In this alternate history of Edo-period Japan, an incurable disease has wiped out much of the nation’s male population, leaving women to take up traditional men’s roles, including that of shogun.
As this series is structured, its first volume begins eighty years after the disease’s initial outbreak, at which point the male population has declined by 75% and women have become firmly fixed in their new roles. The second and third volumes then return to the beginning of the outbreak, which finds the nation in a panic–desperate to maintain male rule, even to the point of delusion, if that is what is required.
This structural choice is, frankly, brilliant. By removing any real question about the outcome of events that occur during the second and third volumes, Yoshinaga allows herself (and the reader) to focus on the process, which really shows her off to her greatest advantage. Though the universe is dense and the language even more so (needlessly, to some extent, thanks to an unfortunate choice in its English adaptation), this arrangement allows for a great deal of slow, masterful character development and an emphasis on human relationships and the psychology of political theory.
The story revolves around the workings of the Ooku, the harem of Edo Castle, in which the shogun’s wife, servants, and concubines reside. Traditionally inhabited by thousands of women, this number is shown to have been shifted to men in the first volume of this series, each bound into service of the shogun–an especially decadent arrangement in a nation with a male-female ratio of 1:4.
Though each of the series’ first three volumes focuses heavily on the lives of young men entering the Ooku (some of whom are there of their own free will, others… not so much) the overarching story is that of the evolution of a powerful female shogunate.
Volume one, the story of Mizuno, whose understated appearance catches the eye of the new, no-nonsense shogun, exhibits a rather fascinating society in which this is already firmly in place. Yet it is even more compelling to watch this society emerge, slowly and painfully, from its deep, patriarchal roots over the course of the following volumes.
It is here that Yoshinaga displays a new talent for creating cold, self-serving, and even cruel characters who are complex enough to be, not just interesting, but actually relatable. And she does it just about as far out of her comfort zone as possible.
There is nothing warm or quirky about Ooku. Life inside the shogun’s chambers is nowhere near casual or even remotely lighthearted. Even Yoshinaga’s earlier stabs at period pieces (such as Gerard & Jacques or Garden Dreams) are inappropriate for comparison, so great is the difference in weight and complexity.
With the preservation of the Tokugawa shogunate as paramount within the Inner Chambers, even the nation’s appalling health crisis can be seen in a positive light, so long as it weakens families that might otherwise represent a threat to the current government. When impoverished farmers must abandon their fields to dodge tithes they can no longer afford, make a law that binds them to the land for life. Should famine strike, offer several days of free gruel, not with the purpose of relieving hunger, but to quell the seeds of rebellion. Above all, nothing is more important than producing appropriate progeny to keep the Tokugawa family safely in power.
This is the world of the shogunate, illustrated here without nostalgia or apology, yet populated with characters Yoshinaga is able to make her readers care about and occasionally even like.
The greatest downside to this series is its English adaptation which, in an effort to create formal-sounding speech, utilizes an awkward, quasi-17th-century style (referred to among critics as “Fakespeare”).
Though I personally was able to acclimate just a few pages in, even for me this has the disadvantage of dampening what is typically my greatest joy in Yoshinaga’s writing–her glorious abundance of dialogue. As a result, though Yoshinaga is as talky as ever, much of her delightful spark is gone.
While this may be an inevitability in such a politically dense story, the characters’ stilted manner of speech makes it difficult to know for sure. That said, there is not a single moment in this series so far that has not engaged me fully–quite a feat under the circumstances.
On the other hand, Yoshinaga’s artwork is more stunning than ever, employing a level of detail in costuming and background unusual for her work, yet retaining the elegant simplicity characteristic of her clean, expressive style. Her visual storytelling here is sophisticated and straightforward, with restrained panel layouts that suit the period and setting.
As a fan of Fumi Yoshinaga, josei manga, and the Viz Signature imprint, there is no question that a series like this, even just in theory, is a very exciting work. Fortunately, this truth extends beyond the theoretical and into the actual. Ooku is beautiful, engaging, and a very exciting work indeed. It is also challenging and ambitious enough to garner some real respect for josei manga in western fandom at last. And for that, I’m truly grateful.
Review copies provided by the publisher.