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.

Dōjinshi (Part Two)

I would like to begin by examining two dōjinshi based on Studio Ghibli’s film Spirited Away. The first work, Yuya sōshi (油屋草子), focuses on the romantic relationship between Haku and Chihiro in three short stories. In the first story, Chihiro goes outside on a snowy night to deliver blankets to her parents in the pig barn. She passes out from the effects of the cold wind and is rescued by Haku. The events of the second and third stories take place after the end of the film. In the second story, an older Chihiro follows her baby brother through a familiar tunnel and returns to a world she had forgotten. She and her brother are rescued by Haku, who tells Chihiro that she must not look at him lest she remain in his world forever. After making sure that her brother is able to return home safely, Chihiro turns to look at Haku, thus sealing her fate. The third story, an alternate possibility, involves Haku making a decision of his own to journey to the human world to visit Chihiro. Throughout this dōjinshi, the characters are drawn in the Studio Ghibli house style, and a great deal of care is given to maintaining the tone and worldview of the original film.

In Senya ichiya (千夜一夜), a darker interpretation of Spirited Away is presented to the reader. The artist of this dōjinshi associates Yubaba’s bath house with traditional Japanese hot spring inns, which generally employed or were associated with female entertainers who would attend guests privately after dark. In this dōjinshi, Yubaba arranges for the young serving maid Rin to attend to the private needs of one of the bath house customers, a strange, hoary creature with many tentacles. At the last moment, Haku appears and offers himself in Rin’s place, ordering her to flee as he submits to the god. This dōjinshi thus explores the relationship of the characters before the arrival of Chihiro, as well as the more disturbing implications of a bath house for the gods staffed by people who are effectively slaves to its owner. Although the art of this dōjinshi is clearly influenced by the Studio Ghibli style, it takes on more lush and erotic tones, as is appropriate to its subject matter.

Many of the dōjinshi based on Howl’s Moving Castle deal with the continuation and outcome of the romantic relationship that develops between Howl and Sophie during the course of the film. These dōjinshi contain many confessions of love and many first kisses. Other dōjinshi emphasize the sexual tension between the two characters, which is notably absent in the film. Since Sophie is a shy girl who turns into an old woman whenever she becomes overly embarrassed or loses her self confidence, dōjinshi artists have speculated that Howl might have some trouble getting her into bed for the first time. These artists turn to scenarios suggestive of rape, which capitalize on the characterization and appeal of Howl as someone who loses control of himself in moments of intense emotion and stress. Other artists merrily suggest that Sophie hides all manner of illicit desires under her seemingly retiring exterior.

Finally, a piece titled Honogurai umi no soko kara (仄暗い海の底から), which is based on Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea, is an example of what is called a “gag” (ギャグ) dōjinshi, which eschews any sort of sustained narrative in order to make jokes about and poke fun at the original work. This particular dōjinshi is centered around the comic figure of Fujimoto, the scatterbrained wizard who is Ponyo’s “father.” It is drawn in a style that references the Studio Ghibli house style but exaggerates the comedic aspects of the characters and their interactions with one another. These interactions mainly involve the attempts of the awkward and socially inept Fujimoto to act as some sort of father figure to the now human Ponyo, who continues to be as willful and energetic as always. Other jokes lightly suggest sexual undertones completely absent from the original film. One short story interprets the intense private conversation shared between Sōsuke’s mom Lisa and the sea goddess as being about the deliciousness of ham. Fujimoto, seeing the hungry look in the ladies’ eyes, misinterprets their conversation in a humorous way.

Part One
Part Three

The Budding Tree

Title: The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo
Japanese Title: 恋忘れ草 (Koiwasuregusa)
Author: Kitahara Aiko (北原亞以子)
Translator: Ian MacDonald
Publication Year: 1993 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 170

This past fall, I took a seminar on ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints depicting the “floating world” of the Edo period (1600-1868) urban pleasure districts. As we studied the courtesan prints of artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, we kept running up against the same issue: prostitution. Namely, what were the lives of the women painted by Utamaro really like? Were these women as glamorous as they seem in ukiyo-e, or were they sex slaves who lived miserable lives and died at an early age of starvation and disease? Or did they perhaps fall somewhere in between the two extremes, victims of their fates but still holding on to a measure of personal agency and control over their lives? As our class debated this issue, I couldn’t help but think about The Budding Tree.

Kitahara’s short story collection The Budding Tree is not about courtesans, but it is about Edo-period women who have close connections to the floating world. Each of the six stories in this collection has a different female protagonist: a Confucian tutor, a calligrapher who pens text that will be printed as gesaku popular novels, a singer of jōruri popular stage ballads, a hairpin designer who manages her own store, a rising print artist who works with Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s publisher, and the manager of an exclusive restaurant. Although the women don’t know each other directly, their stories are connected in small ways, and a unity of theme ties these stories together into a cohesive whole. Each of these women is struggling to make it in a man’s world, and each therefore leads a somewhat complicated love life.

I’m not an expert on the Edo period, so I’m not sure how realistic Kitahara’s depiction of her setting (Edo at the turn of the nineteenth century) actually is. From what I know of the lives of Hokusai’s daughters (especially Katsushika Ōi), however, her depiction of urban working women at the time isn’t too far off. As historical fiction, the stories in The Budding Tree are interesting and satisfying, especially since the swashbuckling samurai that one usually encounters in Japanese historical fiction are kept offstage. It is my (perhaps futile) hope that Ian MacDonald’s excellent translation will find a wide audience, so that other Japanese female-centric historical fiction, such as the Edo-period female detective stories of Miyabe Miyuki, will find their way into American bookstores.

I therefore recommend The Budding Tree to anyone with an interest in the Edo period, historical fiction, women’s literature, or just plain good romantic stories. The one caveat I might offer concerns the translation’s complete absence of footnotes. There are more than a few non-translated and non-glossed terms (such as jōruri, i.e., the songs of the puppet theater) that appear with frequency throughout the text, as well the names of actual historical figures and geographical landmarks with which a casual reader might not be familiar. Hopefully, however, the stories themselves will whet the reader’s appetite to learn more about the world of early nineteenth century Edo.