Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Strange Decadent Beauty of The Makioka Sisters & the Elegant Old World Way the Japanese Do Melodrama

The natural beauty of the blossoming rain-dabbled cherry blossoms.  The old world elegance of brightly coloured and delicately designed kimonos.  The deep-hued wooden interiors of the Osaka homes.  The cheaply lit bars and opulent restaurants.  The eponymous snow-capped peaks in the not so far off distance.  The knowing, cunning look of each of the four titled sisters as they slowly and intricately weave their way through the rapidly changing world around them.  The innocent yet passionate stares of one husband for his sister-in-law and the unsurprised, revealing look of the sister-in-law as she takes in these obvious glances.  The traditions and rituals of arranged marriages.  The hissing finality of the train whistles.  These are the images, the sounds, the moods and transactions of Kon Ichikawa's 1983 masterpiece The Makioka Sisters.

Ichikawa's film, the third and by far most famous adaptation of the 1948 novel, is a perfect example of a mood piece.  With stares and words that mean more than what meets the eyes and ears, every nuance, every backward glance, every sideways motion give way to a multitude of emotional theories.  And though the film is of course reminiscent of such classic Japanese filmmakers as Ozu and Naruse, it is the 1950's melodrama that comes to mind more oft than not while watching this gorgeous motion picture.  With allusions to Sirk's Written on the Wind and Quine's Strangers When We Meet (on purpose or not - and it is more likely the latter) Ichikawa breathes vibrant life into his WWII set period piece. But then this is not a movie about the war (mentions of the tragedies of such are done in only peripheral moments) but about family and duty and tradition.  A film rife for the melodramatic touch it gets.

The Makioka Sisters is the story of four sisters from a once prominent Osaka family who, thanks to the great depression, have now fallen on harder times.  Now granted, these harder times, though forcing them to sell the family business, are still times of prominence when compared to the abject poverty that hit Japan in the 1930's and became even worse after the war.  We still see a family of ways and means but a family that does not know how to cope with being what they have become.  But still, Ichikawa, a director who showed the horrors of this war torn era in The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, never delves into the squalor that the youngest sister subjects herself too in order to be free of the restrictive past.  Perhaps in the day and age of 1980's Japan, when the boom of their economy was hitting astronomical levels, Ichikawa was afraid audiences would not take to being reminded of their sometimes ugly past.  Instead, the director, even with the inherent sadness, gives us just the beauty of the past.

As far as the social structure of the family goes, it is headed by the eldest sister and her husband (the husbands in the story are what one would call adoptive husbands as they came from lower stations in life and took their wives' family name) who do their best to keep their once good name out of the muck.  She is run afoul by the third sister's refusal to marry any of the train of prospective husbands brought in front of her and the youngest sister's wild ways (smoking, adopting western style of dress, working for a living, sleeping around), as well as the second sister's attempt at usurping control of the family (not for any nefarious soap opera reasons, but for what she thinks is the good of her sisters).  The story, with all of its traditions and rituals, plays out like an Ozu film, though without Ozu's sense of subtle style, but there is more than just this going on here.

As I said before, and in what is essentially the whole point of this piece, all of this, even in the traditional, melodic feel of old world Japan and the classic Japanese cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi, is pure 1950's Sirkian melodrama.  The way Ichikawa lights his film, the movement of his camera, the natural beauty juxtaposed with the inner turmoil of his characters is all Sirk.  Now I am not saying Ichikawa's film was necessarily influenced by films such as Written on the Wind or A Time To Live and a Time to Die, or for that matter the works of Nick Ray or Richard Quine or even Satyajit Ray, which also bear resemblance here (Ichikawa, who started as an animator, considered himself a cartoonist at heart and Chaplin and Disney were his biggest influences) but the feel of the film still conjures up memories of this bold, oft-maligned cinema of the past.  

Then again, much of this also conjures up the cinema of the mostly forgotten fellow Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita and his groundbreaking work on such films as The Ballad of Narayama and The River Fuefuki.  Of course with Kinoshita being the closest thing classic Japanese cinema has to a Douglas Sirk, perhaps this is all mere happenstance.  Whatever the case, The Makioka Sisters is a true masterpiece of cinema and deserves to be recognized as such.  Its recent restoration (it made a repertory round last Summer) and release as part of the ever growing Criterion Collection (a beautiful transfer indeed) will hopefully make this happen.


Aubyn said...

I've heard so much about this film and your post has intrigued me to no end. I wish I could go watch it this very minute.

Kevyn Knox said...

I did not expect to enjoy it as well as I did.

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