The Makioka Sisters and the Use of Color

Note: Japanese names are presented with family name first and given name last. 

Watching The Makioka Sisters recently at the new SIFF Film Center, I realized one of the problems with cinema today: most films are in color, but they don’t use color.  Seeing this film (and the newly restored Ben Hur last week) made me realize how rarely color is utilized in modern filmmaking.  When I rented Black Narcissus a few weeks back, not only were the colors bold and beautiful, but they underscored the psychological tension at play in the film.  For The Makioka Sisters, I am not sure that the gorgeous colors serve any psychological function (other than to make every scene look stunning), but then, beauty is its own reason for existing.

The movie follows four sisters through one year in wartime Japan (1938, to be exact). The film begins with spring and cherry blossom viewings; it ends with winter and snow. Tsuroko (Kishi Keiko) is the patriarch of the family and took care of the other sisters after their mother died. Sachiko (Sakuma Yoshiko) is the second oldest and has been housing Yukiko (Yoshinaga Sayuri) and Taeko (Kotegawa Yūko) since an incident five years before, when Taeko tried to run off and get married.  According to tradition, she must wait until Yukiko is married, yet Yukiko is very finicky about her suitors.

The story is about the past in conflict with the present, as well as the petty squabbles and situations that occur in all families.  Taeko is rebellious and modern-thinking, wishing to earn money through a doll shop so that she doesn’t have to be dependent on her family or their fortune, which was earned making kimonos.  The men who have married into the Makioka family, Tatsuo (Itami Jūzō) and Teinosuke (Ishizaka Kōji), have to put up with their wives’ family traditions, as well.  At one point, Tatsuo’s promotion is in peril because Tsuruko, his wife, does not wish to move from Ōsaka to Tōkyō, away from the family’s hometown.  And then there is Yukiko, whose rejection of suitor after suitor frustrates Sachiko, especially since she thinks her husband shows too much fondness for her (and with good reason).

This is a low-key film, and anyone looking for a film where the characters or situations change radically from beginning to end should look elsewhere.  Even Ozu’s films hold more drama (and more weight) than what happens here.  Like the seasons, the changes that come about are gentle affairs, and yet changes do occur.  There are outbursts of anger, but they give way to quieter moments.  Most of the time, we merely watch and contemplate the characters on the screen as they go about their lives and rituals, season after season.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, what make this such a joyous film to watch are the gorgeous cinematography and colors.  I was glad, in fact, that the plot wasn’t too complex, as it allowed me to appreciate each beautiful scene.  Watching from a gloriously restored 35 mm print, it made my reading of Ebert’s latest blog entry on the death of celluloid that much sadder.  Ben Hur was a digital projection and, despite its breathtaking colors, betrayed the fact that it wasn’t 65 mm in its lack of clarity.  The Makioka Sisters, with its strangely appropriate 80s synthesized music (it came out in 1983), betrayed its 35 mm quality in every shot, from cherry blossoms to kimonos, from the actors faces to leaves on the trees, from snow to sunlight.  Ichikawa Kon, the director, and Hasegawa Kiyoshi, the cinematographer, should be commended for making such a beautiful, breathtaking film, which was adapted from the novel by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (in Japan, the novel and film are known as Sasameyuki, or Fine Snow).  I can think of few films I would have rather seen on a rainy Wednesday evening.

The Makioka Sisters plays tonight at 7:15 at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle Center.


Author: Greg Salvatore

Writer. Voice Actor. Humanist. Feminist.

4 thoughts on “The Makioka Sisters and the Use of Color”

  1. Thanks for this Greg. Your review, of course, made me very much want to watch this film. Unfortunately, my Netflix account is a “watch instantly” so I’ll have to find another way to see it. Thanks anyway. Your insight about things Japanese helped create a “must see” for me nevertheless.

    1. Criterion released it on Blu-ray and DVD in June, so feel free to splurge and buy it on one of those formats. 😉 I would highly recommend Blu-ray, but the restoration is sure to be fine on DVD, as well. Conversely, you might be able to borrow it from the library. And, if all else fails, the book is pretty easy to find. 🙂

  2. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I am realizing how much we do indeed take colour for granted! It seems to have turned into an asset that is rarely used to full advantage.

    That sounds like a good movie and one I might like! I tend to go for the contemplative films and books where “nothing” happens. 🙂

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