Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Ichikawa’s Makioka Sisters

The Makiokas have an established name and substantial holdings. Their place in society though, is increasingly uncertain. Yet, as acting matriarch, the eldest daughter Tsuruko fiercely guards their position in Kon Ichikawa’s classic adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel, The Makioka Sisters (trailer here), which begins a special eight day theatrical run this Friday at Film Forum, with a new 35mm print.

It is 1938. While Japan engages in militarist conquest, a cold war simmers between the Makioka sisters. As in so many superb Ozu films, the Sisters’ conflicts revolve around attempts to marry off the third (almost spinster) Makioka daughter. With their wealthy parents long deceased, Tsuruko and her salaryman husband Tatsuo (who took the prestigious Makioka name) control the Makioka family’s eroding but still considerable fortune and exercise veto power over Yukiko’s potential suitors. This also directly affects the youngest, Taeko, who cannot marry or draw on her inheritance until Yukiko is suitably married.

Further complicating the Makioka family dynamic, the youngest sisters pointedly moved in with the second sister Sachiko and her only too obliging husband after Tsuruko and Tatsuo unwittingly exacerbated a scandal involving Taeko and the dissolute son of a wealthy jeweler. As a result, Sachiko suspects Tsuruko’s objections to Yukiko’s parade of would-be husbands are based more out spite than genuine concern. Yet, perhaps Yukiko bears some responsibility for her fickleness as well.

Essentially, Makioka is Ichikawa’s version of an Ozu film, shrewdly observing the absurdities of social rituals, while noting the passing of a gentler time gone-by. Yet, Ichikawa’s sensibility is radically different, reveling in his characters’ dramatic cattiness. Where Ozu is simple and spare, Ichikawa is lush and even slightly lurid. In short, Makioka is good clean scandalous fun, as well as a masterwork of an underappreciated Japanese auteur.

As Tsuruko, Keiko Kishi (so seductive and spirited in Ozu’s Early Spring nearly thirty years earlier) is an exquisitely brittle grand dame with a surprisingly rich and nuanced arc of character development. Yûko Kotegawa also projects both grit and vulnerability as Taeko, the youngest. Yet, Sayuri Yoshinaga (who has recently played a series of selfless mothers for Yoji Yamada) provides the film’s greatest surprises as Yukiko, arguably the one Makioka sister best able to straddle the overlapping old and new eras.

Full of knowing looks and meaningful gestures, Makioka is a joy to get caught up in. Somehow, even the dated-sounding synth-heavy score seems to work. Featuring a pitch perfect cast assuredly helmed by Ichikawa, Makioka is five-star melodrama at its most satisfying. Highly recommended, it opens this Friday (5/6) in New York’s Film Forum. A still timely example of why so many world cineastes are captivated by Japanese cinema, those so moved by Makioka can support the Red Cross’ efforts in Japan here and the Japan Society’s relief fund here.