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MANGA REVIEW: Ooku: The Inner Chambers

Story & Art: Fumi Yoshinaga
Publisher: Viz Signature
Rating: M for mature
Retail: $12.99
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+

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased at Amazon.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

32 Comments

  1. Jill Myles
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 15:32:04

    For those of us that don’t know a lot about manga…josei is the more romantic one, yes? I’m curious how prevalent the romance storyline itself is.

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  2. Estara
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 15:48:31

    I was particularly impressed by Yoshinaga’s art in this one. Having read mostly her longer titles so far -which usually feature the same protagonists- I was a bit surprised when the focus changed to Yoshimune, but I agree with you that she’s a cool lady to follow ^^. I don’t think romance is very important in this story, though. Community and society is.

    @Jill Myles: As far as I gather josei is aimed at women, while shoujo is aimed at girls.

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  3. Jia
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 15:48:49

    Josei doesn’t necessarily mean it’s romantic. In Japan, manga isn’t categorized into the same genres we’d recognize here with novels, for example. Instead, the categories have more to do with their target reading audience. “Josei” manga is “young ladies” manga, meaning its target audience is that of older teenage girls and adult women. So in effect, there’s a huge spread in terms of the kind of titles you’d find. Something like Midnight Secretary is also josei, but it’s very different from Ooku.

    Based on what I’ve heard about this manga, and from what I’ve seen in this first volume, it tends to rotate through various characters through different generations so I have doubts there will ever be a prevalent romance storyline. That said, the Mizuno storyline does take up a good chunk of the book, even though it’s entirely from his POV and not at all from the girl he leaves behind.

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  4. RStewie
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 15:51:11

    This is very interesting, and I’ve been looking for a manga that captures my attention to get into the genre (is manga a genre?)…

    I’m also wondering about the romance aspects of the story, and how graphic it is? It appears to be pretty politically focused…would you recommend this as a first time buy?

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  5. Jia
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 16:25:19

    @RStewie: I would call manga a medium rather than a genre but in some ways, it does have its own language that readers not familiar with the format might have a hard time parsing.

    Like Estara confirmed above, it’s not very romantic and it is indeed more politically and socially focused. It’s not graphic at all in terms of sexual content or violence. Depending on your tastes, I think this could be a good title for a first-time manga reader. It’s more serious, so it’s more in line with the stories we’d find in novels, and it doesn’t have much in the way of the cracktacular elements that you’d find in other manga (like girls who were raised by pigeons). Actually, I might put this in the category of manga I’d recommend to people who don’t want to read manga.

    But if you’re looking specifically for a romance manga to read, this isn’t one I’d recommend.

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  6. Jill Myles
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 17:57:51

    RStewie asked it better than I did. I loved loved Midnight Secretary, but cannot seem to find another heavily romantic manga, so I must be looking in the wrong places. Can you recommend anything?

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  7. Jia
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 18:26:17

    @Jill Myles: Hmm. You might like Mars by Fuyumi Soryo. It’s shoujo (girls), not josei, so its target audience is younger but it deals with some dark and heavy themes. No vampires like Midnight Secretary. Just an ultra-shy, reclusive high school girl who’s a fabulous artist and the self-destructive, violent motorcycle-riding playboy she falls in love with.

    I’ll sleep on it and see if I can think of some recs. Maybe Estara can chime in with some. I know personally I tend not to read the heavily romantic manga titles because for some reason, a romance plot alone isn’t enough to hold my interest in manga. Speaking of which…

    @Estara: Were you the one who wanted a review of High School Debut? It might take a while but I can write one up for that one. I’ve read it.

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  8. Ami
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 19:46:11

    are we aiming for only in book form manga or…

    ReplyReply

  9. Keishon
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 19:49:32

    This sounds interesting…

    ReplyReply

  10. Chenebe
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 21:12:45

    The gender role reversal reminds me of Wen Spencer’s ‘A Brother’s Price’.

    ReplyReply

  11. Mezza
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 01:41:40

    In graphic novels there is “Y the last man”. In a contemporary world a plague wipes out all men except for one young man and his male monkey companion (he was training it as an animal helper for disabled people). They were protected by an amulet. Of the first three volumes that I have read, he is making a journey across America aiming to reach his fiancee in Australia. I think there are up to a dozen volumes now and rumours of a movie. The world is essentially post-apocalyptic (see – no men, and everything falls apart) and the story is from his POV so it is not a feminist text or a re-visioning of the world. It is a road story so is episodic.

    ReplyReply

  12. VitalikGromovss
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 02:06:18

    I am incredibly amused that something called “Demon Killer” comes in a juice box

    ReplyReply

  13. Jia
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 02:27:20

    @Ami: Oh, no. If you have a suggestion, feel free to toss it out there regardless of whether or not it’s like a book or it’s cracky or what have you.

