Story & Art: Fumi Yoshinaga
Publisher: Viz Signature
Rating: M for mature
Length: 2/5+ volumes
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-
This book can be purchased at Amazon.