Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ooku: The Inner Chambers vol. 1-7

Some of the most interesting stories come from real life history. Truth is often stranger than fiction. But, a little artistic license can go a long way, and that's why I think Fumi Yoshinaga's most excellent retelling of the Tokugawa Shogunate, 'Ooku: The Inner Chambers', is the perfect read for the History Manga Moveable Feast.

It was during the Edo Period that the traditionally patriarchal society of Japan was flipped upside down. A new disease called "The Redface Pox" was ravaging the country, attacking mostly young men, and bringing the male population to one fifth of the female population. High and low class alike, the Redface Pox didn't discriminate, and took even the life of Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa. With the Shogun dead, danger of reverting back to the bloody times of war and power struggles led the former Shogun's beloved wet nurse, Reverend Kusaga to do something that would change Japan as we know it. In the name of continuing the peaceful Tokugawa reign, Reverend Kusaga put in place measures that would allow Iemitsu's daughter to become the first female Shogun....Five female Shogun's later, Japan is a very different place. Women do all the work, including governance, while the men valuable only for their seed, are pampered and protected. The eighth Tokugawa Shogun, Yoshimune, is sharp and frugal, and wary of the luxurious and wasteful ways of the inner chambers that houses her harem of male concubine. The Ooku. Wanting to know just how things came to be as they are, Yoshimune seeks out the elderly chief scribe, who reveals to her the true history of the Ooku, and the way things once were, but now forgotten.

One of my favorite things about this series is that with a little imagination, it could very well be presented as an untold, true history. It shows how a cover up took place in order to preserve the Tokugawa Shogunate and prevent more war. And it explains that the period's isolationist policies were put in place so that they didn't alert the outside world of the dwindling male population and invite invasion. It's all fascinatingly plausible if you aren't familiar with the actual history like me. I found it very fun to get lost in the fantasy, and at the same time, I became very curious about the real history of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Surely, that alone embodies the spirit of a manga moveable feast about history.

On the topic of history, while it is obvious that much artistic license was taken here, many real world people and events are featured in detail. It's a bit of an alternate history, where the timeline breaks off from the real world that we know at Iemitsu's death. From there, most every piece of history that is public knowledge goes on as told, but with the unique twist of swapping gender roles. Chronicled within in detail are famous events like "The Revenge of the Forty-seven Ronin", a violent mark on the largely peaceful era, and the notorious "Ejima-Ikushima Affair", which was the biggest scandal to ever hit the Ooku. If real history buffs can look past the obvious inconsistencies and just have fun with it, I think that they could relish in what a simple twist turns real history into a most imaginative piece of historical fiction.

Another interesting aspect of 'Ooku' is the politics and government. The constant warring of the Sengoku period may have come to an end, but all was not sunshine and butterflies for the Tokugawa Shogunate. On the face of things, most everyone was elegant and polite, but in reality, the Tokugawa period portrayed in 'Ooku' was rife with behind the scenes political battles that wouldn't be out of place in 'Game of Thrones'. Even exchanges of politeness and courtesy can be a contest. In fact, more often than not, playing the part of the good guy gets you farther than revealing your ruthlessness. I found this round-about, subtle, chess match-like way of getting ahead a lot more entertaining than the unseemly, more straightforward and sometimes messy approach. But the political aspect isn't all petty power struggles. There is actual governance displayed, and I quite enjoyed seeing how the different Shoguns went about running the country. We get to see the process of coming up with policies, the policies being put into place, and the result of those policies, which don't always go as planned. Some Shoguns were very popular and govern well, and others are hated, mocked, and largely manipulated by their advisers. A very dynamic governmental period to behold. One may think that the times of war before the Tokugawa Period would be a more interesting and exciting time in Japanese history, but the Edo Japan presented in 'Ooku: The Inner Chambers' was equally as interesting in my book.

