The beginning of Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters may be the most beautiful twenty minutes of film to be seen: the beauty of the faces, of the kimonos, and, surmounting all, the passage into the humanless sequence of cherry blossoms, into which is introduced a modern scoring of Ombra mai fù that begins Handel’s Serse, the king Xerxes in contemplation. How lovely is the correlation; how breath-taking the cinematic conception.
Ombra mai fù
cara ed amabile,
Never was a shade
of any plant
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.
The opera provides further parallels. It revolves around the search to bring about a long-desired marriage that honours the stature of the monarch; includes the banishment of a sibling; and has its four of its six principal parts sung by sopranos and a contralto. Part of the opera is set at the Dardanelles, which bridges the different worlds of Asia and Europe. Given the attention to detail and integration that the director, who studied music, brings to this film, it would be difficult to consider these unstated correlations accidental.
The film, from 1983, is based on Junichiro Tanazaki’s novel. It is set in the late 1930s and into the time of the Second World War. The locale is primarily the Kansai area of Japan, which includes Osaka and Kobe. The expressiveness and often sheer beauty of the Japanese language used are inescapable even to the ear of one who does not know, to one’s loss, that language.
It is aesthetic arrogance to think that one can take in and grasp fully a work of art—more importantly, a living human being—on the basis of one viewing, one interaction. Ichikawa’s film underscores that the pursuit of beauty—not beauty in its immediate, pleasing sense, but the beauty of existence, even more, of being—is the worthwhile pursuit of art, and hence, of human life.
There is a bond amongst the four sisters, and it is one that is not solely one of being siblings. Family relationships fall apart, atrophy, or lose meaning just as frequently and easily as political conveniences. The bond is sustained because they care for one another, in both the physical and emotional sense, and recognize the special characteristics of their love. It is because of this that Ichikawa goes to such lengths to set the four women in the context of the natural artlessness of the Kyoto cherry blossoms, of the representation of the aspiration of human art in the elegance and splendour of the traditional kimono; the eye gladdened, the heart made full, our central eroticism understood.
Two threads of expression of the two husbands also emphasize this belief in the worth of caring. When the eldest sister’s husband is promoted by his employer to a position in Tokyo, the implication for a further diminution of the cohesion of the family appears, the implication counterpointed with the husband’s earlier decision to sell the family’s inherited business. The consternation on the part of the elder sister comes to a point of rest when her husband is asked if he would leave Osaka alone, and he responds no. The sister soon afterwards decides that she will support the dislocation to Tokyo, and when the husband is advised of her acquiescence, he bows deeply before her, abject is his sincerity of his awareness of the gift his wife has chosen to give him. As are many moments of importance in this film, the scene is short, the actions brief, the effect deeply profound.
A second such thread derives from the attention of the husband of the second sister to the presence of the third sister. There are amatory, but unilateral, overtones. At the very end of the film, after the eldest sister and her husband have taken the train to Tokyo, and the third sister, now at last to be married, having seen them, with the sadness of dissociation, go, the husband, in a restaurant bar, is drinking too much sake too quickly, and, downcast at the loss, to him, of the third sister, weeps. But he weeps more for the passing of things, the falling away of the integrity of what was.
It is not a sensation, both intellectual and mystical, that has not before been observed. Marcel Proust, in the episode of the three trees on the country road near Balbec, observes its manifestation, in his Within a Budding Grove, with an artistry of great literary elegance and subtle power. And in Serses, Handel, in the opening aria, sings of the beauty of the natural world, of which we are all part, that captures us, even as we will perish.