Like many of Jane Austen's iconic romances, Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters, an adaptation of Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's popular novel of the same name, also treats matrimony with gentle skepticism in spite of the fact that its young protagonists also wind up embracing the traditions they initially rebuff. The key difference between a narrative like Pride and Prejudice and The Makioka Sisters, however, is that there's no Mr. Darcy in The Makioka Sisters, nor are its heroines particularly shocked when he doesn't materialize for them.
The film is instead about finding happiness through courtship rituals that are shown to be as flawed as they are potentially useful. It's important to note that the eponymous siblings aren't being actively rushed into marriage by their mother as they are in Pride and Prejudice. Instead, the Makioka sisters police each other, making sure that the two younger, unwed sisters not only meet with potential suitors, but also only consider the ones their family approves of. Even Taeko (Yûko Kotegawa), the youngest of the four girls, defers to the wisdom of Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi), the eldest Makioka, who maintains that Taeko can only marry after middle child Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) finds a suitable match of her own. Even Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), the second eldest Makioka, has a vested interest in seeing both Taeko and Yukiko wed since the younger two sisters are living with her and her husband Teinosuke (Kôji Ishizaka) until they wed.
None of the Makiokas want to out-and-out reject the way of life that they've grown accustomed to—or the courtship rituals they dutifully observe for the sake of saving face with their family. In fact, Taeko never really seriously pursues either of the men that she has her eye on and Yukiko doesn't feel a strong emotional attachment to any of the suitors she's introduced to either. They go through the motions of complying with their elder sisters' wishes, though whether they're doing so out of a misplaced sense of duty or for the sake of finding their own happiness is a mystery.
The impenetrable complexity of Ichikawa's demure heroines is a huge part of their appeal as characters. They air their grievances with each other behind closed doors, but even after they do vent to each other in private, they usually either ignore or sublimate their anxieties. Take, for instance, the early scene where Tsuruko and Sachiko fall out with each other. Sachiko insists that Tsuruko isn't doing her best for the family by not letting her sisters manage their own dowries. Tsuruko politely but firmly denies this. Sachiko insists, “You are,” while Tsuruko curtly rebuffs her: “I'm not.” The two repeat this childish exchange verbatim until both women stop and smile at each other. In a matter of a few indelible seconds, Ichikawa cuts quickly back and forth between Tsuruko and Sachiko's faces while they exchange malicious and icy, then suddenly weirdly warm, then apologetic but broad grins. And this confrontation is the most heated quarrel in the film!
The Makioka Sisters's serene tone is symptomatic of the fact that the film isn't about the end of an era but rather the beginning of one. The film is set in 1938, near the beginning of the Shōwa era in Japan, a tempestuous period that ended in 1989 with Hirohito's death and included such major traumatic events as the Sino-Japanese War, WWII, and the Allied occupation of Japan. Within that context, it's important to note that Ichikawa, the director of such searing anti-war allegories as Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp, chose to treat The Makioka Sisters's pre-war melodrama not as a naïve prelude to darker times ahead, but as a bright period of impending change.
The Criterion Collection's DVD release of The Makioka Sisters uses a beautiful new digitally restored print of the film. The new HD transfer has virtually no signs of wear, so the film's vibrant colors really pop and Kon Ichikawa's spectacularly rich mise-en-scène looks as good as new. The film's monaural soundtrack is probably as good as it can be, featuring no audible hisses or pops.
Sadly, there are no extras here save for the film's original theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an in-depth analysis of the film by cultural historian Audie Bock. Since Ichikawa's film was acquired by Janus Films more than two decades ago, Criterion had plenty of time to either compile or commission new supplementary materials.
Though sorely lacking in supplementary materials, Criterion's DVD of The Makioka Sisters is still worth a look for its gloriously restored transfer of Ichikawa's wonderful melodrama.