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Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 1

Note:

The cover is really what first drew me to this manga. Very plain background, but a good design strategy. Setting the man off to the left, then cropping part of his face reminded me a bit of some of Degas’ horse race paintings.

At the Races, Degas. Image from World Classic Gallery (click image to visit website.)

Race Horses, Degas. Image from Terminartors (click image to visit website.)

There was a great use of positive and negative space, which is really indicative of good cover design (something I still lack…I’m stuck in the middle of the page, sadly.) Of course, Degas, like many of the great artists of his day, was influenced by Japanese wood prints, so I suppose his art coming to mind really isn’t even all that big of a phenomenon. Still, since the cover reminded me of such art, I thought it would be worth while to give it a go. Very simple design, and yet, here you have it, it was enough to make me buy the book.

Here’s the cover, for you to compare (better than having to scroll up and down, right?) You can see the diagonal cut on all three of these images, and how it sets the two spaces apart.

To be honest, I didn’t even read the synopsis, just picked it up and made the purchase (I wonder if the “Explicit Content” tag didn’t catch my eye also?) Once I learned what the manga was actually about, I was very intrigued. The idea to have a complete role reversal in the Edo period was very appealing: where men were the ones subjugated to women, and forced to look good and please them. To have harems of men, to have a “red-light” district constructed fully of men. Sounded like the Amazons taking over Japan. Just the fantasy of the tables being turned interested me, so I jumped into this manga not really sure what to expect. The art is very well done, and the theme fresh to me.

I can’t recall that I’ve ever actually read a historical fiction before. I might have…but I don’t remember. I started a Harry Turtledove book once, something about Kaisers all over Europe and an alternate world, like our own but with a twist of fate. Kind of the same idea with the alternate history here: which is different for me (films like Inglorious Bastards, the remake by Tarantino, are of course exceptions. I have seen some films in the alternate history genre.)

This is also really one of the first Josei manga I’ve ever read. In fact, I can’t think of any that I have purchased: this is truly a first. So I delved in head first, hoping for the best (never the worst.)

*This review has spoilers. Nothing major, but a few. Proceed with caution!*

Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Vol. 1-Highly Recommended

Mangaka: Fumi Yoshinaga
Copyright: 2005
Genre: Josei, Historical Fiction/Fantasy, Harem, Gender Role Reversal
Chapters:

  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4

Summary:

In the early Tokugawa period, a strange illness befalls the young men of Japan, halving the ratio between men and women. As the death of its menfolk progresses, Japan adapts by becoming a matriarchal society, in which women control the government, households, and other traditionally male roles. At the center of this world dwells the Shogun–which now passes from one woman heir to the next. To show off the prosperity and prestige of the Shogun, her Ooku (inner chamber) is filled with an array of male servants–a rare and magnificent sight indeed. Mizuno, a young man from an impoverished background, decides to join the Inner Chambers. As he is of too low of status to marry his childhood friend, O-Nobu, he figures it would be better for him to find service within the confines of Edo Castle, than to live life ever beside the woman he loves, but cannot marry.

Though optimistic, Mizuno soon finds out the Ooku is not all it seems, and many dark secrets and rituals lie within. Around the same time he enters the Ooku, the current Shogun, a seven year old girl, takes ill and dies. With no heir to the throne, the new Shogun is a woman from the providence of Kii becomes the next lord of the castle. Lord Yoshimune is quite different from her predecessors: caring deeply about the finances of state and the frivolousness of palace life. She takes it upon herself to help bring the country out of the lurch it finds itself in, and put an end to much of pomp and circumstance of the Inner Chambers. What will this mean for Mizuno? How will things fair the naive, yet intelligent new page in the Ooku?

Pros and Cons: Story and Content

Characters:

Wonderful.

That’s a good way to start off, isn’t it? These characters are simply wonderful. They vary from humble and kind, to ambitious and cunning. There are beautiful men and woman, and their are common-looking folk. Really, very colorful, yet distinguished. And they’re likable. Even some of the characters who are “bad guys” are understandable and likable. You see their thought process, and why they take certain actions. Truly a wonderful array of characters that are often not only deep, but have shining personalities. They are also often witty, with funny comments to make. Very life-like and enjoyable.

I made that paragraph a bit choppy intentionally. I tried to express my feelings towards the characters as it came to me. I really enjoyed how Yoshinaga builds upon the character of each person, and helps to bond with them. She does a great job of making characters you care about. I give her credit for this!
Story:

I was also impressed with the story. This is the first josei manga I’ve ever read, and I boy can I tell you–you can see the difference. I usually read shounen or shojyo, but think I’m going to get more into some josei series if I can find them.

