by Fumi Yoshinaga
published by Viz; $12.99 US
I 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 which most of the men have died, causing the women to take over leading the country — can be complicated for most readers, who don’t have any knowledge of Japanese history.
Yet it’s so well done! I adore Fumi Yoshinaga’s art, with its thin-line detail and expressive characters. She builds a rich, full world, transporting us to another place and time where courtesy could be life-threatening (if the wrong person is accidentally insulted). And of course, she illustrates the gorgeous kimono fashion that was such an important marker of one’s place in the hierarchy.
It has been a while since I read the series, but Book 8 was a great refresher, since it contains shorter stories focusing on specific individuals trying to navigate this changed world. First, there’s the problem of succession to the shogun, as her oldest daughter is disabled. She can’t speak or move properly, although later events reveal that she’s not stupid, just handicapped by a body that won’t obey her. The challenge of such a condition in a world without modern medical care or understanding isn’t one that had previously occurred to me, and Yoshinaga makes her story quite affecting.
Next comes a question of discrimination. Zenjiro is an accomplished chef, but many guests at the inn where he cooks don’t want a man in the kitchen. Some of his coworkers similarly find his presence an annoyance. So he enters the inner chambers, where he finds that he’s at the bottom of the hierarchy, there for the other men to play tricks on and haze until he demonstrates his skill. Given Yoshinaga’s love of food, I wasn’t surprised to see discussion of a recipe in this section.
Zenjiro has a more important role to play, though. One of the shogun’s concubines has been put under house arrest, and he refuses to eat. Zenjiro is tasked with creating dishes that will prevent him from starving himself. The resulting story is one of deep feelings, exploring the nature of jealousy over the men’s meals. As a result, it’s almost the quintessential Yoshinaga story, combining food, male relationships, and emotional exploration.
The following section picks up the political threads, as the kingdom is threatened by peasant revolts, seeking the rice that is used as capital to eat. The matter-of-fact mentions of assassinations for positioning of favored candidates to ascend to power reinforces the historical nature of the story.
The last chapter introduces two new, fascinating characters. Gennai is a motormouth, sent to find an interpreter and scholar for the chambers. He returns with Gosaku, a half-Japanese young man who can speak Dutch — the only connection Japan has with the outside world is through traders of that nationality — and has been studying medicine. The redface pox, the disease that has taken so many of the Japanese men, is unknown outside the country, and Japan has tightened its borders so that other nations won’t learn its secret. However, the shogun wants more study of the plague in order to eventually counter it and raise the male population.
The drive to study “Western sciences” continues in Book 9 as the shogun changes. Gosaku, renamed Aonuma for his blue eyes, hopes to share his knowledge of medicine, but he encounters great passive resistance from those uninterested in the outside world, particularly knowledge gained from foreigners. A particularly amusing note is how Aonuma brings soap (“sabon”) as a gift, but it is thrown away. One of the major advancements of medicine was the discovery of the importance of hygiene, represented here as a kind of hostess gift.
Aonuma’s work is proven when the flu goes around the chambers, with many fallen ill. Meanwhile, the plain-spoken Gennai is investigating the potential cause of the pox. I found the studies and spatting of these two, particularly as they seek to educate those who don’t care, entertaining and refreshing, another hook into this historical series. Gennai is a very modern character, although that may be his downfall, as his inability not to say what he’s thinking makes him some powerful enemies. However, he also comes up with an astounding idea to fight the pox, using bears. And his good humor, optimism, and enthusiasm is always welcome. (That’s him on the cover of Book 9, while Aonuma features on Book 8.)
Although long into the series, with its medical investigations and distinctive characters, Book 9 would be a fine place to start reading. According to Amazon, the next volume, Book 10, is due in November. (The publisher provided a review copy.)