The story, set in war-time Osaka and Hyōgo Prefecture, centers around the four daughters of a once-wealthy family now in decline: Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko (affectionately dubbed "Koi-san"). Tsuruko and Sachiko, the elder, married, sisters are trying to arrange a marriage for the shy Yukiko. Taeko, the youngest, impatient with waiting for her older sister to marry in order to be able to get married herself (older sisters were married first), flings herself into affairs with men of dubious character or social standing. The sisters were modeled after the author's third wife Matsuko (Sachiko in the novel) and her sisters.
The novel's primary theme is the fading of traditional Japanese culture, as Tanizaki saw it being replaced by the processes of modernization, Westernization, and militarization. On another level, the novel can be also be seen as a celebration of traditional aristocratic culture, with which Tanizaki had been fascinated from his youth, especially following the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 which destroyed much of the old city. (An earlier non-fiction work, In Praise of Shadows, examines the Japanese aesthetic of subtlety and suggestion and makes an argument for it.) The Makiokas go cherry blossom viewing, practice traditional dance and doll making (especially Taeko), whilst simultaneously clinging to their declining name and fading glory. Although the work has been said to combine elements of traditional Japanese narrative with modern and experimental techniques, there are several distinguishable plot-lines, including the family's repeated attempts to marry off the third sister Yukiko, and the increasing waywardness of the fourth sister, Taeko, who shows an early predilection for unseemly behavior and ultimately becomes pregnant with an illegitimate child, who is accidentally killed by the doctor during a difficult birth. Taeko in some ways conforms to the archetypal femme fatale recurrent in many of Tanizaki's works. However, the book's charm comes from its small moments, a family outing to view cherry blossoms, the relationship between the second sister Sachiko and her literary husband Teinosuke, an afternoon of poetry writing to Yukiko--each of these coursing with emotional undertones. The characterization is some of the finest in modern Japanese fiction--you feel as though you would immediately recognize the sisters if you happened to meet them in person.