Ōoku

Title: Ōoku: The Inner Chambers
Japanese Title: 大奥 (Ōoku)
Artist: Yoshinaga Fumi (よしながふみ)
Translator: Akemi Wegmüller
Publication Year: 2005-2009 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 215 (per volume)

I have been a huge fan of Fumi Yoshinaga ever since her two-volume series Gerard & Jacques (ジェラールとジャック) was released in translation by the boy’s love manga publisher Blu in 2006. Gerard & Jacques distinguishes itself from the vast body of boys’ love stories by allowing the personalities of its characters to gradually develop and by acknowledging that openly homosexual relationships have not been tolerated in most societies. Mixing homosexuality with heterosexuality, masters with servants, and sex with philosophy, Yoshinaga delivers romance and intrigue on the eve of the French Revolution. Gerard & Jacques is undeniably porn, but it is porn for adults. Antique Bakery (西洋骨董洋菓子店), one of Yoshinaga’s more recent series released in America by Digital Manga Publishing in 2005, eschews both heteronormativity and pornography in favor of character development and an engrossing and surprisingly sophisticated narrative.

Ōoku is an ongoing series that Yoshinaga first stared publishing in 2005. So far, two of the series’ five volumes have been released in America, and Viz Media has put an extraordinary deal of effort into their publication of the title, making sure that the books themselves are as elegant as their subject matter. In Yoshinaga’s historical revision, a plague has struck early seventeenth century Japan, decimating the male population but leaving women untouched. The only members of the Tokugawa ruling family to survive are female, so the position of shōgun is filled by a woman. Her ōoku, or “inner chambers,” are therefore not staffed by women but instead entirely by men. The ostensible purpose of these men is to do household chores like cooking and sewing, but a select few form the shōgun’s harem, as the production of an heir is essential for the continuation of stable rule.

The first volume follows a young man named Yunoshin, who sells himself into the ōoku so that his financially ailing family can survive. His entrance into Edo Castle coincides with the commencement of the reign of the eighth Tokugawa shōgun, Yoshimune. The relationship between Yunoshin, who continues to nurse his love for a childhood friend, and Yoshimune, a mature woman who is more concerned with government than sexual diversion, is complicated, and their story (which is one of friendship rather than of love) comes to a conclusion at the end of the volume. The affair inspires curiosity in the shōgun, however, and she begins to search through historical records to uncover the truth of the strange gender roles at work in the palace. The second volume opens at the time when the plague first struck Edo and details the ascension of the first female shōgun as orchestrated by the shrewd former head of the female ōoku, Lady Kasuga.

A gender-swapping manga like this may seem to invite a fantastic and comical tone. A veteran reader of manga, upon reading such a plot synopsis, may feel like he or she has read numerous titles like this before. I have never read anything like Ōoku, though. Were it not for Fuminaga’s signature style (which, in this particular work, seems to be greatly enhanced by her assistants), I would consider Ōoku more of a graphic novel than a manga. Although well-placed humor occasionally lightens the story, its tone is serious, and its themes are fairly dark. Although there is a bit of sex (as appropriate to the subject matter and not explicitly portrayed), the focus of Ōoku is political and interpersonal intrigue. Human drama also features prominently, and I feel that the characters’ responses to their unfortunate situations are believable and never one-sided or overly dramatic.

The artwork of the manga is lovely, with everything from robes to hairstyles to furniture detailed to an extraordinary degree. One gets the feeling that Yoshinaga (or at least her assistants) put a lot of effort into researching the time period. The translation of the dialog is initially somewhat off-putting, however. It’s a pseudo-Shakespearean mismash of thee’s and thou’s that takes some getting used to, but I was able to settle into it after a few dozen pages. Overall, this is one of the most original and thought-provoking manga that I have read recently. All My Darling Daughters (愛すべき娘たち), a single-volume series of inter-related stories just published this January, is more mainstream in its gender politics but just as engrossing to an adult reader, and I highly recommend it as well.

