`Makioka Sisters': pretty as a cherry blossom

FILM

April 08, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The centerpiece of AFI Silver Theatre's "Cherry Blossom Cinema," Kon Ichikawa's 1983 film The Makioka Sisters, starts with a family gathering in 1938 Kyoto, when the cherry blossoms are at their peak. The bluffs of bright pink flowers softened by spring rain, framing vista-visions of hills and valleys, are schoolbook memories of Japan brought to life by a light-fingered poet. And, as the Makiokas, aristocrats from Osaka, sit in their tearoom with a view, their ceremonious beauty matches the allure of all outdoors.

You can read the entire film in miniature in this gorgeous and evocative pre-credit sequence. The movie's instant aura of nostalgia is deliberate. Dressed in their festive kimonos, the Makiokas have taken this trip to Kyoto as a magic act of continuity with their past. We soon realize that elsewhere in their lives history has barged in and broken their spell.

The eldest of the four Makioka sisters, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi), admits that the reason her husband, Tatsuo (Juzo Itami), didn't come is that there's no cherry blossom in his blood. Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka), the husband of the second eldest, Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), admires the way the mouth of the third sister, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), forms an "o" - an oddly sensual observation that ripples through the politesse like a pebble in a rock pond.

Yukiko is unmarried - even though, in a floral white robe, she's like a hothouse orchid, and she has an irresistible coy demureness that drives Teinosuke crazy. Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), the youngest sister, may wear the brightest kimono of all, a great golden cocoon with swirling butterflies. But she's no Mademoiselle Butterfly. She's a rebel trying to pursue a doll-making career and sorely wants her late father's legacy to help out. According to tradition, she can't marry until Yukiko does, and she can't be awarded her inheritance until she is married.

Discussions over Taeko's future climax when Sachiko, arguing for her younger sister, hops over to Tsuruko's place setting and the two exchange "Yes!" "No!" "Yes!" "No!" "Yes!" "No!" in verbal ping-pong diplomacy. When the rain halts, peace returns, and the Makiokas move outside, where they adorn even the luscious Kyoto countryside. Westernized onlookers gawk at their dignified yet effervescent loveliness. So, of course, do we.

The Makioka Sisters is an unassuming masterpiece. With forthright and beguiling artistry, Ichikawa revives the vanished world of a proud Japanese merchant family; then with tones of irony and lamentation, he lets it fade away like a midsummer night's dream recollected in the dead of winter.

Ichikawa draws an abundance of characters and emotion-charged situations from the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki. But he doesn't cram his movie with incidents; instead, he fills it with essences. The Makioka Sisters has the pull of grand soap opera, but in its tragicomic delicacy it resembles a Japanese Chekhov.

In Japanese with English subtitles, The Makioka Sisters plays today at 7:10 p.m., tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. AFI Silver Theatre is on Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Check www.AFI.com/Silver for updates; call 301-495-6720 or 301-495-6700.

Jewish Film Festival

Baltimore's Jewish Film Festival continues tomorrow night at 9:15 with Suzie Gold, a British comedy about the pressures on a nice Jewish girl to find a husband. Film critic and Baltimore magazine senior editor Max Weiss will lead the discussion.

Sunday at 3 p.m., Menachem Daum will present his documentary Hiding and Seeking: it chronicles Daum's attempt to explode the insularity of his ultra-Orthodox adult sons with a trip to Poland, where they meet the family who hid their grandfather during the Holocaust.

Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. comes Yaron Zilbermann's documentary Watermarks, which salutes the champion Jewish female swimmers from the Hakoah Vienna sports club and tells what happened when several were picked to represent Austria in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The guest speaker will be Nanne Selinger, one of the champs.

And Thursday at 7:30 p.m. brings Secret Passage, a British-Luxembourg co-production that marks one of the few times moviemakers have dealt with the plight of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. When two forcibly baptized sisters flee Spain for Venice, it's only the start of their intrigues. Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, an artist and producer, is the host.

Although the festival has sold out, two encores have been set: the thriller The Aryan Couple on April 27 at 7:30 p.m., and Suzie Gold on May 2 at 7:30 p.m. Screenings are at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. Tickets for these are available by mail only; for a form, visit www.baltimorejff.com/ticketorderform.

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