangrene, even after one of his legs is amputated. Is this preoccupation with illness merely the hypochondria of the idle rich? Is it realism of a uniquely Japanese kind? (How often does Isabel Archer complain of stomach pains, for example?) Or is Tanizaki merely trying to say that sickness should be an element of plot because it is an element of life? The novel ends, as so many Japanese novels end, with superb anticlimax. Finally having found a mate, Yukiko's "diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo." This is running to the altar indeed.

But Tanizaki compensates for these dismally physiological descriptions with the Japanese eye for subtle beauty. The Makiokas view the cherry blossoms and the fireflies by night. Mt. Fuji makes a stately and obligatory appearance, as does the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. One is left with the impression that without beauty the Japanese would wither and perish, and one hopes that they can maintain their aesthetic addiction in the face of modernity's relentless production of useful but ugly things. As an especially luscious example, Taeko offers a lesson in how the geishas make an art of eating. "Once they have on their make-up," she says, "they have to keep their lips dry. The trick is to put food deep in the mouth without touching the lips. They practice when they are very young, on the drippiest things they can find." And here I thought it was meant to be erotic.

The novel is instructive on the differences between two of Japan's main cities, Tokyo and Osaka. The Makiokas are Osakans, and they speak the Osaka dialect in which the novel is written. To them, Osaka speech is less loud and fast than that of Tokyo, and no Makioka warms to the capital's cold, dry air and humorless commercialism. But Tokyoites condescend to Osakans, much as American Northerners condescend to Southerners. The novel's characters are constantly aware of which dialect is being used, and often switch as occasion requires. The rivalry also affects Yukiko's marriage prospects, as she cannot bear the thought of living in Tokyo.

The Makioka Sisters is a romance in the sense that, though the characters are shipwrecked countless times, they ultimately enter calm seas and drop anchor at friendly shores. Marriage triumphs again, and all (save Yukiko's stomach) is more or less settled. This may be another reason for the novel's popularity -- in Japan, for the Japanese would soon have more daunting problems to face than spinsterhood, and a new nihilism and confusion would come to mark their literary productions. The Makioka Sisters would stand in relation to Japan after the war much as Genji stood in relation to Japan before: as a document of a lost and irrevocable era.

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Review of Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, Everyman's Library, 1993.

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