Reviewby Casey Brienza,
Ōoku: The Inner Chamber
Edo Japan, Tokugawa Shogunate. A boy goes into the forest and is mauled by a bear. Carried back to the village, he brings with him more than just a bloodied body—he brings back a deadly disease which becomes known as the Redface Pox. Only the country's men are vulnerable, and within eighty years, the male population has fallen to about a fourth its former number. Women assume most of the roles usually performed by men—they even become Japan's rulers. Men, meanwhile, have become prized, privileged commodities that are carefully cosseted and protected. The most beautiful of these men get sent to the Ôoku as concubines of the fabled Inner Chamber of the Tokugawa shogun. This is the story of these prized men…and the remarkable woman whom they serve.
Those who have been following her career in manga publishing might be tempted to conclude the following: Fumi Yoshinaga can do anything. From humble beginnings penning Slam Dunk yaoi doujinshi to the award-winning Antique Bakery and its impressive multimedia afterlife, her rise over the past decade has been meteoric. Now with Ôoku: The Inner Chamber, she has surely secured her place among Japan's creative luminaries.
At first brush with Ôoku, though, you wouldn't necessarily think so. Three-fourths of the male population of an alternate universe feudal Japan is mysteriously stricken by an oft-fatal disease that resembles smallpox? Then the women are left to rule the country while the men become spoiled breeding studs of “The Inner Chamber”…? Hmm, this sounds just like the plot of some second-rate sci fi flick that I had the misfortune to endure in the name of fandom last year. Can't quite remember the title.
But those who know Fumi Yoshinaga know to expect much more than second rate alternate universe sci fi, and they will not be disappointed. Most of the first volume of Ôoku stars the handsome son of an impoverished noble family named Yunoshin Mizuno. He is a noble not just in ancestry; although he sleeps with any woman who wants a child as a “public service,” he accepts no payment in return and keeps only one woman named O-Nobu who cannot afford to buy him permanently as a groom in his heart at all times. Unfortunately for O-Nobu, though, family comes first for Mizuno, and he decides to enter the shogun's Inner Chamber to provide much-needed cash for his family and to pay for his elder sister's marriage.
Through Mizuno's often scandalized and disillusioned eyes, readers are first introduced to the hothouse world of Ôoku. It is its own little world, with its own inverted—yes, think of that word in the derogatory homosexual sense, as well—social rules, and Mizuno has little time to get accustomed to his new role at the bottom of the *ahem* heap before the newly arrived shogun, concerned about the palace's long term financial solvency, begin to stir up trouble in the Inner Chamber. She also takes a liking to Mizuno that could spell his end…literally. Luckily for him, though, the new shogun is as merciful as she is frugal, and some times the good guys really do get it all.
After this well-conceived prologue, the manga shifts towards the shogun's point of view and a more overt high-level politicking. As it turns out, in a mere eighty years or so, it seems that the entire country has forgotten the rationale behind its powerful women. This plot twist definitely strains believability to a near-unacceptable degree, but there is so much narrative tension built into Nobu's search for The Truth that one is inclined to forgive Yoshinaga indulgence in barefaced melodrama. (Besides, the shogun is smart, strong, and sassy. It's hard not adore such a great female personality.)
And indeed, the beautifully composed artwork of Ôoku makes such excesses even easier to forgive. Yoshinaga will never be Kouyu Shurei or CLAMP's Mokona Apapa, but she has improved dramatically over the years, and the vintage costumes add interest to her often stiff visual renderings. In fact, this manga is the perfect marriage of stylistic shortcomings to appropriate subject matter—the beautiful costumes are important players and plot points throughout the story, and the lack of character expression matches a world of intensely ritualized social interaction perfectly. Furthermore, while Yoshinaga isn't know for her gorgeously rendered settings, artistic assistants provide much needed background detail and atmosphere.
This mixture of period drama and alternate universe science fiction is easily the single most highly anticipated new series of 2009, at least among the Western fujoshi contingent, and Viz does it justice. But this isn't just for the fangirls. One of the best Japanese to English translators in the biz, Akemi Wegmuller, gives the dialogue a delicious Shakespearean lilt, and the “Viz Signature” line means a bigger trim size, color pages, french flaps, and high quality paper. There's little better than seeing a great manga series nicely packaged with a great presentation. So naysayers have no excuse. Those who love sequential art, Japanese culture, or plain ol' good storytelling should have started reading Ôoku yesterday.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A-
+ Exquisite, atmospheric, and intriguing. This one lives up to the hype.
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