*Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 6 — Best of 2011

I 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 in Japan, and this was the only volume released in English this year.) It’s a challenging read, both in its use of Japanese history and in the way it tackles political expectations for its ruling women.

The first thing that’s distinctive about the series is how striking it is. From its larger size and substantial feel in the hand to the absolutely gorgeous color designs on the French flaps, opening the book puts the reader into another, historical state of mind.

Each volume provides dramatic and involving stories of the struggles faced by the shoguns, but there’s even more depth among the tales when you consider them in the context of the series. The shogun Tsunayoshi has no heir, so there is debate over who should be named her successor. One possibility is the new regional lord Tsunanori, who is the favorite choice of Tsunayoshi’s father. He’s now a doddering old man, but observant readers will note that they first met him as a young man in Book 2. The other potential heir, Tsunatoyo, is the granddaughter of a man who was a rival to him back in those days, so he is firmly opposed to her, even though she is a better choice in terms of experience.

It can be difficult for the American reader to keep up with the various names and connections among all the characters, especially when the monikers are so similar. I think the author is playing into established Japanese events, so readers familiar with that history likely have an advantage in keeping everyone straight. Me, I enjoy making new discoveries when I re-read, along the lines of “oh, I didn’t recognize that person was HIM.”

Much of this volume tackles the questions of aging, looking at how what we’ve done shapes who we are. Sir Emonnosuke (shown on the cover), whom we first met as a young (although lying about his age) stud for the shogun, is older now, and his control of the Inner Chambers, and through them, the shogun, is ruthless.

The shogun Tsunayoshi is also aging, and so considered worthless by the populace, since she can no longer have a child. Her decisions are also unpopular during a time of economic struggle. In refusing to officially choose her heir, she puts off having to decide between love of her father and the best decision for the country. Her struggle is especially significant in a life that has forced her to put love aside in her youth in favor of taking whichever man might give her a child. This series clearly separates sex and romance, a brutally practical approach that is unusual in fiction.

The two, Emonnosuke and Tsunayoshi, discover new feeling in their old age in a chapter I found quite touching. It’s interwoven with a dramatic demonstration of the feelings of the people in a masterful interplay of action and quiet panels. The desire for life and happiness doesn’t end at any given point, and mature adults still have deep emotions, perhaps the more so given their patience and experience.

The art, as expected from Fumi Yoshinaga, is astounding, focused on expression but clear in setting the period with costuming. I love her style, and she is my favorite manga-ka because of her skill and how approachable and beautiful her work is. Many have complained about the faux-Shakespearean approach to the translated dialogue, but I like it. It gives a welcome flavor of old-fashioned elegance that suits the material.

One particular sequence stood out to me as particularly impressive. When Tsunayoshi finally makes her decision, she leaves her father’s presence as he clutches at her robe to stop her. She walks away, while her intricately patterned gown is left behind, and her face shows peace, having made her decision and dropping behind her the constraints, symbolized by the robe, she felt restrained by.

Sadly, since this is ultimately an ornate soap opera, the next revelation is a disheartening one, but that’s how history works, full of betrayals, the occasional murder, and loss. The one benefit of age is finally losing some of the rules that bind one and having the ability to do as one wishes, instead of as one is told.

The second half of the volume takes up with a younger group of characters as succession passes. A new concubine is found and groomed, one with a disturbing story of incest in his background. Their stories are gripping, but it was the first half that I found most satisfying and unusual, as seeing such mature characters portrayed as still vibrant is still rare in comics.

13 Comments

  1. I love this series, and worship Yoshinaga’s giant brain. Any idea when the next volume is coming out?

  2. I wonder that myself. We’re only one volume behind Japan right now — they had 7 come out this past summer. Viz may be waiting until they have 8 available, which would allow them to release two in a year here (but that’s pure speculation on my part). I have asked Viz, and we’ll see if they’re able to provide more specifics.

  3. According to Amazon.com, vol 7 is out in July and, if you are curious, they have release information on titles for Viz all the way up to September.

  4. Neat! That info wasn’t there last time I looked. Thanks for finding that out!

  5. wait what? Faux Shakespearean? As in using “thee”/”thou” like some sort of formal thing even though it in reality is the exact opposite of formal? (English having dumped it because they preferred to be lazy and just call everyone “you”, even their old buddies… As someone who is not a native English speaker and happily uses the equivalent of thou in several other languages that still have it and heavily use it) I bloody hate that mainstream ignorance / common idiot-mistakes made out of sheer laziness. Like using “vagina” where the correct word is “vulva” even though that’s almost the equivalent of habitually using “urethra” for “penis”, or “larynx” instead of “face”. So stupid it burns. I’m not even a prescriptivist ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_prescription ) nor a linguist, it’s just THAT awful.

    Please oh please tell me this book does not contain that, because I was hoping to buy these books translated some day (English being my best bet, not being good at any latin language, only germanic ones) and it would make me want to take white-out and a pen to the text – and I really hate “defacing” books.

    I know I could always just buy it in the original Japanese and just find some good fan translation, and print out the translation and just insert the translation pages in an esthetically pleasing manner. But that’s a lot of effort and I’d love to avoid it if possible.

  6. This definitely isn’t the series for you, then. :)

  7. The faux Shakespearean isn’t to everyone’s taste and it can take a few pages to get into the flow of the language. But they do use thee/thou correctly as informal.

  8. Thank you, Hannahs! Good, good.

  9. [...] Ooku: The Inner Chambers (Viz, Book 6 out this year) — I rediscovered this stunning historical fantasy by Fumi Yoshinaga this year, and once again I found myself swept away by its lyrical re-imagining of a female-ruled Japan and the resulting male harem. Titillating premise aside, the real meat of the story is politics and how it forces a separation among love, sex, feelings, and purpose. That’s timely at any time. [...]

  10. [...] yay! One of my favorite manga series continues after a too-long [...]

  11. [...] don’t get much Yoshinaga manga over here any more, but I’m signed onto this series so long as it comes out, even if it is only once a year. Her work is so lovely and [...]

  12. […] Viz, Ooku: The Inner Chambers continues at one book a year, with Volume 7 out in summer 2012 and Volume 8 in fall […]

  13. […] admit, it can be difficult keeping up with Ooku: The Inner Chambers. One volume comes out every year or so, and the premise — an alternate history of Japan in […]

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