The Makioka Sisters (Blu-ray)
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 140 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: June 14, 2011
Review Date: June 5, 2011
Adapting one of the great Japanese historical novels for the screen was no easier for director Kon Ichikawa than adapting Gone With the Wind was for David Selznick and his cadre of directors. Age seventy at the time of the film’s release and with the death of his wife (whom he had relied on for collaboration on many of the great films he had made) only two years before, the director’s sure hand is everywhere on the project, but it’s a very measured, deliberately controlled film, beautiful to look at and with some heartrending performances but also a touch slow and pedantic. Likely Japanese audiences of the time reveled in the intricate detail and accurate depiction of lives lived several generations previous, but for modern international audiences, its nuances and the film syntax with which they’re being displayed seem just a bit too distant for instant access. It's a film whose effectiveness improves with each new viewing.
The two youngest Makioka sisters are both looking for husbands in the Kyoto of 1938 and are being aided in their quests by their two older sisters. Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) is the quieter, more delicate and reserved sister whose many arranged meetings with men have all led to nothing. The youngest sister Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa) is a firebrand, not waiting for a set-up arranged by oldest sister Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) or the married sister she lives with, Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), and has been involved with two men she found for herself, a playboy who’s squandered all the money his family gave him to get started and a local photographer. At one point, Taeko had even eloped with the playboy but changed her mind at the last minute when the newspaper printed that it was her sister who had run away with him. Now, the family is faced not only with the notoriety of her botched elopement but also another problem: Tsuruko’s husband Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka) has been offered a post in Tokyo which will uproot the family and tear the sisters apart for the first time in their lives.
The basic action of the film covers four seasons – spring through winter – of 1938 (though we do get some black and white flashbacks to the elopement which happened five years earlier), and while director Kon Itchikawa paints the seasons with the delicate air of the craftsman that he always has been, we get only glimmers of the importance of the passing months in the lives of the characters. Even with the film’s extended running time, not all of the characters receive the amount of screen time necessary to firmly establish the depths of emotion that would make the film more compelling. Primarily hurt by a lack of focus is the unspoken bond of love between the shy Yukiko and her sister Sachiko’s husband Tatsuo (Juzo Itami). There seems to be so much there that hasn’t been explored, and it’s a relationship we’d be more interested in rather than continuing with the steady sea of men whom the various family members try to set her up with, as amusing as some of those misfires are. Ichikawa’s artistic aims are beautifully achieved with painterly attention to vistas filled with expansive seas, flowering tree groves, and waterfalls and even one breathtaking moment where Yukiko’s dozens of kimonos are hung out for our inspection, but the material he’s dealing with has such restricted emotion that he seems constrained somewhat, unable to provide the emotional jolts he brought to such earlier pictures as Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp.
Due to the nature of the character she’s playing, Yuko Kotegawa earns the lion’s share of attention as the feisty Taeko. Fun-loving and much freer to act and feel that her more buttoned-up sisters, the character provides the actress with the film’s most outgoing and appealing character. Juzo Itami’s easy-going and kindly Tatsuo walks the fine line between his devotion to his wife and his ardor for his sister-in-law without ever making a wrong move so that his final scene is achingly poignant. Yoshiko Sakuma has many effective moments as the sister who feels the weight of family responsibility on her shoulders and is constantly on guard to handle the small crises which seem to crop up regularly. Sayuri Yoshinaga’s quiet Yukiko is the film’s most enigmatic creation. The actress never lowers her guard to let us in to her real feelings, her mask a perfect defense against the many rejections she faces throughout.
The film is presented at its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Just as the emotions are under firm control through much of the film, so too are the film’s video qualities. Color seems controlled and deliberately nuanced so the variously colored kimonos, natural surroundings, even red lips of the ladies never get out of hand. Clarity is good, but sharpness is somewhat contained and not allowed to get razor-edged at any time. Flesh tones are natural and appealing. Black levels are adequate but no more than that. The white subtitles are quite legible and will present no problems for the viewer. The film has been divided into 29 chapters.
The PCM (2.3 Mbps) 1.0 sound mix is very typical for a soundtrack of its era. The dialogue, sound effects, and synthesized music have been combined in the mono track with expert balance. While there is no hiss, flutter, crackle, or hum to distract the listener, you’ll note a lack of deep bass in the recording.
The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p and runs 1 ¾ minutes.
The enclosed 18-page booklet contains the cast and crew lists, some exquisite stills (which seem just a bit sharper and more colorful than the Blu-ray transfer), and an appreciation of the film and its skillful adaptation from the book by film author Audie Bock.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Kon Ichikawa brings a delicate and overly studied narrative flow of a novel to the screen in The Makioka Sisters, a film distinguished by skillful ensemble playing and a painterly look that’s quite exquisite. Though there is a shocking lack of bonus features for a new Criterion release (not even a Donald Richie video critique of a Japanese classic?), the Blu-ray likely won’t disappoint fans of the film and its renowned director.