Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 3

Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527499
Released: April 2010
Original release: 2007
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Sense of Gender Award, Shogakukan Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

Because Fumi Yoshinaga is such a skilled creator, it’s difficult for me to choose a favorite among her works but one of her most recent series, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is definitely one of the major contenders. It is also her most awarded series so far, having won a Sense of Gender Award, a Japan Media Arts Award, an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, and most recently a 2010 Shogakukan Manga Award, in addition to being nominated for many other honors. Ōoku is currently up to seven volumes in Japan; the most recent volume to be published in English being the sixth. The third volume of Ōoku was published in Japan in 2007 and was released in English under Viz Media’s Signature line in 2010. Because Ōoku is one of my favorite manga series, and not just one of my favorite Yoshinaga works, I do intend to review each volume. The fact that August 2011’s Manga Moveable Feast features Fumi Yoshinaga doesn’t hurt either.

The Redface Pox continues to spread across Japan and more and more men are dying of the disease. Even the shogunate isn’t immune, but the death of Japan’s military leader has been kept a closely guarded secret. His daughter Chie is the only person remaining who can carry on the Tokugawa bloodline. Lady Kasuga is determined that Chie will bear a male heir and will stop at nothing to ensure that that happens. Chie and her chosen suitor Arikoto, who was initially brought to the Inner Chambers against his will, have managed to find some happiness together in these troubled times. However, their happiness is short lived when Chie fails to conceive. Although Kasuga’s power over them and the rest of the Inner Chambers is beginning to slip, she forces them to consider the fate of peace in Japan against their own happiness and desires.

The third volume of Ōoku begins about a year after the end of the second volume and continues the story for several more years. Some of the most noticeable things in the third volume are the changes and developments in the characters themselves, the Inner Chambers, and Japanese society. Lady Chie, who once was prone to violent outbursts, has matured greatly, much thanks to the presence of Arikoto. She has also shown herself to be quite keen and more than capable to act as the leader of state, much to the surprise of some of the senior ministers. Arikoto’s presence has also begun to change the nature of the Inner Chambers as he brings in aristocratic influences and is accepted by the other men there. Arikoto, as always, retains his dignity even in the face of tragedy; only Lady Chie and his attendant Gyokuei are privy to what he hides from others. And speaking of Gyokuei, he also has grown from a boy into a young man.

The characters are not the only things to change in the third volume of Ōoku; the society in which they live is also slowly developing into the Japan seen in the first volume of the series. While women, especially those in the upper classes, are still subject to their expected gender roles, the social system keeping them there is beginning to break down. Out of necessity, they will have to take on the work and leadership positions once reserved only for men, but at this point in the story it is still considered a temporary measure. One of the most interesting things for me, as someone with a particular interest in the Tokugawa period, is that with all of the changes Yoshinaga has made to history in Ōoku, some things remains the same, such as Japan’s seclusion policies, but for drastically different reasons. Ōoku fascinates and engages me on multiple levels which is one of the reasons I like the series so well.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 2

Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527482
Released: December 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: James Tiptree Jr. Award, Japan Media Arts Award, Sense of Gender Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

The second volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, originally published in Japan in 2006, was released in an English edition by Viz Media’s Signature imprint in 2009. That same year the series won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize and the first two volumes published by Viz received the year’s James Tiptree Jr. Award. Ōoku has also been honored with a Japan Media Arts Award and a Sense of Gender Award. I read the first volume of Yoshinaga’s gender reversing alternative history of the Edo period and quite enjoyed it. Despite some unfortunate decisions made with the English translation, I was very much looking forward to reading the second volume of Ōoku. The series has earned a fair amount of critical acclaim with which I agree and I think the second volume is an even stronger work than the first.

What was once thought to be a localized problem, the Redface Pox has steadily become a more widespread epidemic, reaching even Edo. The disease affects men, particularly young men, and due to its high mortality rate the male population has been decreased to almost half of what it once was. When the Shogun unexpectedly falls victim to the illness, those closest to him are determined to keep it a secret, supposedly for the sake of the stability of the government and country although there are also other more personal motivations involved. Arikoto, a young nobleman known for his devotion as well as his beauty, had been recently appointed as the Abbot of Keiko-in when he is swept up in the political machinations of those representing the shogunate. He unwillingly gives up his religious vows to lead a secular life and is forced to enter the Inner Chambers. There he learns the shogunate’s secret and is confronted with the realization that he is not the only one to have been placed in an unwanted and desperate situation.

