The Makioka Sisters: The Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray]
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This lyrical adaptation of the beloved Japanese novel by Junichiro Tanizaki was a late-career triumph for world-class director Kon Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain). Revolving around the changing of the seasons, The Makioka Sisters (Sasame-yuki) follows the lives of four sisters who have taken on their family’s kimono manufacturing business, over the course of a number of years leading up to the Pacific War. The two oldest have been married for some time, but according to tradition, the rebellious youngest sister cannot wed until the third, conservative and terribly shy, finds a husband. This graceful study of a family at a turning point in history is a poignant evocation of changing times and fading customs, shot in rich, vivid colors.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack • Original theatrical trailer • New and improved English subtitle translation • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Audie Bock
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To be fair, I can understand why many people would like - or even love - this movie. It's a beautifully photographed film, and it has the aura of seriousness. But I couldn't help feeling that it's simply too long (clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes!), too melodramatic, and too superficial. Indeed, Donald Richie - the most influential critic of Japanese film to emerge from the West - has written off this film as a lame excuse to showcase pretty kimonos and "poetic" shots of cherry blossoms. While I don't always agree with Richie, I think he's spot on in this case.
Another major problem with the film is that the characters are thinly drawn and almost aggressively unlikeable (for example, witness how both of the elder Makioka sisters cruelly bully their servants). The oldest sister, played by the normally great actress Keiko Kishi, starts out shrewish and makes a totally unexplained conversion to being nice. The second-oldest sister, meanwhile, exists only to express shock at what her siblings are doing; I lost count of the number of times she gasps and exclaims "eeeeeh?!" in reaction to almost every little thing that happens around her. As for the youngest sister, I learned nothing about her except that she's a hellraiser (by 1930s Japanese standards) who likes hooking up with lower-class men. Her relationships with these men are never really explored, so they fall flat.
To matters even worse, the film has a very tacky, 1980s synthesizer score, and it occasionally lapses into music video territory, with arty-farty shots of falling petals or extreme closeups of kimonos abruptly jammed into the action. These strange touches severely undermine the movie's ambition to be a realistic domestic drama.
As for the Criterion Collection's DVD - it has a very attractive print but no notable special features, which is yet another reason to pass on this one. As an alternative to watching this, I would recommend almost any movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu, who had a unique gift for crafting beautiful domestic dramas. "The Makioka Sisters," by contrast, is more like soap opera than art.
The four sisters, who live together in the same household, appear to be about 15 years apart in age from the youngest to the oldest with the youngest being outspoken and rebellious while the oldest is very traditional and old-fashioned. The film covers developments in each of their lives as well the relationship between them.
It does have the traits of a Jane Austin novel, a little bit like a soap opera and a typical Japanese family drama with a traditional and well-mannered flavor that reminds me of Ozu. The idea of a costume drama also comes to mind. If you are a student of Japan and Japanese film it's an important addition to your collection. Criterion has done a great job, as usual.