Sunday, October 25, 2015

Manga Review: Ōoku The Inner Chambers

History teaches us that during the reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu  and extending until 1853, Japan was an isolated country.  Contrary to popular belief though, the country wasn't entirely closed off - it continued to conduct trade with a Dutch factory as well as with its neighbors China and Korea. Little is known about what occurred within the country during these years and taking this historical event into account, author Fumi Yoshinaga depicts an alternative history of Japan - one where women, not men, rule the country.

Ōoku the hidden chambers begins during the reign of the shogun Yoshimune and follows a young man named Mizuno Yunoshin. Mizuno joins the Inner Chambers - a harem of men at the disposal of the shogun - after realizing that he will not be able to marry the woman he loves. However, anyone who enters the chambers can never leave and must live their life out as a member of the Inner Chambers. Within the first month Mizuno uncovers a shocking secret - the shogun is really a woman! The story then shifts to follow Yoshimune, the current shogun and her quest to learn the reason why female Shogun's must be presented as male to all but those within the Inner Chambers. She seeks out the oldest member of the Inner Chambers and from a chronicle that begins with the reign of Iemitsu, Yoshimune learns that the shogun was once a male and that in fact, the female line has been kept only because of the red face pox. This deadly disease affected boys and young men and almost always resulted in death. Unable to stop its spread, the male population of Japan dwindled away eventually killing the shogun as well. Japan converted to a matriarchal society, where men became precious treasures to be protected and where they could sell themselves as prostitutes to women willing to pay the high price to have a child. Reversing the roles between men and women affected every level of society, including the shogunate where Tokugawa Iemitsu became the first female shogun.

Isn't that super interesting?! Admit it, it totally is. An alternative history where women rule was definitely a manga that I was going to pick up! Ōoku is amazing in that it combines historical accuracy/events, romance, and political intrigue to create a fascinating narrative of not only the shogun but of her men as well. While the readers follow the changes in Shogun and how their different ways of ruling affected the country, readers are also presented with key political figures that also influenced political decisions. The men of the Inner Chambers also present their own stories and histories to create a compelling narrative overall, starting with Mizuno in the first volume. My favorite thing about this manga as a whole is that it really highlights through the stories of the men of the Inner Chambers how both men and women equally suffer due to the gender imbalance. For Iemitsu, she longed to be with the one person she loved but it was her "duty" to create a heir, therefore she had to sleep with various men to assure she could produce a son. On the other hand, there are stories of men that were sold by their mothers or sisters to produce heirs for the daughters of wealthy individuals. There's one particularly horrible one that involves not only rape but also incest.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ōoku despite the fact that I often felt uncomfortable with certain scenes or subject matter. The political power play is well thought out and portrayed (particularly since it draws on actual events, just switching genders!) and the story flows smoothly through the panels. The artwork was clean and crisp, which fits the subject matter perfectly and the conclusion - finding a cure for the pox before Japan opens it's borders again - is very well done. Ōoku is one of those works that has stayed with me since completing it and I have no doubt it would make an amazing television show. I have read that there is a movie and drama adaptation but they don't cover everything (probably because the manga was not completed when these were released). I would love to see someone pick it up and create a truly epic masterpiece of it. I think that with the right director and the right cast, it could be absolutely amazing! Clearly, my manga selections as of late have really focused on girl power! :)

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