by Fumi Yoshinaga; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Fumi Yoshinaga has quite the fan following based on her short series Antique Bakery and Flower of Life, as well as her yaoi works. With its strong, science fiction-like concept and old-fashioned flavor, Ooku: The Inner Chambers has the potential to make fans of even more manga readers.
In medieval Japan, the ooku was a harem, an area of the ruler’s castle where his concubines lived and no men were allowed. In Yoshinaga’s story, there’s been a plague that kills only males, especially young ones. With four times as many women as men left alive, women perform the labor and men are pampered. Some become a cross between prostitutes and breeding studs, selling their favors to women who want children. Only the highest classes and richest could have their own husbands. The ruler is female, and thus only men live in the ooku, 800 of them in their own exclusive world.
In book one, the son of a poor samurai family, instead of being married off, chooses to enter the ooku for the rest of his life. In that way, he can earn enough money for his older sister to wed (instead of merely buying a night with a man) and avoid seeing the girl he loves with someone else. They’ve grown up together, but they can never be a couple, since she will be given a rich husband.
Once he enters the ooku, Mizuno finds another world, with elaborate hierarchies of rank and etiquette rules. Although he was quite the man about town in his hometown, here, he’s considered uncouth and naive. He becomes a page, responsible for cleaning the rooms of and waiting on those who outrank him. He’s so good-looking, though, even in this crowd, that he’s hazed out of jealousy and threatened with rape. A wiser guide, who’s been in the ooku longer, tells Mizuno that they’re all goldfish:
Our entire lives are in vain and wasteful. We are kept in the goldfish bowl that is these inner chambers, for no purpose other than to be kept.
But for some female readers, this will be quite an intriguing fantasy, a world full of attractive men who spend all their time improving their looks and practicing martial arts to be prepared to defend the one woman who commands their favors. The beautiful young men in their elaborate kimonos flourish under Yoshinaga’s pen. Her delicate faces are well-suited to the era and the intrigue. It’s a lovely, unexpected world with fascinating observations.
In the second half of book one, a new shogun comes to the ooku, a vibrant woman with her own skills, and Mizuno finds himself suddenly promoted due to his fencing talent. More confident in his position, he becomes more gracious and expressive of his own personality, until his story ends in a most unexpected way. His ruler is a refreshing character in comics, a powerful woman who knows her own mind and carries through actions without doubt.
Book two takes a very different approach. A Buddhist monk, on his way to become an abbot, stops to visit at the ruler’s command. Even with his shaved head, he’s still extraordinarily handsome, so much so that, once seeing him, the shogun refuses to let him leave. He is to become part of the ooku, tempted with courtesans and held prisoner in a government mansion until his hair grows back.
The monk wants to hold true to his priestly vows, which include chastity, but the shogun’s official pushes him to enjoy pleasures of the flesh and acknowledge the supremacy of her lord’s worldly power. Although ambitious in his own way, he truly wishes to help relieve the suffering of the poor, but when confronted with the official’s willingness to kill to compel him to consent, he faces a difficult decision.
This book, set earlier than the previous, shows more of the panic and extreme behavior driven by the growing spread of the man-killing plague. Some of the characters are spoiled with power, having no concern over beating for fun or killing for sport. We also learn more about how and why the ooku was formed. While the first volume had more goofy romantic elements, this installment is political soap opera with life-or-death consequences, combined with tales of tragedy. That’s one of the strengths of the concept, that it allows such different kinds of stories to be told, with a convenient fantasy layer to insulate the reader.
One of the most noticeable elements of this series is the way it’s being translated, in a faux-Shakespearian language with “tis” and “thou” and all those flourishes. For me, it reminds me that I’m reading what’s almost a fairy tale, something set in a far-away land with its own rules. Others find it more of stumbling block.
Like other recent books from the Viz Signature line (aimed at adult manga readers), these volumes are handsome, with a larger size and French flaps. In the case of this particular series, the increased attention paid to presentation echoes the lives of the series’ characters, where the proper appearance determines one’s status in life. (The publisher provided review copies.)