The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Final Discussion

Hopefully, by now, all of us who set out to read this book have finished, for there are so many intriguing things to discuss. I am setting forth some questions that occurred to me as I read, to which I do not readily have a clear answer. I would relish an opinion from you should you care to respond to any, or all, of them listed below. Let us begin…

…(the family’s) habit of leaving everything to others led to a reputation of haughtiness. (p. 404)

Do you think the Makioka family is haughty? Or, is their concern for their sister’s future simply careful?

Do you think the sisters support, or hinder, one another?

What could the dark spot above Yukiko’s eye, which sometimes is evident and other times not, represent?

Is Yukiko’s reluctance to give direct answers to the marriage arrangements which have been made for her merely shyness? Or, is there another reason she is so reluctant to enter marriage?

To which of the sisters do you most closely identify?

I do not wish to leave my answers here. Instead, I would far rather read your opinions and respond to them in the comments section below. And, may I thank you each one, for the opportunity of reading this classic piece of literature together. I relished each page and comment.

9 thoughts on “The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Final Discussion”

    1. To me, he is portraying the culture of a once elite family during this time period. Perhaps more significantly (to me) he is exploring relationships and roles in families. I don’t have any sisters, but I do have a brother who resembles one of them!

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      1. Hmmm…well, Penguin Random House says, “Junichirō Tanizaki’s magisterial evocation of a proud Osaka family in decline during the years immediately before World War II is arguably the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century and a classic of international literature.” And, “Filled with vignettes of a vanishing way of life, The Makioka Sisters is a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family—and an entire society—sliding into the abyss of modernity. It possesses in abundance the keen social insight and unabashed sensuality that distinguish Tanizaki as a master novelist.”

        Now, does it approach the effect Anna Karenina has on me every time I read it? No. Did I enjoy The Makioka Sisters as a well written piece of classical Japanese literature? Yes. I felt it gave me a lot of insight into Japanese culture and its dynamics.

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    2. “arguably” – exactly! What’s the argument? “[G]reatest Japanese novel etc.” is a strong, strong claim, well beyond well-written, enjoyable and insightful.

      That last post I put up pretty much says where I’m going. I have my argument, at least.

      You’ve read way more Japanese novels than I have. Where do you think Makioka fits?

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      1. I found The Makioka Sisters very accessible; there was none of the modern day ambiguity, or magical realism, or slice of life kind of writing that I find in current novels (many of which I enjoyed, but left feeling baffled). I enjoyed The Makioka Sisters, and Tanizaki’s writing. I enjoyed getting a better glimpse into the Japanese culture. I take it no farther than that: a good book, which I enjoyed reading, but not one of my Favorite Books Ever. It was almost too straightforward for that.

        (I think Stephen’s comment below, and in earlier posts, offer a lot more insight than I can.)

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  1. Hi Meredith, Hi Everyone. So much to think about, so many juicy, telling details that showed up in Book III.

    Throughout reading the entire book, I was trying to think what Tanizaki meant by his title. In Japanese, it’s Sasame-yuki, a beautiful sounding word. The second part of it, yuki, means “snow”. It’s part of Yukiko’s name. “Yuki”, snow, and “ko”, child of, or girl. So I thought that might be indicating Yukiko was the focus of the book. But when you think about the full word Sasame-yuki which means “a fine snow; or, patchy snow, the kind that falls here and there” the beauty of Tanizaki’s choice starts to make sense. The four sisters are a lot like that, aren’t they? Pretty, evanescent, scattered here and there… then gone. What mark did they make on their day? That’s the question.

    Dramatic things happen to Yukiko and Taeko in Book III. But I think it’s really Sachiko’s Book. Since I’m a man I wasn’t thinking of the four sisters in terms of identification; I was thinking of each woman’s attractiveness, and so in that sense, I found each one held something very appealing.

    I am probably more attuned to Sachiko than the rest, with her more wordly ways: at one point we see her taste for literature (she has a book of stories by Anatole France at her side), seeing her read the newspapers for the ongoing war with China. I found it remarkable to discover that her father used to take her to a Kyoto teahouse with him, probably while he was chasing women. So no bourgeois secrecy there. At one point we see her wondering whether the family’s lack of worldliness is the cause of their decline. She’s generous, thoughtful, has a highly successful emotional relationship with her husband (I was most pleased to see this depicted) but throughout Book III we see her wondering about her inability to impose her will on others. So she’s liberal-minded in the best sense of the word (not the political sense, in other words), in that she respects the choices of others. About Taeko’s pregnancy, she wonders, “Had pure carelessness kept the others from noticing (Taeko’s sexually active relationship)?” But I think that’s what the book is saying. You CAN’T impose your will on others in these matters. Certainly not in *this* modern world.

