Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku is set in an alternate Edo period Japan where the male population has been halved by an epidemic known as the Redpox with the women taking the majority of male societal roles as a result. Noah has a short synopsis and glowing review of the first volume at the previous HU site and is probably its most articulate proponent. In fact, his gushing enthusiasm for the series is the reason why I picked up a copy of volume 2 without even bothering to read the volume I had at hand.

I’m a bit more ambivalent about what I’ve read so far.

One of my problems with Ooku is that it asks us to accept a logical leap of faith without sufficient justification: that a Japan reduced to a population consisting of 25% men would be ruled and dominated by women over the course of 3 Shogunates (80 years). The haste with which the scenario is dispensed to the readers in the initial pages of the first volume suggests that Yoshinaga is less concerned with the internal consistency of her scenario than with its final consequences.

Yoshinaga’s book has less to do with world building and plausible outcomes and more to do with gender commentary and the friction derived from the straight inversion of gender roles in Edo period Japan. One also suspects that a degree of titillation was envisioned in the portrayal of Snags performing traditionally female roles such as cleaning and embroidery work.

The initial pages of the first volume are particularly troublesome and we see Yoshinaga flailing around as she attempts to delineate the boundaries of her world as she decides to what extent a degree of fantasy and wish fulfilment will populate her work. In his blog entry, Noah suggests that:

“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.”

There is some evidence of this but I’m not entirely convinced of the merits of the final outcome. The fencing scene between two inhabitants of the Inner Chamber is particularly troublesome in this respect. The sequence is meant to be counterpart to more traditional period dramas where the women of the court compete by way of their musical gifts. Here the more feminine accomplishments of the koto or shamisen are replaced with a more masculine virtue – a talent for swordplay, which itself is later deemed to be of little consequence compared to the benefits of exterior beauty.

This scene suggests that some aspects of male culture would continue to be held to strongly even in a female dominated society (an entirely plausible supposition) but is quite out of keeping with Yoshinaga’s scenario of “emasculated” men.  In the light of a plot which posits docility (and why else would the men allow themselves to be herded) as the primary attribute of male culture, this entire sequence makes no sense whatsoever. Yoshinaga asks her readers to accept a world of men with normal sexual drives but without the associated aggression or violence (something difficult in itself to accept without some plot contrivance) and then presents her readers with a scene where the reverse is the case.

Mizuno’s introduction to his fellow courtiers of the Inner Chamber is also problematic. In this sequence, the inhabitants of the Inner Chamber squabble vociferously about attire, etiquette and personal hygiene. It’s a somewhat light hearted attempt to suggest that given the right circumstances, even men have the capacity to descend to a level of pettiness if not outright cattiness usually reserved for the generic depictions of  women found in shows like Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. Even an unabashedly commercial television series like ?? (i.e. Ooku; I’ll use the kanji for the TV series to differentiate it from the manga) has no truck with this being more concerned with the more believable political and romantic machinations of the inhabitants of the Inner Chamber than any stereotypical depictions of the same.

If there is any level of coherence in the manga, it must be in its portrayal of the women of the court. The idea of women in positions of power being forceful, manipulative and thoroughly devious is nothing new in such period dramas and Yoshinaga’s depiction of them is less clumsy if only because of the example of her predecessors. These women have never been depicted in popular culture solely as pitiful flowers. If anything, they are frequently seen to be every bit the match of men in the departments of vindictiveness, cunning and cruelty. Yoshinaga’s women as depicted in the first volume are considerably more benign, the conflicts here being more vocal, confrontational and exaggerated (in keeping with the demands of more commercial manga)  than formal or surreptitious. The irritating faux medieval English translation only serves to highlight the modernity of the interactions between the characters in the manga.

The plotline concerning “the secret swain” towards the middle section of the book is better. It has some relation to the time honored device in such period pieces of court women being used and disposed of for perceived slights or indiscretions but the logic behind the institution as laid out in the manga is interesting and novel.

I’m hoping for better things with the second volume of Ooku. As it stands, this is a one trick pony with little to add to the host of stories concerning court intrigues, illicit affairs and betrayals which have been seen in any number of Asian television series. While I share Noah’s distaste for Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man (which has some similarities to Ooku ), he at least made an attempt to create a fully imagined alternate reality consistent within its own boundaries. Future volumes of Ooku will be useful in gauging if there is any meat beneath all the feathers on display in this first volume.

Further Reading and more extensive reviews:

Kate Dacey on Ooku
David Welsh on Ooku
Johanna Draper Carlson on Ooku

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