Somewhat uncharacteristically, I’m actually reading a book that’s up to the minute. There are a bunch of reviews of Fumi Yoshinaga’s highly acclaimed Ooku out at the moment. One I looked at today is by Kate Dacey
I’ll be honest: I’m not quite sold on Ooku yet. For all its dramatic and socio-political ambitions, volume one isn’t nearly as daring or weird or pointed as it might have been. If anything, it reminds me of a BBC miniseries: it’s tasteful, meticulously researched, and a little too high-minded to be truly compelling.
That got me thinking…you know, I really don’t have anything at all against BBC miniseries. Cutely homely, talented actors performing fairly well-written scripts — I’m cool with that. Sure it’s middlebrow — but everything middlebrow isn’t bad.
To back up for a minute, for those not already familiar with the plot: Ooku is basically a costume drama set in an alternate past. Sometime in the 1600s or so, a plague in Japan killed most of the men. Now, in the 18th century, women hold most positions of power and authority, and the few remaining men are second-class citiziens, carefully protected (and commodified) for their seed.
Y: The Last Man also, of course, featured a plague that killed men — but it was (over) orchestrated for maximum drama. Not just most, but all of the guys (except one) died, and it all happened simultaneously. The narrative then centered around women trying, somewhat efficaciously, to fill male roles in the face of a sudden, devastating apocalypse. And, of course, there was spy nonsense and relentless action and everybody shooting each other — all the flash Dacey is missing in Ooku.
There’s no doubt that Ooku is really quiet — which is actually what I like most about it. Rather than big, macro-level statements about Men and Women and How the World Has Changed, Ooku focuses on the small details. Most of the story follows Mizuno, a son of an impoverished samurai family. Mizuno is in love with a childhood neighbor named O-Nobu, but he can’t marry her, both because he’s too poor and because he’s too valuable: as a fertile man, he is basically his family’s chief asset, and they need to sell him off to a wealthy wife. Desperate to avoid marriage, he gives himself in service to the Ooku — the male seraglio of the female shogun. The bulk of the narrative is given over to his rise through the ranks of the Ooku, culminating in a final, bittersweet denoument.
Again, for me, the best part about how Yoshinaga handles this tale is how subtle she is. In Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughn put up a big flashing light every time he touched on gender (look! supermodels collecting garbage! woo hoo!) Yoshinaga messes with gender expectations too…but she also suggests that, even in this new world, there are gender realities which are going to be slow to change. The result is not so much an earthquake as a series of tremors; the furniture shifts, and a couple of things break, but you have to look twice to see just what has happened.
For example, as I’ve mentioned, men are treated as sexual chattel in a way that’s analogous to the treatment of women. In some cases, we learn, men are actually sold to women as prostitutes — though this is more about women’s desire for children than it is about (pure) sexual pleasure. Moreover, while some men clearly do feel degraded by this set up, there are other options too; Mizuno, for example, actually gives himself for free to women because he feels sorry for their childlessness, and..presumably…because he enjoys it as well. Similarly, in the inner chamber seraglio itself, the men are, on the one hand, feminized (they are all obsessed with clothes and gossip and with being chosen by the shogun.) But, on the other hand, they still behave like men in a lot of ways — they participate in staged swordfights, for example…and (as happens not infrequently in all male communities like prison) they initiate newcomers through rape.
Mizuno himself is also very thoughtfully portrayed. A boisterous and open-hearted man’s man, in many ways, he’s also achingly naive and vulnerable; after fighting off the would-be rapists, for example, Yoshinaga shows his stern face collapse into exhaustion and despair. (“”Forsooth, O-Nobu,” he tells himself, “I have brought myself to a most terrible place indeed.”) Yoshinaga plays deftly with different kinds of knowledge, innocence, and insularity. On the one hand, Mizuno is shocked again and again by the ways of the Ooku — particularly by the homosexuality, which is, understandably, very rare in a world with almost no men. But, on the other hand, Mizuno, hailing from the cosmopolitan center of Edo, is actually much more stylish and fashionable than his new peers — there’s a great line (and kudos to the translator) where he calls one of the seraglio a “palace bumpkin” for not recognizing that gray kimono’s are in fashion.
We’re presented, in other words, with a clash between two worlds slightly different than each other, and each also different from our own. It’s a quiet tour-de-force, anchored by a trope that’s familiar in any context: true love. Again, there’s a parallel with Y: The Last Man. In Y, the main character Yorick spends the whole series racing about the world trying to find his girlfriend; true love is essentially a MacGuffin. In Yoshinaga, on the other hand, it’s not space but the much more unyielding wall of cultural reality that separates the lovers, and there isn’t anywhere in particular to run. Mizuno’s certainty that he will never be with O-Nobu colors the whole story with a deep melancholy. His agonized final lament (“‘Twas only through your kimono that e’er I felt the warmth of your body — ’tis not enough to take to a cold grave”) is unbearably painful and sensual at once — as, for that matter, is his night with the shogun herself. And yes, the twist ending made me cry — not that that’s the hardest thing to do, necessarily, but still.
Unfortunately, Mizuno exits the story at the end of this volume, and it looks like the rest of the series will focus on the shogun, Yoshimune, a character everybody else seems to love but who left me flat for the most part. Basically, she seems too good to be true; a lustful, miserly overlord with a heart of gold. It’s kind of fun seeing that stereotype cross-gendered…but only kind of, and I could weary of her quickly if she becomes more central. But whatever happens with the rest of the series, this first volume is pretty much perfect.
Extra Bonus Self-Referential Hooded Link Section:
My review of Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery is here.
For more bishonen men forced into compromising positions with each other, do read Kinukitty’s column Gluey Tart: Adventures in Manporn.
And apropos of nothing except my own efforts at self-promotion — I’ve just started posting downloadable music mixes every week. The latest is called The Devil Always Shits In the Same Graves and includes gospel field recordings, Belgian psych drone, and Ukrainian black metal. So there’s that.
Update: Changed to reflect the fact that mulligans are not MacGuffins, no matter how much I might wish it were so.
Update 2: Kate Dacey clarifies her position in comments.