    While Tanizaki wrote the book, the Japanese government actually formed “Luxury Committees” that mainly consisted of women groups monitoring the streets. If someone was spotted wearing jewelry, for instance, or showing ostentation in any way while the war was going on, they’d be shouted down on the streets, shamed. So the government was trying to impose its will. Tanizaki is probably saying, “that can’t be done.” Or shouldn’t be done. I like Sachiko’s liberal-mindedness. But that may have had a part in the family’s fall from social grace, too – she certainly wonders about that out loud.

    I had more tolerance for Taeko than you did, Meredith. I have a soft spot for rebels, free spirits, especially in women. In Chapter 26, we finally see it expressed out loud: Taeko holds contempt toward bourgeois morality, which she sees in her own family, which she sees in Kei-boy’s family. “Pampered young men who might even be a little stupid.” I was tolerant, that is, until I heard of her idiotic pregnancy. It was only then that I was like, “What the **** are you doing!?” Sachiko’s beauty as a person was best expressed in how she handled that impossible situation.

    About Yukiko’s spot over her eye. We are told she resembles her mother the most, with her mother’s “fragile, self-effacing Kyoto beauty.” I suspect Yukiko has a little of Taeko’s rebelliousness, too, which partially explains her being uncooperative about the marriage arrangements. But it’s probably she’s more like her mother. Only that self-effacing beauty no longer works anymore. And so Tanizaki chose to represent that by her developing this rash that constantly resurfaces. She who holds things in the most cannot: the sense of failure will appear in some other form, and so here it is, appearing over the eye of the one who judiciously observes all.

    Here’s my favorite passage. It shows Sachiko observing her mother’s death, noting her spiritual beauty: from Book III, Chapter 8. I think this says everything about the novel. That life is full of suffering and tragedy and failure, but without beauty we are nothing:

    “But at the sight of the quiet, utterly tranquil face of her mother going away as the morning dew, she quite forgot her fears, and felt as though something cool had swept over her, as though she were being drawn in by a vision and washed clean. It was sadness that she felt, but a sadness divorced from the personal, with a sort of musical pleasure in it, at the thought that something beautiful was leaving the earth. Though they had known that their mother would not live through the autumn, the grief would have been scarcely endurable, the darkness far more intense and persistent, had the dead face been less beautiful.”

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    1. Stephen, I think you should write a blog yourself! You offer keen insights and observations that are new to me, and give me a lot to think about.

      I never knew that about the title, and the snow. It’s so interesting to think of the four sisters not only scattered here and there, but then…gone.

      I liked your perspective from a male point of views and finding what you think of as “attractive.” I can only address that from a feminine perspective, of course, and that would be combined with my own personality. As an eldest (bossy) sister, who always tries to “toe the line”, I had little patience for Taeko. I judgmentally tend to accuse her for causing grief to her sisters and herself, which was not necessary if she had been better self-controlled. But, that is from my personal viewpoint, as I want to do right and be right and am possibly overly concerned for others’ happiness. Indeed, you can’t impose your will on someone else, as the book is saying on so many levels. Nor should I try.

      How interesting about the Luxury Committee! I had no idea about them.

      And, the spot over Yukiko’s eye is well explained by you: the self-effacing beauty no longer being effective, the judicious eye observing all. How perceptive and fascinating.

      Perhaps you have seen some dialogue between Tom and I above, and on his blog. This sentence of yours well explains some questions we discussed: “That life is full of suffering and tragedy and failure, but without beauty we are nothing.” I will be sure to point it out to him.

      Thank you so much for all the insight you have given to me concerning this novel, and the participation you have given in reading along. I really appreciate your input and effort, and I hope to “see you around” again as it suits you. If you ever do begin a blog, do let me know. (Unless I’m terribly mistaken and you have one already?)

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  2. Thank you Meredith, for your comments, for running the read-along and opening your space to everyone. It forced me to think more deeply about the book, and now I have an enriching experience I won’t forget. I especially want to thank you for promoting Japanese literature. And for sharing your personal asides (like this week with the crisis; your views on being “judgmental” and the like, something I think about often myself), which show Sachiko-like levels of thoughtfulness and intelligence. Be safe, and continue to do our old profession of teaching proud!

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