    ReplyReply

  14. RStewie
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 06:58:19

    Jia,
    Thank you! Medium WAS the word I was looking for…but my brain was just not up for it yesterday.

    I love the political intrigues in the Kushiel series, and I’ve read other novels that are heavily scewed towards political drama, as opposed to romance, although there are some elements of it.

    I think, though, that Midnight Secretary might be better able to hold my interest at the moment, though. I’m still working my way through Fiasco, and I don’t want to bog down reading too much politico …especially if there’s a good adult manga out there with, evidently, a secretary and vampires?

    ReplyReply

  15. Jia
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 07:02:51

    @RStewie: Midnight Secretary is essentially a Harlequin Presents in manga form, with a dash of paranormal. The one caveat I have is that it’s not officially licensed so you will have to read it online (via unofficial fan translations). For some people, this isn’t an issue but others it is, so I feel I should point it out.

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  16. RStewie
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 07:18:33

    Jia,
    Thank you so much! That explains the lack of review on this site, too, I guess.

    I’ll have to look into it and see what’s up.

    Are there any out there that would compare that ARE licensed? My SO would love for me to get into manga (I’m a huge anime fan)…he’s mentioned it repeatedly that he thinks I might like it, and I have a BDay coming up, so that would be a great present idea for him!

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  17. Jia
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 07:55:53

    @RStewie: Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you. The difficulty we run into here is that josei manga, in general, doesn’t sell in the US so it doesn’t get licensed in the same proportion that shoujo does. But I have a couple leads. Watch this space. We are trying to bring back more manga reviews to DA.

    ReplyReply

  18. Nikki
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 08:23:38

    I really liked Ooku. This is goign to include spoilers though, please be warned.

    I had a different feeling for the first section with Mizuno. I think it was on certain levels a good intro. And we see the perspective of the men who are now these less valued objects. I thought considering how Japanese and other cultures devalue women, the turn around to men was interesting. It might be from my cultural perspective but I thought it was awesome. The option of having the choice to go to the Inner Chambers to serve vs an unwanted arranged marriage or prostitution was absolutely fascinating. In following Mizuno I think that Yoshinaga was able to give us her world-building without a total info dump. That way, by the time Yoshimune comes around there are fewer questions.

    I think there will be an interesting social commentary. My question is what happened to the rest of the world, if the japanese men were wiped out, Japan still had some trade with the outside world, why didn’t this pox spread there?

    And can I just say, Midnight Secretary is like crack. Awesome crack, but still. There are some good seinen/josei work out there, I like My Girl by Sahara Mizu, Hotaru no Hikari, and Usagi Drop. If you are looking for romance, paranormal, and hot sex, Ohmi Tomu might be a good bet, the Kindan no Koi de Ikou involves a 300 year old werewolf and his girlfriend.

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  19. lijakaca
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 13:05:54

    I have no idea if this has been translated, but my favourite josei manga might be Oishii Kankei (A Delicious Relationship) by Satoru Makimura. It starts out fairly lightly, but gets more intense near the end. It does have a main romance; although it’s not romance-focused I love it for the main romance storyline.

    It’s a story about a young woman who grew up privileged, but whose family loses everything and she makes her way in the world by becoming a chef. It’s 16 volumes and also has a drama series, but is from the 90′s, before there was much Western interest in josei manga.

    I also really like another of her series, Imagine (11 volumes), which follows a daughter and her divorced mother’s relationships. Coincidentally this also has a drama series ^_^, and I think this one focuses more on the romances than Oishii Kankei.

    And may I add, hooray for more manga reviews! I don’t have much time for reading right now, so the manga reviews are usually the only posts I can comment on ^_^. Plus I just love manga…

    ReplyReply

  20. Estara
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 13:24:51

    @Jia: YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yep I was the one

    @RStewie: If you like a bit of smut in your romance manga and no supernatural bit – then you would love Shinjo Mayu’s Sensual Phrase, which might still be available on the used book market and was released by VIZ.

    I loved loved Midnight Secretary, but cannot seem to find another heavily romantic manga, so I must be looking in the wrong places.

    @Jill Myles: Recommendations for Romance Manga, hmm – since you’ve read Midnight Secretary you are obviously able to get scanlations.

    First of all there are werewolves and some vampires in the previous series of this author – I know that Kindan no Koi de Ikou and Kindan no Koi wo Shiyou have been completely scanlated.

    As for good licensed romance manga with smut… I don’t really read those anymore, I got overfed when I went on ShoujoMagic’s Mayu Shinjo binge. – Well Kaikan Phrase was licensed as Sensual Phrase and you can probably get them as used books or ebay.

