There are two stories to be told in The Makioka Sisters. The route opted for is a family drama centered on four sisters: two already married, two in search of husbands appropriate to their family’s status. The story hidden in the background, alluded to but ultimately dropped, is the Makioka family’s slow demise from prosperity and prestige to poverty.
The novel on which the film is based tells both these stories. Ichikawa, however, decided to put almost sole emphasis on the sisters’ relationship. This makes Makioka Sisters an understated film: less about dramatic changes in fortune than it is about constant but never overwhelming family tensions.
The lost side of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel remains only in the fight that occurs throughout the film between familial responsibility and modernization. Taeko, the youngest of the four sisters, wants to become a doll-maker even though Tsuruko, the eldest sister, tells her that Makiokas are not working girls. She gets involved with men far below her family’s social stature. She talks back to her elders when they tell her these youthful desires will have to be put aside for the sake of the family. But Taeko is also the one who holds a grudge against Tatsuo, Tsuruko’s husband, for selling her father’s symbolically important but financially floundering business.
As a result, Taeko is probably the most dramatically interesting character in the film. She contrasts directly to the slightly older Yukiko, who is center of most of the film’s plot points as she meets and dismisses one suitor after another. Quiet and subdued, she is the least defined and most mysterious of the sisters. She occasionally flirts with what would be unacceptable actions for her family, and seems to follow along with the charade of finding a suitor while slyly subverting it. But these characteristics are only hinted at in momentary shots and glances. On the surface, Yukiko is just as much if not more committed to tradition than any of the sisters.
The film does not succeed on the back of any one character, though. After witnessing family spats, gossip, and tantrums, the pleasant surprise at the end of the film is how affecting the fate of the family is as a whole. Focusing on the breakdown of a family’s fortune would have been easily engaging, but the film Ichikawa chose to make is just as special for the modesty of its subject. Makioka Sisters is about four siblings trying to balance their unique aspirations and personalities with their responsibilities and love for each other as family. What counts ultimately is not the story Makioka Sisters chose not to tell, but this particular one it so skillfully unwraps for its audience.
Makioka Sisters is a deserving addition to the Criterion collection, but in terms of extras is far from that company’s best outing. Besides an interesting essay by Adie Bock, all we get is the film’s theatrical trailer. Thankfully, the movie needs little support.