Junichiro Tanizaki's three-part novel A Light Snowfall (1946--48) had already been filmed twice and adapted numerous times for television before Kon Ichikawa tackled the material in 1983. It's his deliberate, elegiac feature, however, that's the best-known take on Tanizaki's tale of four sisters stifled by soon-to-be-outdated social graces. (The opening title proclaims, "The year is 1938...," immediately signifying that the times will be a-changin' in the Land of the Rising Sun very soon.) You can easily see why Ichikawa's vision of the 20th-century Japanese-lit landmark is considered definitive; the way he elevates the story's soap-operatic elements to a level of extraordinary sublimity makes the melodramatic seem positively majestic.
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.