by Fumi Yoshinaga
published by Viz; $12.99 US
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.