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Fumi Yoshinaga

MANGA REVIEW: Ooku: The Inner Chambers volume 3

MANGA REVIEW: Ooku: The Inner Chambers volume 3

Story & Art: Fumi Yoshinaga
Publisher: Viz Signature
Rating: M for mature
Retail: $12.99
Length: 3/5+ volumes

Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 3 by Fumi YoshinagaDear readers,

A few months ago I reviewed the first volume in this historical josei series by Fumi Yoshinaga. In it, we were introduced to an alternate history of Tokugawa era Japan where the majority of the male population was stricken with a fatal disease called the Redface Pox. Due to the lopsided gender demographics that resulted, the power hierarchy in Japan was forever changed: women held positions of authority while men, in scarce supply, were coddled and protected.

In volume 1, the last member of the direct line of the Tokugawa shogunate dies and a woman from a branch line, Yoshimune, ascends the title. In addition to instituting reforms that scandalize and shock the court, she delves into the history of the Redface Pox, kept meticulously in an archive called Chronicle of a Dying Day.

Volume 2 opens with that history, taking us back in time to just before the Redface Pox struck the population with devastating force. In that volume, we were introduced to the daughter of the last male shogun, Chie, who has been forced into a charade for the sake of maintaining peace and order. No one outside of the court knows that the last male shogun, Iemitsu, succumbed to the plague. Instead it is a combination of Chie-masquerading-as-a-boy and male retainers projecting their voices who continue the deception. A heavy burden has been placed upon Chie — denied her own name and now called Iemitsu — who, in the hopes of continuing the line, must bear a male heir.

Volume 3 continues the story of Iemitsu and Arikoto, the abbot who was brought to court to be a concubine, who have found an unlikely love despite their circumstances. But unfortunately, it is not meant to last. Despite the fact they have been lovers for a year, Iemitsu has yet to conceive. She remains certain that the inability is her fault; early on during her stay at court, Chie was raped by a retainer who didn’t know her true identity. Chie is convinced both the rape and the difficult birth of the stillborn child that resulted caused irrevocable damage to her womb. Lady Kasuga, Iemitsu’s attendant and the effective ruler of the Inner Chambers, is not so sure and brings other men to court, evicting Arikoto from his place in Iemitsu’s bed in the process.

I have to take back what I said in my review for volume 1. There is a romance here because the relationship between Arikoto and Iemitsu can’t be read in any other way. But for all their desire to remain true to their hearts despite everything thrown at them by fate, I can’t see this ending well. In fact, I’m almost 100% sure this will not end well so I still can’t recommend this title sans reservation to readers looking for a romance manga. It’s not one and it’s not meant to be, so expecting an HEA here is unreasonable.

What it excels at, however, is depicting people with realistic reactions and believable emotions in these circumstances. Arikoto and Chie try to fight fate and cling to each other as hard as they can which, considering the hand life has dealt them, is better than either could expect. I will warn readers, however, there is a lot of drama surrounding their now-starcrossed fates so if your tolerance is low for this sort of thing, the middle sections may try your patience. Or, if you like this sort of thing, you will find it riveting.

I did enjoy watching Chie come into her own, and become the Iemitsu she’d been masquerading as in truth. In this volume, we see the seeds of how the power in the shogunate switched genders. Remember, Chie’s sole purpose to bear the next male heir. I don’t think it’s a spoiler, considering what we first see in volume 1 and its female shoguns, to say that obviously didn’t happen. I really liked seeing Chie surprise the advisors with her intelligence and acumen. Her suggestions and ideas were often better than that of the advisors themselves. It makes what happens in the final pages of this volume even more momentous.

Despite the focus on the Inner Chambers and the shifting balance in the shogunate, we also see how the outside world begins to change with new gender spread. Even though the title of the series is ÅŒoku and as a result, its focus is on the shogunate’s inner workings, I do wish we could have seen more of the peasant characters and their lives. Of course, I do wonder if maybe the change in power dynamics grows more accepted when a female shogun rules openly.

While I wasn’t quite as spellbound by this volume as the previous two, I did enjoy what I read and I thought it was an excellent continuation of a stellar series. I thought it was an excellent transition into what we all know is soon to follow. I can’t wait to see what happens when a female shogun takes power openly without any masks or charades, and what it’ll mean for Iemitsu and Arikoto. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW: Ooku: The Inner Chambers volume 2

REVIEW: Ooku: The Inner Chambers volume 2

Ooku cover imageStory & Art: Fumi Yoshinaga
Publisher: Viz Signature
Rating: M for mature
Retail: $12.99
Length: 2/5+ volumes

Dear readers,

A few months ago, I read the first volume in this wonderful series by Fumi Yoshinaga. The premise is deceptively simple: What would happen if a plague wiped out the majority of the male population in Tokugawa era Japan? How would that affect Japanese society and culture? The answer proved to be thoroughly engrossing and fascinating.

