What if a persistent small pox-like epidemic reduced 17th century Japan’s male population by three-quarters, leaving the traditionally paternalistic country’s fate in the hands of its women? It’s a fascinating question and one which creator Fumi Yoshinaga handles beautifully and intelligently in this alternate history series.
From farmers to merchants to bureaucrats, roles once dominated by men are taken over by women, as the former are increasingly seen as a scarce resource valued solely for their worth as breeders. At the heart of this transition is the shogun. As the nation’s head, her influence is everywhere, but the one duty she feels the greatest pressure to fulfill is that of ensuring a smooth transition of power from one generation to the next.
In hopes of producing an heir, the shogun has long maintained a host of potential concubines in the Inner Chambers, or Ôoku, an institution whose gender dynamics are logically altered in the wake of the pox. It is from these halls of influence and intrigue that Yoshinaga chooses to observe the personal, political, and social drama of her story. Deftly incorporating real historical people and events (such as the Edicts on Compassion for Living Things, the Forty-Seven Ronin, and the Ejima-Ikushima Affair) into her premise, she builds portraits of leaders, lovers, and advisors who are also deeply sympathetic individuals with faults and fears and strengths of their own.
The main action begins with the rule of Yoshimune, eighth Tokugawa shogun and the sixth woman to fulfill that role. Frugal and pragmatic, Yoshimune is also intensely curious about her predecessors and determined to protect her country from powerful outside forces while trying to discover a cure for the continuing threat posed by the pox. As she delves into the shogunate’s restricted archives, she and the reader discover a history of tragedy, courage, sacrifice, love, greed, manipulation, and redemption as the mantle of government passes from one female to the next, the Ôoku’s internal politics shift, and the country faces one challenge after another. By the seventh volume, we’ve come full circle back to Yoshimune’s rule and watch to see how she and those who follow press ahead and face the future.
A story of eighty-some years of semi-accurate history naturally encompasses a lot of names and faces of varying significance. While I adore Yoshinaga’s stylish, fluid, fine-lined art, her more attractive characters (particularly the males) do have a tendency to resemble one another, partly due to period standards of conformity. And because the characters’ appearances naturally change as they age, as often do their names and titles, it can be difficult to remember who’s whom without a little rereading. Happily, that is in no way a hardship. Also, Yoshinaga takes care to give the reader visual and contextual clues as to identity and keeps the focus fairly tight from chapter to chapter so the reader is never overwhelmed. In the process, we come to know and love generations of men and women looking to one another for emotional anchors as they navigate the pressures and pitfalls of their times. The result is a powerful, moving, and engaging tale that focuses on the unique individuals whose stories weave together to form the whole.
As always, Yoshinaga softens her sincere, edgy drama with her skillful snark and warm-hearted humor. Yoshinaga aficionados will also be happy to know that, in addition to her penchant for depicting beautiful, dignified, and strong characters of both genders, she gives in to her unabashed love of good food and showcases it in all its deliciously described richness in volume 8, seamlessly incorporating it into the larger story via the Ôoku’s kitchens.
Ôoku is seriously, wonderfully good. It has appeared on best-of lists and has been nominated for, and won, numerous awards at home and abroad, including several specifically for its thoughtful exploration of gender.
Though neither particularly graphic nor gratuitous, Ôoku‘s narrative hub is a male harem, after all. And with sex, rape, conscription, murder, poisoning, seppuku, and the ravages of the pox playing out alongside the politics and other historical details, the title will most likely appeal to mature readers who enjoy their involving history textured with a twist and a good deal of heart.
Ôoku: The Inner Chambers, vols. 1-8
by Fumi Yoshinaga
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781421527475
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781421527482
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781421527499
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781421531694
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781421536699
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781421539614
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781421542201
Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781421554822
Viz Media, 2009-2013 (ongoing)
Publisher Age Rating: MA (18+)