[Director Kon] Ichikawa fulfilled a long-held dream when he adapted The Makioka Sisters… Retelling [popular 20th-century novelist Junichiro] Tanizaki’s classic family chronicle, he drew on the skills he acquired in a four-decade career and the understanding of Tanizaki he displayed in [his 1959 Tanizaki adaptation] The Key. The result is a magisterial achievement: a barbed, poignant, and seductive elegy. In the opening-credit sequence, the four heroines—daughters of a late Osaka shipbuilding tycoon—tour the cherry blossoms of 1938 Kyoto. It’s more than a gorgeous piece of local color. The blossoms reflect the magnificent Makiokas themselves as they glide through the frame in luminous kimonos, epitomizing the ideals of feminine refinement and grace that are fading before Westernization. Ichikawa captures their beautiful ephemerality, but the movie is also robust and engulfing. The director strove, he said, “to make the exterior of the film a dazzling, fascinating, and acrimonious human comedy.” He succeeded. You watch in a state of amused enthrallment, carried along by the satiric humor, bubbly soap opera, and keenly modulated colors. Then Ichikawa detonates a string of climaxes, and turns the final third of this two-hour-and twenty-minute movie into an emotional catherine wheel.
David Fear for Time Out New York:
Make no mistake, The Makioka Sisters is a melodrama, complete with public scandals, petulant ingenues, interclan power struggles, unrequited love and consummated love affairs. But Ichikawa plays everything cool without seeming cold, modulating impeccably framed shots that never succumb to fetishized formalism and getting incredible performances from his entire cast—especially Sayuri Yoshinaga as a spinsterish sister and Tampopo director Juzo Itami as the brother-in-law fatally infatuated with her. Ichikawa was in his sixties when he made his dream project, a long way from the angry young dazzler of Fires on the Plain (1959) yet still capable of missteps like employing an off-putting synthesized score. But only an older director could have given the movie’s climax—involving a departing train, naturally—a double edge of happiness and regret that cuts so damned deep.
Ella Taylor for L. A. Weekly:
At home, the eminence of [director Kon Ichikawa]—often ranked with Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi—has been vigorously disputed by critics, especially since the mid-1970s, when his wife and longtime co-screenwriter, Natto Wada, withdrew from filmmaking. Ichikawa is unpopular with devout auteurists freaked by the director’s dazzling formal versatility, eclectic choice of material, and emotional range. Not that he cares: The nearly 80 films he’s made evince a blithe willingness to serve both art-house markets and as a studio director for hire. When Ichikawa claims as seminal influences Walt Disney and Jean Renoir, he’s not being coy.
Mark Asch for The L Magazine:
The film is mostly close-ups, of faces and of objects, with cross-currents of affection or disapproval telegraphed in reverse-shots.
Ichikawa, a Golden Age director known for adaptations of Mishima, Soseki, Murasaki Shikibu and many others, had long hoped to film Junichiro Tanizaki’s nationally beloved source novel (serialized during after WWII, covering events about a half-decade prior). When he finally did, at age 68, he produced something that feels very consciously stagey and stylized, a classical prewar family drama about fond memories, ancient resentments, and arranged marriages (Yukiko’s meetings with potential grooms are often played for comedy as broad as the faces the servants sometimes pull), with lavish attention paid to the formal dress (Pauline Kael’s influential New Yorker rave was titled “Golden Kimonos”).
But the movie gets more sophisticated the more you think about it—like in the best Preminger or Sirk movies, emotions, motivations, and the implications of shared histories become more complex, not less, for being the primary subject of the dialogue, as the sisters behave counter to their well-established characters, or change their minds outright. Even the film’s sincerely melancholy attitude towards the passage of time—much on everyone’s mind, and lips—cloaks an elaborate play on our expectations. The ending seems a rather rushed, contrived way of resolving things happily for everyone—all they have to do is give up the things that define them and not look back.
Nic Pinkerton for the Village Voice:
When he finally succeeded in filming Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel, Kon Ichikawa was 68 years old—a living link to Japan’s cinematic Golden Age, taking on a self-consciously throwback prestige production. The Makioka Sisters details the interlocked emotional lives of four Osakan siblings, orphaned young and left as caretakers of the once-prestigious Makioka name. Observing each woman meeting this duty, The Makioka Sisters is a Whartonian work of compassionate nostalgia tinctured with irony.