I haven't read the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki on which Kon Ichikawa based The Makioka Sisters, but it seems to me that he has turned it into something like a Jane Austen novel made by Merchant Ivory.* The lushly melancholy scene at the beginning of the film in which the sisters walk through the blossoming cherry orchards in Kyoto, accompanied by an instrumental arrangement of Handel's aria "Ombra mai fu" from Serse, anticipates by two years the scenes in Tuscany in the Merchant Ivory version of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View (James Ivory, 1985) that are set to music like Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" and "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta." The Jane Austen parallel is even stronger: The plot consists of finding a husband for one of the sisters, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), whose marital prospects are endangered by the unconventional behavior of her younger sister, Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), just as Jane and Elizabeth Bennet's were by the scandalous behavior of their sister, Lydia, in Pride and Prejudice. And just as Austen's novels took place against the distant background of the Napoleonic wars, so do the Japanese military incursions into China -- the film begins in the spring of 1938 -- recede into the background of the domestic problems of the Makioka sisters. There are four Makioka sisters, the proud remnants of a family whose male line has died out, but the husbands of the two oldest sisters, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), have adopted the family name and are helping rebuild its fortunes. The sisters adhere to the family tradition that older sisters must marry before younger, which Taeko, the youngest, rebels against. As the film begins, she has already tried to elope with the irresponsible Okuhata (Yonedanji Katsura), and although the family thwarted that attempt, the story made it into the newspapers, which incorrectly reported Yukiko as the one who tried to elope. The family demands a retraction, but the newspaper only issues a correction. Yukiko is beautiful but shy, and attempts by a matchmaker to arrange a marriage for her have fallen through. There is a wonderful scene in which the family goes to meet a suitor, who turns out to be a terrible but funny bore. Ichikawa, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shinya Hidaka, develops and individualizes the characters of the sisters and their husbands well, and stays just this side of romantic sentimentality. The cinematography by Kiyoshi Hasegawa makes the most of the colorful settings -- spring cherry blossoms and autumn foliage -- and especially the beautiful costumes of Keiko Harada and Ikuko Murakami. Only occasionally does the note intrude that this is an ephemeral world, soon to be swept away by war.
*No, I know. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory never filmed a Jane Austen book. But those who did, like Ang Lee with Sense and Sensibility (1995), were surely working in the Merchant Ivory mode.