Celebrating its fiftieth year in film, Toho, the Japanese film company behind countless Akira Kurosawa films, as well as the 'Godzilla' features, a live action 'Lupin III' film, and, more recently, a handful of anime epics (like 'Steamboy,' 'Metropolis,' or 'Ponyo'), produced Kon Ichikawa's adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki's novel The Makioka Sisters (also known as Fine Snow or Sasame-yuki). This would be the third, and, as of now, last film iteration of the story, while five made for television features of the property have also been produced.
'The Makioka Sisters' is a fantastic look at one family in Osaka, Japan, starting in 1938, and onwards through the burgeoning war. With four very different sisters, two with husbands who took on the family name, the household is not one of disarray, despite the obvious generational differences. Rather, it is one of tradition and pride, as the somewhat upper class family works to maintain their place in society after their deceased father's business has been sold to keep them afloat. Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi), the eldest, takes on the duty of maintaining the family prestige, the honor involved with the Makioka name, while her husband, Tatsuo (Juzo Itami), toils under a low glass ceiling at his place of work, while greater opportunity has presented itself if the family were to relocate away from their large home. Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), the second oldest, takes on some of the traditional duties that would have been Tsuruko's, and plays her part when necessary, while her husband Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka) manages the varying elements of the family, righting wrongs and fixing what could become dishonorable actions. Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) is an unmarried, shy Makioka, who repeatedly rejects arranged marriages for the tiniest of reasons, while the youngest sister Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa) is the least traditional of the clan, who has created more than her share of trouble for the family name with her rash actions and behavior.
The plot of the film really is non-existent. There is no conflict, no running theme or atmosphere. Rather, we follow the four women, their husbands and potential suitors, through their ups and downs, as they must adapt to a changing world around them, dropping some traditions while holding strongly, somewhat stubbornly to others. The seasons and years pass, and we see the evolution of the country through their experiences, sometimes in black and white flashback.
At 140 minutes, 'The Makioka Sisters' isn't a quick and easy watch. Far from it. The film moves at a deliberately slow, excessively methodical pace, which may seem laborious to some viewers. However, those patient enough to appreciate the attention to detail and dragging narrative are treated to a wonderfully evolving few years as change doesn't just fall in anyone's lap. We see the struggles to accept new customs, the traditions that eventually must be broken, the shock at how the world is changing around the wealthy family that doesn't seem to know its own worth. The stability of the eldest sisters, the routine they live, is countered fantastically by the lack of consistency found in the lifestyles of the younger duo, helping create an experience that doesn't grow tiresome, as the change in season and culture is also met by the way the family must accept the ways of Taeko, tradition be damned. With tradition running constant in a manner similar to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, the inability of Yukiko to wed puts Taeko in the no-win situation, where her family frowns upon her every move. Yet, there's no disdain towards her impossible to please single sister. The film permeates with love between the family that seems impossible to replicate.
'The Makioka Sisters' doesn't feel much like one is watching a film, and as the story rolls on, it becomes nigh impossible to recognize it for its acting, since it draws the viewer so deeply in you believe the characters as nothing but real, their trials and tribulations fact rather than fiction. It's an amazingly engrossing experience, mundane as it may be, that must be appreciated for its elaborate simplicity. A perfect title for the prestigious Criterion Collection's library, watching this film is as close as one can get to living in the era, experiencing the complicated expectations of family and culture of traditional Japan in a time of massive change.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Criterion brings 'The Makioka Sisters' to Blu-ray day and date with the DVD, under spine number 567, on a Region A locked BD50 disc. This release may be the first Criterion Blu-ray title to feature a 29.99 MSRP, rather than 39.99 or above (as 'The 400 Blows' at 29.99 was a misprint in the establishing days of the studio on the format), due to a somewhat barebones release. The trademark booklet featuring photos and essays is also included.
Criterion's AVC MPEG-4 1080p encode for 'The Makioka Sisters' is a very fine piece of work, presenting the film in a very natural manner with only the lightest tinkering, which is not apparent to the naked eye.
There are some tiny dirt blips here and there, but this flick is very clean, with perfectly intact grain levels. Any DNR used in the restoration is masterfully done, so as to not draw the eye on weird freezes or blurs or smudges. Colors are wonderfully clear and natural, subdued when necessary for effect, making this an absolutely gorgeous film. Clarity in clothing patterns is top notch, and there isn't even a hint of aliasing or pulsing in even the finest checkered or plaid patterns.
I did have some beef with the video early, as skin tones exhibited random blue noise, and then at other times some strange sharp pink, but not too long into the flick, skin tones normalize, and there isn't much to dislike about the video. A solid effort, to be sure.
"The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation."
And that's all well and good, but, frankly, I don't give a damn. 'The Makioka Sisters' doesn't sound all that wonderful on Blu-ray. Far from it, even. I don't mind mono tracks (with this one being Japanese Linear PCM 1.0) one bit, as classic films have classic audio setups, but I do ask for a bit more than this. The light static was only slightly annoying. The blaring, horribly tinny score, though, there is no forgiving, and the general softness of it all, save for the random harsh blares is frustrating. I have never heard music sound this damn awful on Blu-ray. Sure, some moments are more natural, but it can get extremely grating and impossible to not notice. Ambient effects are minimal throughout the film, but they can sparsely spice up a scene. Dialogue has no problems with discernability over any other element, and this film, which is a pure talky, gets all of the necessary info out clearly, as I have no complaints about spoken word. I just wish there was an option for no music, since it is horribly grating and flat out annoying here.
The lone feature on this release is a two minute HD Trailer for the film. The booklet is a nice add-in, and all, but really, this release, she be barebones.
'The Makioka Sisters' isn't a film that just anyone can pick up and enjoy. This period piece adaptation has a very slow pace, and nothing but character development. There's nothing shocking, no twists, just a leisurely stroll through the telling of this tale. Criterion's Blu-ray release has solid video, but pretty weak, almost shameful audio, and no extras. By normal standards, this may be one of their lesser titles, but with a reduced MSRP, this disc may be a great pick up, especially at the Barnes & Noble sales that happen a few times a year.