Ōoku: The Inner Chambers—Volume 1
by Fumi Yoshinaga
2009 (originally published 2005) • 216 pages • VIZ Media LLC
There’s a troubling tendency for texts purporting to explore a world where women are the dominant gender to simply recast the patriarchy as a matriarchy and call it a day, instead of trying to honestly engaging with gender and reimagining it. I am thinking very specifically of Dungeons and Dragons’ drow and other matriarchies that still cater to the male gaze. Because of this tendency, I tend to shrug off stories that largely swap the roles of the gender binary and focus on stories with a more nuanced view towards gender.
However, I always keep my ear to the ground, because I love being proven wrong. Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku: The Inner Chambers comes with impeccable pedigrees, from the now-defunct, now-deleted, and always missed Dreams and Speculation, where I heard of it first, to its James Tiptree Jr. Award (the first for a manga), to its Eisner Award nomination. The matriarchy of Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is not a simple patriarchy/matriarchy swap. After a plague kills seventy-five percent of the male population of Edo Japan, the manga picks up eighty years later, after the culture has changed to reflect the rarity and fragility of men. Women now fill traditionally male roles—to the point that Yoshinaga’s cast is largely composed of female versions of real historical Edo figures—while men are now kept secluded from the world, valued only for their role in reproduction. Men are so rare that only the most wealthy of women can afford to pay a man’s dowry. An entire harem of men, reserved solely for one woman’s pleasure, is the ultimate luxury, and reserved only for the Shogun.
Framed like this, with the focus on a male harem, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers may sound like it focuses on the titillating a la the drow, albeit in a different direction—Yoshinaga, after all, is also a writer and artist of several historical yaoi manga. But Yoshinaga is not interested in exploring that territory here. Instead, she spends the first arc, as collected in this first volume, exploring how this all affects Mizuno, a young man who repays his family’s decision to not prostitute himself by entering in the service of the Inner Chambers, so that his elder sister might be able to afford a bridegroom. He’s a soft-hearted, brash, and headstrong young man, exactly the kind of person who will not survive long in a house of intrigue. Even knowing that he is being largely valued for being a pretty face, he’s still caught off-guard by the Inner Chambers and how spiteful his peers can be. But this doesn’t harden his heart, even as court politics punish and elevate him in ways he can’t quite grasp. When his sempster confesses to a crush on him, Mizuno gives him a kiss. (And then sticks his tongue out at the memory of his own beloved, telling her that it hardly counts as cheating.)
But Mizuno is ultimately, as the volume shows, a Trojan horse to get us to the beating heart of what I hope will be the rest of the series (she said, furiously blocking out half of TVTropes with one splinted hand)—the Shogun Yoshimune. After the death of the child shogun Ietsugu (whom Mizuno relied on as a means of never actually having to serve in his role), power passes to her. And what a woman. (Yeah, total swooner.) She’s introduced talking her advisor, Manabe, into advocating luxury, so that she can dismiss her due to the poverty of the regime. Her minimalism and shrewdness are at direct odds with the court, but, ultimately, she is the shogun, capable of elevating and dismissing whomever she pleases.
And as Mizuno’s story wraps up, Yoshimune’s story just begins. As we watch her assume the role of shogun, she’s troubled by what she doesn’t realize are the remnants of the patriarchal culture the plague turned upside down. Women in power do not use feminine names. The first member of her Inner Chambers that she beds must be killed, as he has taken her virginity (which is, as Yoshimune and others point out, a complete and utter lie). And when she holds an audience with a Dutch captain, she chafes at having to assume male drag for the occasion. The scene is accompanied by the captain’s impressions of the court, which lead him to believe that the shogun is a man.
When she presses those around her for answers, she runs into walls. “I am starting to think that this, our feeling that ‘doth not sit right,’ verily lies at the root of the matter” (167). (The translation reflects the original’s usage of formal, archaic Japanese; I quite like the usage, but others don’t.) At last, she discovers someone who can answer her questions and…
Well, that’s volume two. (At my other library system. Why would you stock volumes one, six, and seven? That just seems silly.)
As Brit Mandelo points out at Tor.com, there’s more territory that Ōoku: The Inner Chambers could cover. At the very least, female sexual agency runs hot and cold—Yoshimune develops a startling-to-the-Inner-Chambers habit of just snatching up cute dudes whenever she pleases, but no other woman is depicted as ever interested in sex for pleasure—and queer female sexuality, which would have certainly developed in some capacity in such a gender-imbalanced society, is not dealt with. But I have hopes that the manga, which is still ongoing, will deal it with in the future.
I rented this book from the public library.