In Japan in the 1600s, a pox-like plague begins to hit the men and boys of the country. Women and girls are not affected by it and by the time the plague stops, the population of men numbers one-fourth that of women. Society is dramatically remade, with women running everything from farming to the government and men being set aside as seed-bearers. Men are so rare that taking a husband is a privilege limited to the very well-off. Poorer women resort to hiring men to provide the seed needed to produce children. But in one location there are hundreds of men set aside for the use of just one woman–the Ôoku, an inner palace inhabited just by beautiful men, reserved for the pleasure of the Shogun.
Yoshinaga takes the subtle approach to her story in this first volume. Rather than dive right into the shogun’s life and discoveries, which become important in the last fourth of the book, she allows us to get to know her world by allowing us to get to know Mizuno Yunoshin, a young man from a family with a good name, but little fortune to back it up. He is a bit of a good-hearted wastrel, spending his days helping out women too poor to buy a man, learning martial arts, and flirting with his childhood friend O-Nobu. It is obvious how he and O-Nobu feel about each other, but she is from a wealthy merchant family, so she will have to make a more advantageous match. So Mizuno decides to join the Ôoku where he will be able to send money home to his parents in order that his sister might be able to purchase a husband. He discovers that the Ôoku is a place of strange customs and layered bureaucracy and his plain-spoken, straightforward nature soon lands him on the wrong side of many of the long-time residents of the Ôoku.
Through Mizuno’s eyes we learn about life in Japan more than eighty years after the plague restructured society. We see a new shogun, the equally plain-spoken and straight forward Yoshimune, and watch as the fates throw Mizuno into her path. Yoshimune is an intelligent woman who refuses to allow excess to overturn her government. She is determined to clear up waste and issue in a new era of responsible leadership. But she herself encounters the strange customs of the Ôoku and learns that not all is as it seems in her new palace. Her story ends this first volume and we are left eager to see where her quick-wits will take Japan as the Western world comes knocking ever harder on the door.
When talking to people about Yoshinaga’s storytelling, I often tell them that she can convey a whole paragraph of dialogue in the movement of a single eyebrow between one panel and the next. I don’t think that that is an exaggeration. While her backgrounds here are much more detailed than in some of her other works, fitting for a lush, historical tale, she still does use her trick of drawing just a character’s facial features into a panel to tell us their emotional state. But that is never overdone. She is the mistress of subtlety, dropping deep pronouncements into a conversation in such a way as to show that while the character is torn with emotion inside, on the outside they are determined to remain cool and calm. With everything drawn in Yoshinaga’s trademark thin lines–and nary a shojo-sparkle or giant eye to see–the subtlety hits the heights of refinement, just as would be expected of a tale about a shogun and those around her.
Ôoku is not a throw-away title. You will not be able to just breeze through it quickly. Set time aside; read in a quiet room. Even if this is the first volume, it is not merely scene-setting. You will savor this; you will want to read it again and again. From Yoshinaga’s detailed plots to her delicately strong art to VIZ’s beautiful packaging and translation (the dialogue is full of “prithee” and “thou” and other words to give us the historical feel), this is a must-have, must-read, must-re-read title. You will not be sorry for the visit to a past that never happened.
NOTE: This review was previously posted at an old blog of mine, Fujoshi Librarian.
Ôoku, vol. 1