The story telling is definitely tailored towards a mature audience. There’s not a lot of fast action and “loud” yelling and screaming in this manga. The general feel of the story is mature and the comic has some explicit content-but nothing lewd or inappropriate. Plus, it’s an interesting twist. Yoshinaga does a wonderful job of creating a world parallel to our own: an alternate history. I love the role reversal and how well done it is. Even though women are now in charge, they still retain many of their natural qualities, while still accomplishing the roles of men. In fact, though woman are more authoritarian than usually depicted in manga, its really the men who change and become more feminine. I love how gender boundaries are pushed in this story, and how realistic this fiction seems.

In addition, I enjoyed the comedy. It’s not “in your face” comedy, but more of a play on words, or a subtle joke, like one might tell to a friend or acquaintance. For example, on 170 we find Lord Yoshimune speaking with her closest confidant (and intermediary to the Ooku,) Hisamichi. Here, the Shogun is expressing her gratitude, explaining that speaking to O-Mistu (another name Hisamichi goes by) is nearly an extension of her own person, for she speaks to her as the Shogun speaks to herself. In response, Hisamichi tells her that she is indeed Yoshimune’s arms and legs–for she does a lot of work for her, yet always stays quiet (as your limbs would…unless I guess you use sign language.) Bemused by her comment, Yoshimune states “Thou art most clever, Hisamichi:” to which the lady responds “But dumb, my leige” (170). Clever, indeed, are many of the jokes found within Ooku: The Inner Chambers.

There’s a lot to the story I liked. You can tell by how long this section has become. Another thing I enjoyed was the characters’ language. This I contribute to the translators and editors, but also to Yoshinaga, since she probably did a similar thing in the manga’s original language. The whole book reads similar to Shakespearean English. I say similar, cause I don’t believe it’s exact, but you get a real feel for the era: it’s in the 1600s (little after Shakespeare, if I’m not mistaken.) So the language feels old, but has an elegance to it. I won’t lie, at times it gets a little hard to trod though, be never too difficult (especially once you get used to it.)

Further, I would love to write a letter to the translator or editor and congratulate them on the correct usage of “thee,” “thou,” “you,” and “your.” For once, someone got it right! Too often you see “period” films or shows that try to use these terms, and just mess it all up: The Tudors comes to mind (though, admittedly, I do love the show–however inaccurate it is.)  When addressing a superior, one would address them as “you” or “your.” This was reserved for kings, queens, and the like. Common folk, or one’s “inferiors” would have been called “thee” and “thou.” I can’t tell you how it grates on my nerves when I see this used improperly. The only time it’s really excusable, is in actual literature from the time. For instance, Shakespeare himself did this a lot. The fool might call his king “thee,” or a character of low status, though high ambition might slip out “thee,” and “thou.” This could have been for two reasons–one, to emphasize something about the character’s personality, or two, because it was at a time when the actual meaning for these words were changing (though I believe my professor explained that in reality, you’d still use the proper terms in the company of royalty or “higher-ups.”) I have the perfect example of one such word! I never get to use this, so I’m throwing it out there. One of things that makes Hamlet: Prince of Denmark so interesting to study, and to try to find the meaning of, is Hamlet’s use of the word “doubt.” One of the keys to this play is we do not know whether or not Hamlet himself truly knows his Uncle’s guilt, or if he’s just insane. Why? Well, besides his waffling back and forth, he uses the would “doubt” in one of his many soliloquies”(I don’t think the big one, I think one of the shorter speeches.) At this time, doubt meant both to believe, and not believe. So depending on the context, it’s hard to tell which meaning is being used (especially in Hamlet.) So there ya go! A little something about the English language you probably never wanted to know!

Anyway, what a digression! To put it plain, I love the way its written.

Pros and Cons: Art

The art is superb. Elegant, yet comedic when necessary. Beautiful and dramatic. Yoshinaga is a true artist. She includes plain people, unattractive persons, great beauties (male and female,) and varying degrees of all. She illustrates people of slim build, and large build. I especially like Hisamichi–she’s pleasantly plump, yet beautiful at the same time. I think her kind look and easy-going personalty also shines through.

Only “con” I can think of, is that some of the male characters looks strikingly similar. At times I had to double check who was who, to make sure I had the right guy. I’m noticing that in the next volume, as well. This doesn’t happen so much with the women. I wonder if this was done intentionally, or not. Anyway, it’s not a big deal, just a little confusing. I wouldn’t even mark it as much of a “con.”

Conclusion:

I know it took me a while to get this review done, but it certainly wasn’t because the manga was worth it! I really think this is a great story, and shouldn’t be missed! If you like historical fiction, alternate realities, or just good story-telling, you’ll definitely want to read this manga!

Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Vol. 1-Highly Recommended!

Citations:

Yoshinagi, Fumi. Ooku: The Inner Chambers. Trans. Akemi Wegmüller. Vol. 1. San Francisco: Viz Media, 2005.

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