5 thoughts on “Ōoku

  1. Onnamusha says:

    Interesting blog site! I’m more into the historical periods of Tokugawa rule, so this post interested me. I’m all for historical revisionism in fiction, and I suppose there’s an outside chance something like this could happen in a parallel universe. After all, there have also been female emperors (mostly in antiquity though). I think it would take more than a Tokugawa-obliterating plague to change the system to this extent. Having only read your review and not the work, I would put the revisionism down to an excuse to write a slash novel. However, your statement of the theme–that it concerns intrigue and political machination–sounds true to the spirit of the historical O-oku. However, I would think that, if such an upheaval caused a basic change to the Tokugawa succession rules, there would be a general shift in the entire nation, or else an upstart daimyo might take advantage of a perceived weakness in the Tokugawa family to make a bid for a new line of military rulers. All my own speculation aside, the only thing that really puts me off is the Shakespearean language affectation in the translation. I’d rather read a novel studded with Japanese words I have to look up rather than try to guess what a culturally-shifted translation might mean in its original language.

    I tried to read a translation of the popular Yaji and Kita comic stories (Tokaidochu Hizakurige, or Shank’s Mare by Jippensha Ikku, who lived in the turn of the 19th century), and all the references to traditional Japanese food were changed to Western ones. Other Westernizations had occurred as well, and I found it quite off-putting. I have been told that there are numerous puns and wordplays in the original Japanese; this is one of many spurs that remind me I should learn the language if I want to understand the literature.

    • Kathryn says:

      Oh man! You must be talking about the Thomas Satchell translation! I think Satchell’s Shank’s Mare, along with Arthur Waley’s Genji and Ivan’s Morris’s Pillow Book, has the dubious distinction of being unintentionally hilarious. But of course the other texts have been re-translated, and the poor Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige only got fifteen pages in the early modern literature compilation edited by Haruo Shirane….

      I really wish someone would publish a new translation of the text. That, and Ryūtei Tanehiko’s Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji! But I suppose that is neither here nor there…

      Anyway, Ōoku is definitely, definitely not a slash novel. One of the brilliant things about the manga is the way that it handles the historical power structures. I think the way it shows how the discourse of power lags behind the social reality is especially well done. In fact, the manga’s treatment of gender and political issues is surprisingly trenchant.

      The pseudo-Shakespearean translation really isn’t that big of a deal; it’s just a way of compensating for all of the ~de gozaru‘s floating around in the original Japanese. Most of the specific cultural terms aren’t translated but are instead glossed in the translation notes in the back of the book.

      Seriously, if you are interested, you should check it out! I love this series, and it is only getting better. They’re even making a movie version!

      http://ohoku.jp/

  2. Onnamusha says:

    Thanks for the heads up on the adaptation! I think imdb called it something like “The Lady Shogun and her Men” or some such thing. It also classified it as science fiction, which I guess could be correct if you count alternate reality. I haven’t really read that much Japanese literature, mostly having concentrated on scholarly historical studies, but now that I’ve got somewhat of a handle on how things in the Edo era actually were, I might enjoy this twistaround tale quite a bit! I’ll have to put it on my ever-lengthening wish list (I’m chronically broke, unfortunately). Cheers and I’ll have fun looking around at the rest of this interesting site!

  3. odorunara says:

    It seems like no one can decide on a name for the film (The Lady Shogun and Her Men is one I’ve heard) or for the romanization of the film (Oh-oku? Ōoku? Ooku?? I favor Ōoku.) I’m reading the manga in Japanese now, and it is AMAZING. I’m curious to read it in English, too, but since some of my friends who are interested in this can’t read Japanese, I should be able to borrow it from someone at some point…

    • Kathryn says:

      I really want to see the movie! I keep checking for news of a North American release, but we’re only just now seeing theater runs of Red Line, and it looks like we’re never going to get Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva or even Ocean Waves, so I’m not too hopeful. I guess I’ll just have to go back to Japan.

      The American release of the manga is excellent. The publication value is very high, and anything Akemi Wegmüller translates is golden. I started reading it in Japanese, but I actually think I like the English translation better, as shameful as that may be…

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