I had been looking forward to seeing The Makioka Sisters at the Detroit Film Theatre on November 21, 2015, so I tried not to be bothered by the first (and very heavy) snowstorm of the winter.
This 1983 Japanese movie seemed like the perfect kind of film for the DFT 101 series. This Saturday afternoon series that started about five years ago has been a showcase for many classic movies, including some that I had never heard of, like The Makioka Sisters.
My 25-mile journey to the DFT started on a colorful note. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant that had decorated all of its window sills with Christmas decorations. As I waited for my meal, I gazed out at the heavy flakes of falling snow. They were the perfect backdrop for the trees, houses, and Santa Clauses on the window sills.
Then I was on the highway, with that adrenaline-charged feeling of adventure that most of us probably feel during snowstorms, even though we often complain about them.
My ride to the DFT was safe. After a cold, windswept walk from the parking lot of the Detroit Institute of Arts, I entered the welcoming warmth of the DFT. My first thought was about the coziness of the DFT on cold winter days—the intimate corridors, the cordial Crystal Gallery Café, the glowing gold of the auditorium detail.
After all of that, it was ironic that one of early scenes of The Makioka Sisters showed a family enjoying a vast display of falling cherry blossoms. My drive to the DFT had sharpened my awareness of nature, which came in handy during The Makioka Sisters, which framed its story with the changing of the four seasons.
I’ve seen many Japanese films at the DFT, including older movies from such masters as Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon) and newer ones like After Life (1998) and Still Walking (2008). But I couldn’t remember seeing one from the 1980s.
I also didn’t remember seeing a movie by the director Kon Ichikawa, whose birth date had its 100th anniversary on Friday, November 20, 2015. Adding to my anticipation was the knowledge that The Makioka Sisters was much different from the war dramas that helped establish Ichikawa’s reputation (The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain).
The Makioka Sisters was so beautifully designed and photographed that I sometimes wondered how that visual beauty was supposed to enhance the film.
Perhaps Ichikawa wanted to contrast the beauty of nature, clothing, and house interiors with the turmoil in the lives of the title characters. Or maybe Ichikawa just wanted to dress up the movie, to make it more appealing to general audiences in Japan and international audiences.
The Makioka Sisters had many of the things that I look for in Japanese family dramas:
- Quiet, formal interactions with small bursts of emotion.
- Domestic rituals that anchor daily lives, like polite greetings (often with bows) and the removal of shoes when entering homes. Watching people in a foreign country go through their rituals gives you almost a feeling of escape, because of the way it takes you away from your own life.
- Middle class houses that use space in an efficient, but stylishly low-key manner, with many unique and functional small spaces, as well as translucent panels that provide both light and privacy.
- Brightly colored kimonos.
- A serene, quiet beauty in many of the women.
- Picturesque mountains.
The Makioka Sisters was introduced by DFT House Manager Margaret Thomas, who said that the audience should watch for different examples of unfulfilled love.
These frustrated passions were expressed in part by many closeups, and the audience became very familiar with each of the four sisters in the course of the movie.
Near the end of the film was a beautiful scene when the emotional barriers broke down between the two oldest sisters and they connected with each other in a more trusting and open manner.
The movie also explored the different kinds of family identities:
- Support group
- Business operation
- Maintainers of a respectable image
- Maintainers of a high standard of living
After the movie, one of my first thoughts was that The Makioka Sisters was more conventional, and less artistic, than the usual offerings by the DFT.
But quality commercial movies from other countries have always been part of the DFT’s mission, because of their window into other cultures and their promotion of world cinema.
The snow continued to fall while I watched The Makioka Sisters, and I was glad that I had decided to stay for the 7 p.m. movie, Taxi, from Iran.
During my intermission between the two movies, I enjoyed a snack in the Crystal Gallery Café. I watched the snow fall as dusk set in, through a high arched window that reflected a large chandelier in the café.
It was a comfortable part of the weekend before Thanksgiving, which always has a rich feeling for me. My anticipation for the holiday season is at its peak, but I’m also reflecting quietly and deeply on another year of challenges and accomplishments.
The second half of my Saturday double bill was an experimental film by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who has been barred by the Iran government from formally making movies, but who has found creative ways around that ban.
Taxi was the title of the film and also the only vantage point of the cameras that were used to film it. The loosely structured plot revolved around the different people who rode with Panahi in a taxi cab that he was driving through the streets of Tehran.
The cab riders became mouthpieces for the different messages of the film, which mostly concerned freedom of expression and censorship.
Taxi walked a fine line between documentary and fiction. You felt forced to strongly think about what was real in the movie and what was staged, and how much that difference mattered.
I was familiar with this approach from two earlier movies by Panahi that focused heavily on time and place. The White Balloon took place in real time, while The Mirror changed from a fictional film to a documentary when the young lead actress decided that she didn’t want to act any more.
These two earlier movies also showed Panahi’s special talent for working with children. He also put this skill to use in Taxi, with a niece whose description of a school movie project also acted as a discussion of the official movie guidelines of Iran.
Panahi seems to like to just let things happen and then capture them on film in some kind of formal and organized way. The spontaneous honesty of children works very well with this approach to moviemaking.
With Panahi, you might not get the satisfaction of seeing a narrative brought to a formal conclusion, like The Makioka Sisters. But you do get to see a creative use of film.
During Taxi, Panahi told a young beginning filmmaker that he should strive for originality, and not try to create movies that have already been made.
After watching hundreds of movies at the DFT, I’ve developed enough of an interest in the art of filmmaking to know that understanding process and intent can be important parts of appreciating a film. With Panahi, you almost feel like you are helping him create the movie.
When I left the DFT about 8:30 p.m., the snow had stopped falling. But unfortunately, my snow brush was still hanging in my garage, so I had to brush a lot of heavy snow from my car with my gloved hands, which soon turned cold and wet.
But it was still a good evening, and I thought ahead to other DFT movies, like the DFT 101 presentation of Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s Richard III on November 28, 2015.
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.