Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Ooku: The Inner Chambers

by Jason Thompson, Dec 20th 2012

Episode CXXXII: Ôoku: The Inner Chambers

In the early Tokugawa era the plague came. The disease affected only men, especially teenagers, killing them off by the thousands, turning wives into widows and stripping families of their sons. By the time the plague stabilized (although it never entirely ended) Japan's population ratio was 4 women for each man.

It seemed like the end of the world…but people adjusted. Women took over men's jobs, using labor-saving agricultural advancements to make up for any deficiency in strength. Without enough men for heirs, daughters were allowed to stand in for sons the heads of households—first as "a provisional measure of last resort," then permanently. Then, the very institution of marriage collapsed. Only the richest women could afford to take husbands, while poorer women patronized male prostitutes in the pleasure quarters in the hopes of bearing a child. Soon, men were considered too precious and delicate to do anything dangerous like work in the fields or bear arms; their role was to please women and give them their seed. A new Japan arises, one where almost all work and leadership positions are held by women.

In this world where men are scarce, only one women has the luxury of having multiple husbands: the shogun of Japan. Her ôoku, the imperial harem, is filled with beautiful (and not-so-beautiful) men, approximately 800 in all. The men are divided into many ranks, starting with the bottom-ranked houseboys, those "unworthy of our liege's sight." Slightly higher up are the pages, and above them are the grooms of the bedchamber, from whom the shogun's bedpartners are chosen. Some of the occupants of this man-garden wield swords and work as bodyguards, others are seamstresses (I mean seamsters) and cooks, but most of them have little to do except to look handsome and play petty games of palace intrigue. And once they have entered the ôoku, they can never leave. ("Our entire lives are in vain, and wasteful. We are kept in the goldfish bowl that is these inner chambers, for no purpose other than to be kept. To have so many men in one place, and let their precious seed go to waste—this very wastefulness, this luxury, is evidence of the shogun's might and power, is it not?")

80 years after the plague, most people have forgotten that there were ever equal numbers of women and men. Mizuno is a handsome, friendly young man lucky enough to have survived to adulthood. His childhood friend O-Nobu, the daughter of a prosperous trader, is impressed that he's so active, always exercising and practicing swordsmanship. (But she's worried that he pushes himself too hard, because everyone knows men have so much less energy than women.) Like most men, handsome or not, he's used to being propositioned constantly, but unlike most of his guy friends, his mother never whored him out for money. However, mom does want him to get married, quick. ("A man must marry into a suitable family, and there produce as many offspring as his wife can bear! That is what a man is for, and how a man shall be most fulfilled and rewarded!")

But Mizuno doesn't want to be married to some rich noblewoman he doesn't know. There is only one woman Mizuno loves, and he can't marry her. He bids a tearful farewell to his family and joins the shogun's ôoku, an honorable position whose salary will make his family wealthy indeed. And so he enters the paradise-prison where he will spend the rest of his life, surrounded by extravagance and wastefulness and things he never imagined, like male homosexuality. (But not much of it; sorry, BL fans.)

Everything changes when the new shogun, Lord Yoshimune, takes over. Concerned with the shogunate's finances, the pragmatic Yoshimune slashes the ôoku's budget and makes plans to get rid of some of the men. (Charitably, she fires the youngest, handsomest men first, so they can be sure to get work outside the palace.) Furthermore: "Yoshimune had even less regard for the pomp and ceremony surrounding nighttime intimacies." Whereas the other shoguns were discreet in who they bedded, Yoshimune has a habit of grabbing men out of the shrubbery and have her way with them. But some rituals must be followed, and her first 'official' partner must still be chosen in a formal ceremony. Yoshimune sets her eyes on Mizuno, one of the few men with any spirit. But their relationship may be doomed from the start, by the traditions of the ôoku, by Mizuno's hopeless love, and by the sabotage of the other men jealous that Mizuno is the shogun's favorite…

Ôoku: The Inner Chambers isthe third Fumi Yoshinaga manga I've written about for this column, more than any other author. What can I say? She's just that good. Her focus on character and story over fancy artwork (not that her art is bad, just un-flashy) made her a refreshing new voice in the BL manga (and borderline-BL manga) where she started out, and now she draws school comedies, food manga, and this latest one, an alternate-history Tokugawa-era drama. Running in the women's magazine Melody since 2005, it's been adapted into two live-action movies and a live-action TV series. It's also won the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, and it was the first manga ever to win the James Tiptree Jr. Award for feminist science fiction, named after the famous science fiction writer Alice Sheldon (1915-1987), who wrote mostly under a male pen name. Fumi Yoshinaga is intimidatingly good.

