Summary

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The Makioka Sisters is the saga of a proud, refined Japanese family that declines in fortune. The novel re-creates the sumptuous and pleasure-filled upper-class life of Osaka—the commercial center of Japan—just before and during World War II. Jun’ichir Tanizaki carefully creates a detailed portrait of four once-rich and haughty sisters, whose lives encompass a wide area of joys and sorrows, and he provides simultaneously a satirically accurate description of the whims and fancies of a vanished era.

The novel opens with a marriage prospect for the third sister, Yukiko, and ends with preparations and emblems for this sister’s ultimate wedding years later. Between these rituals lies a sequence of passions that fuse nostalgia and bitterness, tragedy and comedy. The Makioka sisters, although still proud and refined, have lost status in their society, for the luxury of their father’s last years and the dignity of ancestral reputation have been long reduced by extravagance and bad management of the family business. Consequently, it is now difficult to find acceptable suitors for Yukiko—especially as she is in the habit of rejecting men, has a blemish over her left eye, and is maligned in the local press for a scandal which really concerned Taeko, the youngest, most capricious sister.

The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, there is little dramatic incident beyond marriage proposals and negotiations, Sachiko’s attack of jaundice, the nervous prostration of Etsuko, a cherry blossom viewing, and Yukiko’s return to Tsuruko’s control in Tokyo. The second part opens a year later, and the action increases, particularly with the harrowing experience of a terrible flood, from which Etsuko and Taeko are miraculously saved. The third section begins with yet another marriage proposal for Yukiko who, at thirty-three, is still a cause of anxiety for her two eldest sisters. The Makiokas no longer enter a marriage negotiation with the former feeling of social superiority, and, indeed, for the first time in their history fail to satisfy the prospective groom’s family with their credentials. Although old rituals continue—a firefly hunt, visits in spring to Nara, commemorative services for their dead parents—family honor slides. Tsuruko threatens to expel Taeko from the family unless she returns to the senior house in Tokyo. Taeko, however, earns sympathy rather than reproof when she falls gravely ill and loses her youthful appearance. She looks like a fallen woman—the very thing her detractors always considered her to be—and she suffers from nightmares about deceased Itakura.

Human destiny, the Makiokas learn, is unpredictable—the very lesson that world events repeat. The Stolzes, former neighbors, have returned to Nazi Germany, where they cultivate an unrealistic optimism for the future. Taeko recovers from her illness to inherit more trouble. Yukiko, even in her wedding preparations, shows signs of having a nervous disorder. Nothing can be entirely harmonious or beautiful for the once-enviable Makioka sisters.

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