*Ooku: The Inner Chambers Books 1 and 2 — Best of 2009

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.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 1 cover
Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 1
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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.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 2 cover
Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 2
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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.)

21 Comments

  1. [...] Draper Carlson on vol. 3 of The Name of the Flower (Comics Worth Reading) Johanna Draper Carlson on vols. 1 and 2 of Ooku: The Inner Chambers (Comics Worth Reading) Lissa Pattillo on vol. 3 of Otomen (Kuriousity) Julie on vol. 7 of Parasyte [...]

  2. [...] [Review] Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vols. 1-2 Link: Johanna Draper Carlson [...]

  3. [...] Ooku: The Inner Chambers — Fumi Yoshinaga hits new heights of achievement and insight with this story of a male harem in historical Japan. Beautiful and heart-breaking. [...]

  4. [...] Bakery, about a group of men who sell dessert, one of whom is gay.) Her more recently translated Ooku: The Inner Chambers, again featuring a society of men, was on many best-of-2009 lists. All My Darling Daughters [...]

  5. [...] enjoying the new books by Fumi Yoshinaga, Ooku: The Inner Chambers and All My Darling Daughters, I decided to try some of her earlier [...]

  6. [...] collection of four connected short stories by Fumi Yoshinaga has more in common with Ooku than her yaoi works. For one thing, all of the love relationships demonstrated — and there [...]

  7. [...] continues with new installments for two very well-regarded series: 20th Century Boys Volume 10 and Ooku: The Inner Chambers Volume 4 promise to continue these series’ much-deserved reputations for being the best manga [...]

  8. [...] Four Shojo Stories (containing They Were 11) are all out of print, but if we reach further afield, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto, some of the best books of last year, are also science fiction. [...]

  9. [...] was a Japanese comic (manga). The Korean comic was Cynical Orange while the Japanese comic was Ooku. Both comics are vastly different in themes and plots and this obviously affected their respective [...]

  10. [...] titles as Pluto, Ghost in the Shell, Yotsuba&!, Fullmetal Alchemist, Summit of the Gods, and Ooku. It was great being able to compare techniques between manga and superhero comics, as well as [...]

  11. [...] Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga [...]

  12. [...] week, top of my list is Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 4. I adore this alternate history series about an historical Japan where most of the men have died. Others have complained about the [...]

  13. [...] Ooku [...]

  14. [...] manga this year. She’s tackled food before in the dessert-centered Antique Bakery, and her Ooku: The Inner Chambers shows off her gorgeous men in one of the best manga of [...]

  15. [...] Ooku: The Inner Chambers — I’m woefully behind writing about this Fumi Yoshinaga series, needing to catch up on all three volumes, books 3-5, that came out this year. It’s because the historical alternative fiction is so complex in its relationships among the men kept for the shogun’s pleasure that it deserves extra time and attention. The books out this year jump even further back in time to the establishment of the male harem, showing how quickly whims become tradition. [...]

  16. [...] Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Fumi Yoshinaga hits new heights of achievement and insight with a series of stories set in [...]

  17. [...] readers onto manga that I think is worth reading. The newest series that I’ve discovered is “Ōoku – The Inner Chamber.” This series is essentially “Y: The Last Man” for medieval Japan. In “Ōoku [...]

  18. [...] Daughters. For me, I’m looking forward to this week as a good excuse to get caught up reading Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Yoshinaga’s gender-swapped alternate Japanese history, so I have something new to [...]

  19. [...] have been remiss in not talking more about this amazing series, because I fear it’s dropped off many readers’ radar. (Only one book a year comes out [...]

  20. [...] I looked up was Fumi Yoshinaga, my favorite manga creator. She is included, although only for Ooku: The Inner Chambers; I would have mentioned more of her titles. The next creators I looked up — Alison Bechdel, [...]

  21. […] collection, Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! (Yen Press) and continuing volumes of Ooku (Viz), her yaoi-flavored alternate history in which most men are dead and the remaining are rare […]

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