I did not anticipate how intense, violent, and brutal the second volume of Ōoku was going to be. The Edo period tends to be romanticized in historical fiction, but Yoshinaga doesn’t shy away from some of the more unsavory aspects of the era’s society. The main story in the second volume takes place a few decades after the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate. Although the regime’s power has a firm foundation by this point, there is still some reluctance and class strife among the people. And in Ōoku’s version of history, they also have to deal with a devastating plague on top of the already existing political and clan turmoil. Particularly evident in the second volume of Ōoku is the class conflict between the nobility and samurai. Because of the helpful notes included in the Viz edition, it is not necessary to be well-versed in Japanese history, but not everything is explained in depth. Those who are already familiar with the Edo period and culture will probably get even more out of reading Ōoku than those who are not.

The second volume of Ōoku can be read completely separate from the first. However, there are still significant connections between the two: O-Man, who is only briefly mentioned in passing the first volume, plays a prominent role and the origins of many of the Inner Chamber’s customs and traditions, some of them quite troubling, are revealed. I still find the English translation, a sort of “Fakespearian” English, to be awkward and distracting although I do understand why and how it is being used to indicate the varying levels of formality in speech. The characters in Ōoku are forced to deal with terrible and unfortunate circumstances. They don’t always face their fates well and they don’t always make the best decisions, but they do what they can to bear the unbearable. While I enjoyed the first volume of Ōoku, I personally found the second to be even better and incredibly good. It is not always an easy read, and it can be emotionally draining as well powerful, but it is excellent.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 1

Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527475
Released: August 2009
Original run: 2005-ongoing (Melody)
Awards: James Tiptree Jr. Award, Japan Media Arts Award, Sense of Gender Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

Out of all her series so far, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is probably the one that has garnered the most awards and nominations for Fumi Yoshinaga, including the first ever James Tiptree, Jr. Award given to a manga. Even though Ōoku was the first of Yoshinaga’s works that I learned about, I actually ended up reading, and thoroughly enjoying, several of her others before picking it up. The English edition of Ōoku is published by Viz Media as part of their Signature line. As of October 2009, five volumes of the series have been released in Japan and it is projected to run for a total of ten volumes. There is even a live-action adaption planned for October 2010. The release schedule is slower than most manga, only one volume per year, which results in some impatient readers, but also encourages the savoring of each individual installment.

After a brief introduction, most of the first volume concerns Yunoshin Mizuno. The year is 1716, more than eighty years have passed since the beginning of the Redface Pox epidemic; the male population of Japan has been reduced to nearly a quarter of what it once was. Out of necessity, women have taken on the roles previously held by men, including even the military rule of the country. In order to avoid an unwanted marriage and to best support his family, Mizuno decides to enter into service in the Ōoku, or Inner Chambers, of the Shogun. There, hundreds of men are kept and women barred except for the Shogun herself who may choose among the men for her concubines. Mizuno quickly realizes that life in the Inner Chambers is not exactly what he was expecting and finds himself caught up in others’ political maneuverings. The first volume also give a good picture of Yoshimune Tokugawa, the current shogun—a strong-willed woman not afraid to challenges the status quo.

Ōoku is more serious overall than most of Yoshinaga’s other work that I’ve read, but she still incorporates lovely moments of humor. Her artwork is as expressive as ever and I personally think it is some of her best. Backgrounds are slightly more detailed than I am used to seeing from Yoshinaga and her depictions of Edo era clothing are simply gorgeous. A few color plates are also included and are stunning. Viz’s presentation is beautifully done, although occasionally a panel is cropped a little too closely, and the larger Signature format shows off the artwork nicely. All of the main characters have distinctive looks and even the secondary characters show a good variety of design, something that Yoshinaga seemed to struggle with in her earliest works but here is executed elegantly.

As any good alternate history should, Ōoku incorporates historically accurate elements—such as Japan’s Edo era isolationism and the events surrounding the succession of the Shogunate—and gives them new meaning and reason. While the women are officially in charge, the men still have a tremendous amount of influence. Even so, Yoshignaga’s women are strong and can hold their own—the Baron’s smackdown of the Senior Chamberlain was brilliant, for one. Occasionally, Ōoku can be rather text heavy but the information conveyed is interesting and generally important. Unfortunately, the faux-Early Modern English is rather awkward when used. I think I understand what Viz was trying to do—capture the different levels of formality inherent in the Japanese language but no longer a prominent part of English—but they don’t quite pull it off; the language is distracting. But overall, the first volume of Ōoku is a strong start to the series. Beautiful, emotional storytelling accompanies beautiful, expressive art. I am very much looking forward to continuing the series—I love what I’ve seen so far.