Sep 8 2009
Story & Art: Fumi Yoshinaga
Publisher: Viz Signature
Rating: M for mature
Length: 1/4+ volumes
I first heard of ÅŒoku about a year ago from a friend. The premise, she said, was that due to a disease that targets only men, the power hierarchy in Japan was genderflipped. Women filled roles that had, up until the disease struck the male population, been traditionally done only by men — including that of the Tokugawa shoguns. It sounded completely like something I would like but since I’m unable to read Japanese, it was one of those things I resigned myself to never having access to. Thankfully, other people thought it sounded interesting too and it’s now available in English.
In ÅŒoku, a strange new disease breaks out among the Japanese male population. It’s characterized by a high fever that’s then shortly followed by red pustules that spread all over the body. These pustules soon fester and the victim dies within a few days. Because of these symptoms, the disease is dubbed the Redface Pox.
Although the Redface Pox originated in a small farming village, it becomes apparent that the plague is highly contagious and virulent as well. It spreads from one village to the next, striking down only the men. And unfortunately, no cure is ever found so it becomes a common disease that’s simply a part of life.
Eighty years after the Redface Pox first appeared, the male population has stabilized at 25% that of the female. Because of their low survival rate, men are carefully protected as seed-bearers while women took over the labor in the land. Another result of the decreased male population is that marriage as an institution collapses. Poor women had no hope of ever taking a husband, a right now reserved only for the samurai class, wealthy merchants and government officials.
The only exception to this, of course, is that of the Tokugawa Shogun. As the supreme leader of Japan, she alone is allowed the luxury of keeping an interior palace populated solely by 3,000 beautiful men (this number later turns out to be an extreme exaggeration) and from which all other women are banned from entering. This interior palace is called the Inner Chamber, or the ÅŒoku.
One thing I didn’t expect when I started reading this first volume was that while the gender roles are inverted, the Japanese history portrayed in ÅŒoku is pretty much identical to that of our own. For example, when the sixth shogun dies, her daughter assumes the title. But the seventh shogun is merely a child, and a sickly one at that. When she dies, so does the main bloodline of the Tokugawa clan, which means the mantle of shogun falls onto one of the three branch bloodlines, ushering in the era of the eighth shogun, Yoshimune. How it plays out in ÅŒoku is nearly identical to how it happened in our history, right down to Yoshimune’s background. I found that I really liked this choice because in keeping the major details the same, readers can focus on the alterations that inverting the gender roles causes and the social critiques that I believe Yoshinaga is making about traditional gender roles.
That said, I was initially put off for the first half of this volume. The main story begins with Mizuno, the handsome son of a poor hatamoto (shogunate retainers) family who is in love with his childhood friend, O-Nobu. O-Nobu, however, is the daughter of a rich merchant family and thus, Mizuno is an unsuitable marriage match for her. Spurred on by the fact that he can never marry the one he loves, he chooses to enter the service of the Inner Chamber. To be honest, I actually have no problem with this storyline in and of itself. It’s just the manga is about a historical Japan in which the gender roles are switched but yet we still begin with a man and his angst. That isn’t exactly what I signed up for.
But through Mizuno’s eyes, we catch a glimpse of the Inner Chamber and the politicking that’s a daily way of life for the men who live there. It’s a fascinating contrast to see the coping mechanisms and machinations of men in a situation that, traditionally speaking when it comes to fiction, has belonged to women. This fact alone is what carried me through the first (80-page) chapter.
Thankfully, the second chapter introduces Yoshimune and with her entrance, my interest substantially increased. In our history, Yoshimune is widely considered to the best of the Tokugawa shoguns, instituting a lot of financial reform during his reign. The female Yoshimune of ÅŒoku is no different. Because she comes from a far province, she finds the excesses of the Inner Chamber distasteful, particularly when Japan’s financial situation is in dire straits. I’ve seen various portrayals of Yoshimune over the years, in period dramas and movies, but I really enjoyed this version of a no-nonsense, pragmatic female Yoshimune who refused to put up with any B.S. And not only that, but one who is unapologetic about her sexual appetite.
Knowing what I knew about the historical Yoshimune Tokugawa and the decisions he made during his reign, I was really interested in seeing how his decisions would play in the manga via this alternative female version — particularly with regards to the Inner Chamber. The translation of Yoshimune’s historical decision to the female Yoshimune’s edict in the manga takes on a completely different note given ÅŒoku‘s premise. It’s a brilliant reimagining in that sense.
I do think I should point out to potential readers that the dialogue used in this manga might take some getting used to. It is accurate because the manga does take place during the Edo Period and most of the characters belong to the upper classes. Even so, the old-fashioned formality might be a shock at first, especially when compared to other manga set during this time period and which show virtually no difference between the dialogue depicted and that of our own.
Because this is a Viz Signature title, the production values of the actual manga itself are beautiful. Both the front and back cover have fold-out flaps, and the first page in this volume is black with translucent lettering for the title. I initially thought it was vellum but under further examination, I don’t think it is. All of this frames Yoshinaga’s artwork, which is lovely. The chapter pages are gorgeous. I wish my scanner was working so I could include a sample.
So despite a rocky start, I really ended up enjoying this volume and I look forward to the next. I do wonder how the publisher intends to handle the English release since ÅŒoku is infamous for having a slow release schedule in Japan — one volume per year versus the multi-volume releases that characterize other manga series. I checked the release date for the next English volume and it’s at the end of this year. That’s already half of what’s available in Japan. This might pose a problem in the future but for now, I’ll look to volume 2. I can’t wait to see what Yoshimune learns about the history of the Redface Pox and how the transition between male shoguns to female ones occurred. B+
This book can be purchased at Amazon.