Sunday, May 6, 2012

#567: The Makioka Sisters

(Kon Ichikawa, 1983)

OK, here's my theory on why every movie made in the 80s is so obviously made it in the 80s - even movies like The Makioka Sisters (and the last film I watched, Danton) that are set in the past. 80s trends were almost entirely focused on the end of history and the beginning of the future. The decade in fashion, design, music, and visual arts was essentially a ten-year-long infomercial for the coming digital revolution. There's nothing that's so dated as commercials, because commercials are written in the future tense - you are watching what your life will be like when you have whatever is being advertised, not what it is like. The 80s were like that, too. We were supposed to be partying like it's 1999, going Back to the Future, and smashing the vision of 1984 with your new Apple computer. When the 80s stopped being the present and started being the past, nothing stood out like the outdated image of a future that never came to pass.

Depending on your viewpoint, The Makioka Sisters is either hobbled or irredeemably crippled by its decade. Kon Ichikawa wouldn't be the first director you would imagine being taken in by contemporary trends considering his rich history and his obvious affection for the source material of the film. But his musical choices, dominated by synths, and his lighting and cinematography decisions are questionable to even the viewer who is able to appreciate them for what they must have seemed at the time. Because it seems so out of place here, the film's potential as a true classic is somewhat lessened.

Beyond these elements, however, The Makioka Sisters is a beautiful and surprisingly engaging epic of Japanese domesticity. The way Ichikawa films his characters and their spaces is unique and decidedly non-Ozu, making for a fascinating visual experience when he doesn't slide into neon mode. The performances are reserved but extremely moving - I really love the way the relationships between the sisters are depicted. Japan, too, looks beautiful here, most obviously as the cherry blossoms bloom in Osaka. The combination of vivid characters and visuals makes the nearly two-and-half-hour running time fly by, an especially impressive feat considering the fact that nothing stereotypically thought of as conflict in cinema happens.

This is what might be most impressive about the film. Despite taking place just before the Second World War, The Makioka Sisters is a gentle film about the final moments of a lost time in Japanese history. There are only mild challenges for the sisters - one must relocate because of a husband's job, one's poor choice of lover leads to a casual payoff. Even the core conflict of the film centers around a simple challenge: the third sister must be married off before the fourth can do the same, but she is shy and picky, leading to difficulties for the family. This sounds decidedly uneventful, but the small moments in these women's lives become extremely engaging in Ichikawa's hands, and the connection to history manages to shine through without being forced. It's really a beautiful movie that, despite some time-related missteps, deserves the higher profile this release has given it.

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