28 November 2011

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Thoughts and Reflections
I was introduced to this novel through an online Japanese lit book group. Hungry for any recommendations, I quickly snatched any suggestions. Once I actually got my hands on the book, though, it turned out to be a bit different than I had anticipated. The book is about four sisters in Japan in the later 1930s and into the early years of WWII. The book itself was written in 1957. I had thought the book was somewhat more contemporary. However, the book did not fail to please.

The first thing to mention is that this novel is slow paced and packed with cultural information. However, I found this only to contribute to the development of the characters and setting, rather than drag with too much detail. The book is mostly set in Osaka and much information is given on the Osaka dialect and way of life. I gather that at this time, people from Osaka took their time in making decisions, never to be hurried along. I deeply appreciated the cultural information and steady development of both characters and setting.

Culturally speaking, the sisters at the centre of this novel are from a declining upper class family. Their manner is formal and every family issues is accompanied with a broader issues of social repercussions. At once, the sisters are very close and also so constrained by social order that they can hardly express their thoughts and feelings. I found this a strange dynamic throughout the novel, both interesting and frustrating.

Western influence of Japanese culture was also discussed throughout the novel. Clothing and fashion in particular were mentioned. The author seemed to indicate that the more a person dressed in western fashions, the more the also stepped away from Japanese manners. One of the Makioka sisters in particular, one who proudly wore the latest in western fashions, seemed to put more and more Japanese ideas of culture and manners behind her, adopting a cruder or freer way of being. In the novel, this is depicted as a kind of backsliding and corruption.

I know little of Japanese history. The one thing I thought I understood was how militarised Japanese culture was prior to WWII. However, in reading this novel, the military culture is hardly mentioned. The only reference is to the work of an emergency response brigade during a flood. The culture seems entirely removed from anything military and the upper classes at least seem focused primarily on leisure activities and personal standard of living. The lower classes are also not well referenced. I suspect this has something to do with how removed the upper classes were from the rest of life in Japan. The lower classes are only mentioned when one of the sisters considers marrying below her status, which causes all kinds of concern in the family, mainly on what the rest of society would think. At the same time, throughout the novel, the family and the times seems to become less and less formal, potentially due to scarcity from political tensions.

I read continually expecting the Pearl Harbour incident to occur and change everything for Japan. However, though the events of WWII linger in the background, the focus seems much more about life at the time, rather than on the war. I believe it was intentional of the author to end the novel on the brink of a major change in Japanese history. To have touched on the event itself, would have changed the focus of the novel entirely.

Another interesting dynamic in the novel is between a German family who had been neighbours to the Makiokas, but had returned to Germany. The information between Europe and Japan seemed somewhat broken, or perhaps the worlds had not yet realised what Hitler was doing. Through the relationship between the families, I wondered if the author was likening the China Incident (see below) and  Germany's actions in WWII. I am not certain about this. Perhaps the military culture of Japan was hinted at, but only very subtly.

The mood changes throughout the novel. At first, the mood is entirely lighthearted and completely without concern. As the novel progresses, the mood changes to a lingering, vague, and undefined concern. This concern is emphasised in the ending. At once, the ending provides closure and hope, and yet is also unsettling. It is a rather strange ending, an ending that I find myself mulling over and over.

All in all, I loved this book. It didn't take me long at all to be come caught up in the lives of the characters. I also loved the descriptive writing and cultural information. It only made me want to go to Japan more! :) I would certainly recommend this novel. Though it isn't high paced or action packed, it is a beautiful novel about a family and changing times.

Point of Interest
The China Incident (aka The Second Sino-Japanese War): Knowing little about Japanese history, I wasn't clear on what the China Incident was referring to. It was mentioned a number of times in the course of the novel, particularly regarding a national emergency, scarcity, rations, and a general taming of extravagance.  And so, the situation was this: In 1931 Imperial Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria and set up what has been called a "puppet government." From Manchuria, Japan expanded south. The main conflict occurred from 1937-1945, being triggered by the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. The bridge was the only link between Beijing and areas further south, which Japan invaded in 1937. Japan eventually surrendered in 1945, submitting to the Soviets and America after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

About the Author
Junichiro Tanizaki was born in 1886 in Tokyo to a wealthy merchant family. He went on to study in the Literature Department at Tokyo Imperial University, but was unable to pay tuition and dropped out in 1911. Nonetheless, he was first published in 1909, a one act play in a literary magazine. In 1922, being fascinated with western influence, he moved to Yokohama to live among Japan's largest expatriate community and embrace a more bohemian lifestyle. He began to gain attention after moving to Kyoto in 1923, when his writings began to refocus on Japanese art and culture. After WWII, he won a number of literary awards, launching him into literary prominence, becoming one of Japan's most popular contemporary writers. He died in 1965 of a heart attack.

Things I Loved About This Novel
1. The descriptions, particularly about the cherry blossoms in Spring.
2. The sisters and their lives. Much is said about Japan at the times through their lives. I also enjoyed the discussion of how things change.
3. The ending. I just can't get it out of my head.

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