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.