Ōoku: The Inner Chambers
By Fumi Yoshinaga
Viz Media LLC, 2009
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, by award-winning manga writer and artist Fumi Yoshinaga, has been generating buzz ever since the first volume came out in Japan four years ago. "Is Ōoku out in English yet?" Japanese readers would ask me, and sigh when I informed them that it wasn't. "Please license that manga about the female shogun," frustrated English-speakers begged editors at conventions.
The first volume of Ōoku is finally out in English from Viz Media, in a gorgeous edition with full-color fold-over covers and inserts. It lives up to expectations.
Manga writer and artist Fumi Yoshinaga is noted for complex characterization, witty dialogue, an eye for small moments with huge implications, gay and sometimes straight romances, and a wide range of subject matter and moods. Though her backgrounds can be sketchy, her characters are comparatively realistic-looking and their body language is expressive.
If you've never read manga before, Yoshinaga would be a good creator to start with. She uses square and rectangular panels and simple layouts familiar to anyone who's ever read an American comic book. (Manga reads from right to left, but it takes very little time to get used to that.) Her ratio of dialogue and captions to pictures, while heavy on the written word from a Japanese perspective, is also similar to that of most American comics.
While Yoshinaga is best known for gay romances (sometimes explicit) and slice-of-life comedy-dramas, she's written everything from science fiction to psychological horror. If you haven't ever read manga before or simply haven't read Yoshinaga before, I recommend beginning with Ōoku, Antique Bakery, or Flower of Life.
Antique Bakery (complete in four volumes) is a poignant comedy about four men (one gay, two straight, one undecided) who open a bakery; their work baking and serving lusciously described and drawn pastries catalyzes changes in their customers' lives and their own. Flower of Life (complete in four volumes) is a sweet, character-driven high school comedy focusing on geeks and misfits. In both series, each volume builds on the story and character development that came before, but also stands on its own.
Though Yoshinaga has written historical dramas before, Ōoku is a first for her: a fully imagined alternate history.
At the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868), a mysterious plague strikes Japan. No cure is ever discovered for the Redface Pox, which only afflicts men. By the reign of the third (and first female) shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the male population of Japan has stabilized at 25% of the population. Women now control the military government, and only the wealthiest and highest-class women have the right to marry. Lower-class women must pay to be impregnated by men in the pleasure quarters. And the famed Ōoku—
This may sound like a setup for erotic fantasy, but if you know anything about Japanese history, you've already noticed that other than the gender-related social changes, Yoshinaga is sticking closely to actual history. Tokugawa Iemitsu was indeed the third shogun. The Ōoku really existed. While you don't need to know the actual history to enjoy Ōoku, it adds an extra layer of interest if you do. Far from a simple tale of a female ruler and her sex-starved male harem, it's a mirror-reversed view of history, power, and the way that people are shaped by their societies.
After a prologue setting up the altered course of history, the first volume follows a handsome young man, Mizuno, who joins the Ōoku because he's unable to marry the woman he loves. The simple technique of viewing a strange world through a stranger's eyes serves Yoshinaga well, as Mizuno is naturally introduced to the characters and customs of the Ōoku. But though the setting is intriguing and the art is elegant and sensual, I was at first disappointed that a story about women in power seemed to be entirely focused on men. However, the real protagonist shows up about a third of the way through: the new shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, formerly a provincial lord.
The historical Yoshimune was famous for his parsimoniousness and financial reforms, and the female Yoshimune is no different, taking a budget-slashing axe to the financially strapped realm's extravagances—
At least in the first volume, the broad strokes of history are unchanged, which has many possible implications. Perhaps men and women are not so different after all, and so reversing the gender basis of power structures would change absolutely nothing. Perhaps the sweep of history is such an inexorable force, depending on so many factors other than the gender of the main actors—
Not only is history examined, but so is the very concept of history: most people are unaware of how their new social order came about, or even that things haven't always been that way. The erasure, alteration, and reinterpretation of history is as controversial a topic in Japan as it is in the USA or anywhere else, and it seems poised to become a major topic in Ōoku.
That said, Ōoku is neither an essay on feminist theory nor a history lesson, but a fascinating, entertaining, and gorgeously drawn story with a compelling and unusual protagonist. The translation gives the language an archaic, near-Shakespearean flavor, which is also like nothing I've ever encountered in manga before. (I hope the original Japanese was similar, because if not, the translation took extreme liberties.)
While Mizuno's story comes to an end in the first volume, the story of Yoshimune and the altered history of Japan is just beginning. There's no cliffhanger ending, but there is a definite sense of "to be continued." Ten volumes are planned, and four have already been released in Japan. I look forward to continuing what might become an excellent creator's masterpiece.