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Makioka Sisters, The (Blu-ray Review)

20 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
In Japanese with English subtitles.
Stars Keiko Kishi, Yoshiko Sakuma, Sayuri Yoshinaga, Yuko Kotegawa.

Director Kon Ichikawa’s splendid sprawler, adapted and modified from Junichiro Tanizaki’s popular novel, takes place in 1938 Osaka and Ashiya but only tangentially addresses Japan’s escalating state of war in that decade. Whenever there are fleeting references to the army over the course of 140 event-packed minutes, they usually have to do with how the military economy is contributing to tougher times and other concerns involving money, a subject never far from the minds of the movie’s title quartet.

Sibling rivalry knows no geographic storytelling boundaries, and it would take a pretty dour type (or maybe the least-enlightened red-meat macho man) not to get caught up in the roller coaster emotions of older sisters Tsuruko and Sacahiko, who both “married down” — though one wouldn’t say unhappily — after their merchant parents died. Or to those of younger Yukiko and Taeko, whose attempts to land husbands from something less than an ‘A’-list of contenders constitute much of the narrative. Some of the byzantine machinations here offer a picture-window view of a contrasting courtship culture, making what transpires in John Ford’s The Quiet Man look as uncluttered as the Elvis "Don’t Be Cruel" approach to marriage (“Let’s Walk Up to the Preacher/And Let Us Say ‘I Do’”) or maybe that scene in 1955’s Santa Fe Passage where John Payne simply ties his own horse to Faith Domergue’s in front of her teepee and proceeds inside to take what is his.

Eldest sister Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) married a banker (played by future film director Juzo Itami) who dissolved his wife’s family kimono business because it wasn’t keeping up with the times. Or at least this is what he says — and it may even be true. But his pushy take-charge manner is a contributing factor in the preference of the younger sisters to live with Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) and her kindly and cultured accountant/husband, who has a simmering crush on Yukiko — one Sachiko in some ways suspects.

Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) is getting past the easily marriageable age, and a lot of her suitors seem to be widowers in their 40s (it kind of makes you wonder what the milieu here does to wives). And there’s a further dilemma that’s not unlike the central hassle in, of all movies, Dean Martin’s Ten Thousand Bedrooms — the one where a society mandates that daughters marry in the chronological order of their birth. Years before, headstrong and relatively Westernized baby Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa) tried to elope with a no-count boyfriend because they were tired of waiting for third-sister Yukiko to get “taken.” It became a minor local scandal, the newspaper then gummed up the reportage, and it was Yukiko who got listed as being the one who strayed from the straight and narrow. Thus, a stigma.

Uncommonly short on bonus features for a Criterion release, Sisters does have a lovely new transfer befitting its classiness and a solid essay by Audie Bock, still one of first scholars you think of when it comes to any knowledgeable discussion of Japanese cinema. As she explains, Ichikawa (who was 68 when he made this) had extensive experience in making this kind of domestic epic – which, given my relative unfamiliarity with much of his output, didn’t keep me from being flabbergasted when I juxtaposed Sisters nearly 30 years ago with Ichikawa war-themed classics like The Burmese Harp and Fire on the Plains — to say nothing of the permanently invaluable Tokyo Olympiad, his nearly 3-hour documentary on the 1964 Olympics. Maybe the last film is the way women can drag those red-meat males into this movie (“Look, honey, if he was good enough to direct Bob Hayes and Don Schollander …”)

Sisters was a pleasure in 1983 (when it got to America pretty quickly) and a pleasure now, with the actress’s bountiful kimonos battling it out with continuing shots of cherry blossoms for the No. 1 visual component. (Both get showcased in the super Criterion jacket art). There’s also actress Kishi as my personal sis-pick. She’s easy on the eyes as well.

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