Single gender worlds have been around in mythology and sci-fi forever. Ôoku is often compared to Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man, a postapocalyptic graphic novel series in which all male mammals on Earth suddenly die off except for one guy and his pet monkey. The situation in Ôoku is very different, though; for one thing, there's still enough men to keep making children the old-fashioned way, so the plot isn't about curing the disease and/or saving the human race from extinction. (Also, when we meet Dutch traders at the end of volume 1, we discover the interesting detail that the man-killing plague only effected Japan, not the rest of the world.) It's about adaptation. In the first volume, most of the men have been dead for years, but the second volume flashes back to the beginning of the plague to show how things gradually changed. As the men die off over the course of about a decade, the peasants and merchants are the first to adapt. ("Have you not looked out across the fields of late? All the women of the sharecropper families are already wielding hoes and ploughs and scythes and working the land! We may cry and we may wail, but that changeth not the fact that there are no men left to work!") Contrarily, the noble samurai families hang on to the old ways as long as possible. When Tokugawa Iemitsu (depicted as a true jerkhole, incidentally) dies of the plague, there are still enough men around that his daughter is forced to dress like a man, to make people think she is a legitimate heir.

Iemitsu's story is the second major story in Ôoku. The manga is divided into several story arcs; no sooner than do we find out the fate of Mizuno and Yoshimune, than the manga jumps back in time to when most of the men are still alive. When Arikoto, an handsome traveling monk, accepts an invitation to stop at Edo Castle, his apprentice Gyokuei warns him that there are bad rumors about the place. ("There is a strange rumor circulating in recent years…'tis said that the inner chambers are, in sooth, populated by youths, not ladies…") To Arikoto's shock, he soon discovers that he is a prisoner in the castle. Because of his good looks, he has been selected to father a child with Iemitsu's daughter, the first female shogun of Japan. Arikoto, a deeply moral man who wants to live chastely according to his monastic vows, is horrified at sleeping with anyone of any gender, but finally gives in to save the lives of his traveling companions. His mate, the young shogun, is a deeply troubled young woman, placed on the throne against her will because all her male relatives had died of the plague. She is full of anger and rage, because she knows that she is a "lord" in name only. ("All I am, in their minds and in sooth, is but a temporary vessel—a womb to preserve the Tokugawa bloodline!") At first, Iemitsu hates Arikoto, but strange relationship grows between them, while all around them the male-dominated world slowly dies.

The quick way to describe Ôoku is "Tokugawa-era historical drama with the genders reversed", but it's actually much, much more than that. (For instance, the world of Ôoku is more interesting than a straight gender reversal: instead of men doing "women's work" like taking care of kids, here the women do all the important work while the men just sleep around, kind of like the Mosuo people of China.) Like all Yoshinaga manga, it's dense and wordy, and if you don't read it slowly, you'll get lost. Another thing which makes it a slow read is that the English edition uses antiquated, Shakespearean English to get across the feeling of the antiquated Japanese in the original. ("Thou darest instruct us, thou saucy fellow! Thou art most insolent, I say!") But you get used to it after the first few pages.

Ôoku doesn't have aliens or time travel, but it's science fiction in the purest sense of the word: a realistic exploration of what would happen if the world changed in some unimaginable way. It also explores sexism and gender roles as deeply as any manga I know. But although the setting is incredibly rich, it's also a bunch of stories about great characters: Mizuno, Arikoto, Iemitsu, and dozens of other characters who could each support a whole manga on their own. I sometimes get bored by courtly historical dramas, but I liked Ôoku much more than I expected. It's Fumi Yoshinaga's most ambitious and best manga. Or at least her most ambitious one, and for best, it's a tie with the one about demonic gays and cake.


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