Ooku Volume 5 by Fumi Yoshinaga
I like this series, but I am feeling a little impatient about all the flashbacks establishing the world of Yoshinaga’s gender-flipped Edo period. When the first couple volumes introduced Yoshitsune, we saw a female shogun who was pragmatic, practical and horrified by the excess of court life. Yoshinaga shows how the court gradually grows more excessive and corrupt, as well as the desperation of the previous shogun to conceive a child. Even though Japan now functions as a matriarchal society, it isn’t necessarily any better with women in charge. The scarce men are valued only for their sperm, and the Shogun’s harem of men is a demonstration of of her wealth.
The fifth volume details the rise to power of Emonnsuke, as he manipulates the other men around him in the Inner Chambers. He has special palaces designed for the Shogun’s chosen men, ostensibly to honor them but they serve to keep her support system at a distance. The Shogun’s close female confident the Baron of Dewa confronts Emonnsuke, and while both acknowledge each other’s power nothing much gets changed. It is hilarious when Emonnsuke starts calling for salt to purify himself after talking with the Baron, thinking to himself “Is she the love-child of a demon and a human, perhaps!?” When the shogun’s daughter and heir Matsu dies the pressure on her to produce a new heir is immense, and the resulting antics in the Inner Chamber grow more and more corrupt. While some of the non-chosen men in the Inner Chamber view it as a respite from their previous duties servicing women for money to support their families, the Shogun is forced to sleep with a succession of lovers and isn’t allowed to fully mourn the child she lost. She’s lost in despair when she confesses to Emmonnsuke, “I’ll tell thee what a shogun is — ’tis a base sordid woman, lower by far than those men who sell themselves in the cheapest bawdy houses.”
There’s a huge contrast between the rituals of the Ooku and the inner lives of of the people who are caught in its rituals. The Shogun starts making foolish laws. A shocking act of violence is committed by one of the last Samurai families controlled by men, and the Shogun’s reaction is to create a new law placing even more power in the hands of women. There’s a glimmer of something new towards the end of the volume, as the Shogun meets her young relative O-Nobu. O-Nobu’s freedom in speaking exactly what’s on her mind and her confession that since she’s not pretty she doesn’t value pretty men delight the elderly Shogun. O-Nobu will grow up to become the Shogun Yoshitsune, and I’m hoping that the next volume will tell more of her story. The strength of Ooku is the world building and the careful and measured way Yoshinaga presents the rituals and history of the Inner Chamber. But at the end of this volume, I have the feeling that most of this story is just prologue, leading to the possibility of Yoshitsune doing something to change the static matriarchal society of Yoshinaga’s alternate history.
Review copy provided by the publisher