At the end of the previous volume, we were introduced to the newest shogun to ascend the title, Yoshimune. Unlike her predecessors, Yoshimune has very strong opinions about how the country should be run, particularly with regards to its financial sector. She’s strict and frugal, and I thought she was an absolutely awesome interpretation of one of the Japan’s most beloved historical figures. Volume 1 ended with Yoshimune delving into the history of the Redface Pox and how it changed the course of Japan forever.

Volume 2 opens several decades before, when the Redface Pox was beginning to spread through Japan and before Yoshimune assumed the title of shogun. In this early pages, we witness the death of Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun, at the hands of the plague. For a bit of historical context, such an event would have catastrophic had it happened in reality. As being only the third shogun, it was his task to continue solidifying Tokugawa rule. His death in such a precarious time would have been disastrous.

In the pages of ÅŒoku, this is a fact that hangs over everyone. You see, Iemitsu had no interest in women much to the dismay of his nursemaid-turned-attendant, Lady Kasuga, and left no heir. With the death of the last male shogun and no claimant to the title, the country was left without a ruler. Considering the chaos that consumed Japan while the Tokugawa clan fought to gain control of the country, everyone dreads what would happen if the general populace were to find out what had happened.

Several years after Iemitsu’s death, the monk Arikoto travels to Edo castle to present himself to the shogun before assuming his new role as an abbot. Unfortunately, he soon finds himself held hostage in the castle, barred from leaving. And it is here that he learns the truth: Iemitsu died six years ago, a fact that was kept secret from everyone and the person who sits in his place now is his illegitimate daughter. It is a masquerade carried out for one purpose alone — for Iemitsu’s daughter to live long enough to conceive and give birth to a male heir, who will then be a legitimate bearer of the shogun title. The reason why Arikoto has been barred from leaving the castle is because Lady Kasuga intends for him to enter the Ooku and become a member of the meager harem to encourage Iemitsu’s daughter to carry out her duty.

If I thought the first volume was amazing, the second volume matches that and goes beyond. Desperate times lead to desperate actions and while I have no doubts that Lady Kasuga’s motives for taking Iemitsu’s daughter and having her assume the identity of her father were less than stellar, it doesn’t change the fact that it was one way to keep the country under orderly rule. Japan was already in chaos due to the Redface Pox. Society was already facing upheaval because of the large numbers of men dying; to add the destruction of shogunate rule after such a short period of time would have been more than the country could have beared.

At the same time, we also see how such measures completely destroyed the people involved in its schemes. Despite being of noble birth, Arikoto wanted nothing more than to be a monk so he could bring succor and peace to the general populace. But even more so, my heart wrenches for Iemitsu’s daughter — in order to fulfill Lady Kasuga’s plan, she’s had to throw away her femininity and be forced to assume that of a man. She doesn’t even have her own name anymore; people call her Iemitsu, which is sure to be damaging. No one cares for her as a person either. They only care for the fact that one day she will hopefully bear them a son who can bring back the order they’re used to having.

Much of the plot in this volume delves into the ways people cope. Arikoto bears it as best he can, with the gentle strength that is his trademark. But there is doubt that deep inside, he is bitter and angry at what has happened to him, particularly when it becomes apparent that his noble family has abandoned him to this fate. Along those lines, Iemitsu is angry and bad-tempered, unleashing it upon everyone around her. But deep inside, she is deeply hurt and wounded and terribly sad. It is a love story that may not fit the traditional definition as such, but it is one nonetheless.

In this volume, we also learn the origins of the customs we were introduced in the previous one, such as why the ÅŒoku exists and why the secret swain meets the fate he does. It was interesting to see how such things get altered from their actual origin to the ritualized practice we saw demonstrated in volume 1. The origin of the secret swain, for example, was horrifying and yet all too believable for me and to see how its roots led to the practice subverted by Yoshimune was a sad one.

I still recommend this series to fans of historical and political manga as well as to readers interested in stories that comment on gender dynamics. The first volume set a high bar and it pleases me to say that this one meets that standard and exceeds it. A-

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased at Amazon.