    I like the romantic shoujo romances more: High School Debut (school), From Far Away (which Jan reviewed here) (fantasy), Kare Kano up until volume 14 although I still have them all (school), Love Roma (school), Emma (Victorian England), Fruits Basket (school and fantasy), Kimi ni todoke (school), Hana Kimi (school).

    Unlicensed shoujo romantic mangas by KAWAHARA Kazune, HIKAWA Kyouko and MIURA Noriko I would buy right away, but it doesn’t look likely (except for maybe the newest Kawahara Kazune manga, Aozora Yell, because I believe Kokou Debut is selling pretty okay and certainly getting great reviews.

    @lijakaca: Well, Oishii Kankei is being scanlated at least. I agree that it’s cute ^^. Wingtip Cafe in general do some lovely shoujo/early josei manga – not necessarily only romance either.

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  21. Estara
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 13:36:01

    My much too long answer with loads of links finally got kicked into the spam bin, so I guess I have to see if an admin can rescue it.

    Otherwise I’ll just address the one direct question: yes, I was the person asking for a review of Kokou Debut. ^^

    Oh and Jia, while reading your tag line below the review and thinking of great diverse fantasy epics with female protagonists – have you read P.C. Hodgell? Because her series is being rereleased by BAEN this year and she’s sold them a new novel as well – however, it’s not a romance fantasy.

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  22. Estara
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 15:13:50

    First of all, thanks for rescuing my huge comment ^^ (I would have been sorry to lose all the work in the links).

    Oh and an alert to all the romance loving manga fans here – the editor of Vertical (that’s the people who did the amazing Tezuka and Keiko Takemiya editions) is asking for twitter feedback on whether they should license some older shoujo romance for the US – and he hasn’t gotten many positive signals yet – so for all the LiveJournalers out here you could comment on Wintersweet’s post or since most of you probably DO have twitter, twitter a positive answer directly

    Should Vertical look into licensing some classic shoujo manga they might have an opportunity to license? @Vertical_Ed on Twitter is looking for yeas or nays (NOT recommendations, mind you) and isn’t getting many yeas. I think that’s because the shoujo manga fanatics are mostly not on Twitter.

    So either post here and I’ll send him a link later or go follow Ed and @reply him with a YES on classic shoujo manga!

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  23. Jia
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 16:32:16

    @Estara: Sensual Phrase is already out of print? Well, that’s not really surprising. Half the middle volumes of Basara are out of print, which makes it hard to introduce new readers to the series. I can only imagine what’s going to happen to the Kodansha titles Tokyopop lost the licenses too.

    I’ve been recced Hodgell before. She’s on my list but you know how it is. Something always comes up and it gets bumped down.

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  24. XandraG
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 18:00:53

    @RStewie – it’s more shoujo than josei, but Vampire Knight is some tasty love triangle crack. I think they’re licensed in English up to volume 6 or so?

    There’s one called “Love Monster” that is classic paranormal romance shoujo, but I can’t remember the author or where I read it, but it was cute.

    But for josei, there’s nobody better than Yuki Yoshihara. Funny as hell and sexy in a really sweet way.

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  25. Estara
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 18:18:31

    @Jia: I think some of it is out of print, not all – probably still fairly easy to get.

    Re: P.C. Hodgell

    What with Pat Hodgell’s horrible luck in publishers before, she sort of slid through all kinds of gaps, which is why I’m trying to evangelize these days – BAEN being her first major publisher ever, the books being extraordinarily compelling and not well known and my fear that we otherwise will never find out what happens to Jamethiel Dreamweaver.

    BAEN are well-known in the genre, but I don’t think they’re the best company when it comes to pr for their authors.

    Considering you can get the two omnibuses of the first two and second two novels already out for $6 as a webscriptions ebook I think trying her out makes sense – not to mention that BAEN has 9 chapters of the first novel and 8 chapters of the third novel as a preview for online reading.
    http://www.webscription.net/chapters/1416555765/1416555765.htm

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  26. Jia
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 18:19:46

    Love Monster’s by Riko Miyagi. But I don’t think it’s licensed so ::coughs:: other avenues will have to be utilized.

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  27. RStewie
    Sep 14, 2009 @ 08:44:58

    @Estara
    Thank you for all the links! I did end up reading Midnight Secretary over the weekend, and it was great (yes, I had eye strain from reading it online, but the migraine was worth it!). There were some parts where I really wanted the heroine to grow a backbone, but I guess many of her responses were in line with Japanese culture…

    I’m now reading another by Ohmi Tomu called Bariaro My Honey, which I haven’t read enough of to really say how good it is, although it’s promising.

    I’m very excited about DA running more reviews of manga series, and I’m hoping that these will include josei manga.

    Also, anyone else that wants to throw me a bone and suggest something, I appreciate it!

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  28. Estara
    Sep 14, 2009 @ 13:32:19

    @RStewie: Quite welcome, I’m glad they were of interest to you.

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