If politics and history aren't your thing, no worries. That isn't all 'Ooku' has to offer. For me, the main appeal of this series was the character interactions. My favorite interaction between characters has to be the well developed relationship between forced concubine, Arikoto, and Lady Iemitsu, who took her father's place as Shogun. What was at first a rocky relationship, turned into a true, yet unconventional romance. Having genuinely bonded, Arikoto became Iemitsu's sole concubine...that is, until he failed to get her pregnant. With that, their relationship became more complicated. She was forced to take more men to her bedchambers in order to produce an heir, as was her duty as the Tokugawa Shogun. Needless to say, this brought both Arikoto and Iemitsu great pain, but they never stopped loving each other. In a manga that can be very cold and calculating, I found this storyline to be very sweet and heartfelt. This true romance in the sea of political relationships formed only to best stay in power, stood out and made both more enjoyable for it.

If I'm going to talk about character interactions, I have to mention the sheer amount of dialogue in this series. The speech bubbles are filled with paragraphs, not sentences, and it took me more than twice as long to read a single volume of 'Ooku' as it did for average manga books. The enormous amount of dialogue, combined with just the right amount of narration, make this a story so epic in scale, that it felt like I had just read 70 volumes instead of 7. Ooku truly is dense with content. It's surprising how much historical detail was put into just seven volumes. Eighty-plus years of history and so many important players, you would think the story would read like a drab history book, but Fumi Yoshinaga managed to both convey the history, and the in depth personal lives of these complex characters. You really feel like you know the characters, which feels like a privilege considering the secrecy and high status of most of them. The incredible word count and the masterful pace are unforgettable for me. Without a doubt, this is one of the most rewarding manga reading experiences I've had. There is just so much to grasp, that even though this is my second read through of this series, it still felt fresh and new. I can barely comprehend all the information that has been given. I suspect it will take several more read-throughs to fully appreciate everything presented, and I value that greatly.

Speaking of dialogue, the way characters in 'Ooku' talk is unique among manga that I have read. The faux-Shakespearian style takes some getting used to, but it rather grew on me and helped set the mood greatly. It takes a little more mental work to decipher this unfamiliar way of speaking, but really creates an interesting reading experience. Quickly, I found myself seeing this fancy way of speaking quite charming, and I can't imagine the story working properly if these characters were using modern speech. At first glance, it may sound silly, but I think it is either this, or read it in its original Japanese(which I can't). I really have to hand it to the translator, Akemi Wegmuller. It's almost as if she had to translate twice. Once to English, and then to the faux-Shakespearian. I can only imagine it took forever and to keep it up throughout the books was impressive. I know this adaptation choice has its critics, but I for one, am a fan. Some may see it as a burden, but I see it as a bonus.

I've got to say, as a manga reader, I am really thankful that the topic of this Manga Moveable Feast is history. It led me to revisit this amazing series, to read new volumes that have come out since my last read, and to appreciate aspects I may have missed at first glance. But whether you like history or not; If you just want to read good manga. Good stories. You can't go wrong with 'Ooku: The Inner Chambers'.

1 comment:

  1. I also love this manga. I find it very interesting from a feminist point of view. Fumi Yoshinaga seems telling us that women at work still have to take care of home and children. That reminds the lives of modern women. Then, even though the shogun is a woman, nothing has been done for women to take advantage. For example, it's still a burden for shogun to bare a child, shogun being used as a politic tool by men, shogun becoming a real expert in the sex field, feeling as a kind of prostitute. Woman shogun, woman at power doesn't mean nothing.

    The story is told as being true history of Japan. In volume 7, Yoshimune finishes reading the annals. She is willing to give men the possibility of working as firemen. She wants to cure the "tengu sickness" amongst men. She wants to change things. And she's a clever woman, noticing in the annals that the appearance of the shogun have been modified as nobody can guess shogun were women. It's kind of true history, and I'm not surprised that by the end, men will be shogun again, and that time with women being shogun will be forgotten (as men being shogun have been forgotten by the time Yoshimune become shogun). That Ooku the Inner Chambers is the true history of Edo Japan. That WE now have forgotten that women were once shogun...

    In the French translation by Kana, there is no "old language style" of speaking. Are there bonus for readers about Japanese Edo history in Viz edition? There is nothing like that in the French edition, and that's a real pity not explaining anything to an audience that is not familiar with Japanese history...