The Makioka Sisters

Title: The Makioka Sisters
Japanese Title: 細雪 (Sasameyuki)
Author: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (谷崎潤一郎)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1948 (Japan); 1957 (America)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 530

In his introduction to Shimazaki Tōson’s The Broken Commandment (破壊), translator Kenneth Strong lists Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters as one of the five most famous works of Japanese literature in the West (along with Kawabata’s Snow Country, Sōseki’s Kokoro, Abe’s Woman of the Dunes, and Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Strong wrote this essay in 1972, and, since then, I would say that Naomi has replaced The Makioka Sisters as the Tanizaki text that is most frequently taught. The formation of national identity in the pre-war period is a hot topic in Japan-focused scholarship these days, especially when the evils of modernity are represented by a sexy young woman. Regardless, The Makioka Sisters is still an excellent novel.

As the English title suggests, the novel is about four sisters who live in a suburb of Osaka. Tsuruko and Sachiko, the two older sisters, are married, but the two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are not, and therein lies the main conflict of the novel. Eldest sister Tsuruko moves to Tokyo after her husband gets transferred, so the task of marrying off third sister Yukiko falls to second sister Sachiko and her (Tanizaki stand-in) husband Teinosuke, who remain in Osaka. The problem is that they can’t find a suitable husband for the shy traditional beauty, who has entered her thirties under the shadow of rebellious youngest sister Taeko, who cares nothing for the family’s reputation.

After Tsuruko and her family move to Tokyo, they all but disappear from the story, which is fine, since the author has more than enough material to work with concerning the three sisters who stay behind. Each of the three is an interesting and fully developed personality in her own right, and they have plenty of floods, illnesses, and secret love affairs to keep them busy. Taeko especially falls into the role of Tanizaki’s trademark femme fatale, with her modern clothing, flirtatious attitude, lies, ridiculous expenditures, and so on. Although the reader can’t help but share her sisters’ attitude of frustration towards her, Taeko adds spice to the novel and generally drives the plot forward.

Not that the novel has much of a plot. Nothing grand happens, no one important dies, no major secrets are revealed, and all conflicts are eventually resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Instead of focusing on dramatic action, Tanizaki has instead created a world within his novel and invited the reader to visit it for five hundred pages. Although I wasn’t able to read the book for long stretches at a time, I was happy with its length and would have even been happy if it were longer. Even though the story takes place during the opening years of the Pacific War, the characters occupy a comfortable environment rich with detail, culture, and tradition. In other words, this is a novel not to be enjoyed for its forward impetus but rather for its description of a family outing to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms. Any fan of traditional Japanese culture, and especially the tension between tradition and the modern lifestyle, should enjoy this novel – there’s a reason why an earlier generation of Japan scholars considered The Makioka Sisters to be one the defining works of modern Japanese literature.

Kokoro

Kokoro

Title: Kokoro
Japanese Title: こゝろ
Author: Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石)
Translator: Edwin McClellan
Publication Year: 1957 (America); 1914 (Japan)
Publisher: Regency Publishing
Pages: 248

When I first started studying Japanese literature in college, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro was one of the first modern novels I read. I remember being disappointed and a bit confused by it, however. Sōseki is one of the major figures in the Japanese literary canon, if not in fact the major figure. His early novel Botchan (坊っちゃん, 1905, recently translated by Joel Cohn) has been required reading for generations of Japanese schoolchildren, and his portrait used to grace the one thousand yen bill. A quick search on Google will turn up numerous syllabi for courses in Japanese literature that all begin with Kokoro. In short, this novel is kind of a big deal.

So why then, when I first read it, was I so disappointed? In short, I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this it?” Kokoro contains few lyrical passages, few descriptions of landscape, season, architecture, interior, or dress. Perhaps as a result, there is also no overt or sustained system of imagery. No light, no sound, no water, no heat. Of course I am exaggerating a bit (there are two memorable passages that occur in a tree nursery and by the seashore, respectively), but this novel boasts none of the opulent attention to detail that, in my mind at least, characterizes a great deal of Japanese literature.

There is also very little plot. The novel is divided into three sections. The first, “Sensei and I,” details the meeting and deepening friendship between an unnamed narrator (“Watakushi”) and an older man who he calls “Sensei.” In the second section, “My Parents and I,” the narrator has graduated from college in Tokyo and returns to his home in the countryside to be with his dying father. The third section, “Sensei and His Testament,” consists of a letter that Sensei has sent the protagonist explaining his past, his melancholy, and his decision to commit suicide after the death of the Meiji emperor. Kokoro ends with the conclusion of Sensei’s letter, and the reader is given no indication as to whether the narrator of the first two sections is able to make it to Tokyo in time to save Sensei or whether his father dies during his absence.

Although every single character in the novel is otherwise fully fleshed out as a believable human being, none of them seem to reflect archetypes familiar to a Western reader. In fact, Kokoro offers very little in terms of allusions and therefore might tend to come off as a bit shallow and one dimensional. Sure, there are some topical references to the death of the Meiji Emperor and the death of General Nogi, who committed suicide to “follow his master” out of an anachronistic sense of honor, but I wonder how deeply the reader is supposed to consider these references. The theme of the passing of an age is intriguing, but far from fully developed in the novel.

So why this novel one of the great classics of Japanese literature? Although I was frustrated the first time I read it, I think I am finally beginning to understand its appeal. Much of the literary writing in the Meiji period (1868-1912), such as Tayama Katai’s “The Quilt” (布団, 1907) and Shimazaki Tōson’s Broken Commandment (破壊, 1906), was concerned with the literary philosophy of Naturalism, which in Japan took the form of an attempt to realistically depict the psychology of a modern individual. The narrative style of such works was often stilted and noticeably stylized (despite their claims of realism). To me, Kokoro is an amazing work in that the narrative style actually feels quite “natural” in a Western way; at no point is the reader made aware of the fact that he or she is reading a novel. In other words, Sōseki was able to take the Japanese language and the concept of Japanese literature and do with them something that no one had done before.

What will appeal to the reader, then, are passages that a first time reader (such as myself in college) might not notice simply because they are so natural. When the narrator returns to his parents’ home, for example, he remarks that coming home from school is nice for the first week or two, but then the novelty wears off both for the student, who misses his friends, and for the parents, who begin to nag him. I couldn’t help smiling a bit when I read this. Moreover, the tragic past revealed by Sensei is his letter is believable but also, perhaps because it is so low-key, quite heart-wrenching. I feel that takes a master writer to avoid melodrama when working with such material, and Sōseki handles his subject matter beautifully.

All in all, Kokoro is worth reading not merely because it is a monument of Japanese literature but because of the sheer quality of the writing (and McClellan’s excellent translation). In any case, I found it very satisfying, and I’m glad I re-read it.