Ōoku: The Inner Chambers—Volume 2
by Fumi Yoshinaga
2009 (originally published 2006) • 200 pages • Viz Media LLC
It’s taken me a while to sit down and review this. I tend to have a lot of trouble reviewing middle installments of serialized comics, even if the collection contains a complete arc. If I’ve already covered the premise, it’s hard for me to rehash what I’ve already said unless the new arc does something wildly different. (This is part of the reason why I so rarely review television shows. Good thing Sailor Moon crams a thousand things into every season.) Also, while my current pace of reading lagged behind my previous schedule, it actually still kind of supersedes my current schedule. I actually, for a very welcome first time in a while, have a backlog. Which is magical, but May has been running me ragged. I just need a day to blast through them all.
I’ll get there—I always do—but I did want to mention this by way of apology to Ōoku: The Inner Chambers. The series as a whole does not deserve me dragging my feet, and this volume, in particular, demands only a standing ovation. While Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is serialized, in that each chapter is published in the magazine Melody, it’s also structured in larger, more complete arcs for its yearly publication as a volume of manga. It feels much more like installments in a book series, versus a collection of serialized comics (which is no burn on serialized comics as a medium, I should stress), which speaks to Fumi Yoshinaga’s mastery of the form.
While Volume 1 introduces us to the world of the series—an alternate history of feudal Japan where, after a plague carries off most of the male population, women have assumed power and men fill the shogun’s harem—by dropping us right in, Volume 2 tells us how it got this way. Volume 1 ended with the new shogun, Yoshimune, being handed a secret history of the Redface Pox. Volume 2 is what Yoshimune is reading. In the first years of the Redface Pox, Arikoto, a new abbot visiting Edo castle, finds himself press-ganged into being the shogun Iemitsu’s catamite by the ruthless Lady Kasuga, the power behind the throne. But once installed, he discovers the great secret of Edo—that Iemitsu is long dead and his illegitimate daughter rules in his place, using his name and posing, for the wider world, as a man. Kasuga is anxious that Iemitsu bear a male child as quickly as possible to restore order, but the Redface Pox is only growing worse.
In Volume 1, Yoshimune begins asking her fellow noblewomen why they adopt male names when they achieve suitable rank, despite the fact that they’re still women. This line of questioning is what leads her to explore the history of the Redface Pox. For Yoshinaga, gender trouble is the name of the game. As the Redface Pox ravages Japan (and we begin to see what ordinary families are forced to do as their main labor force is decimated), Kasuga and the other courtiers cling to order—both the continuation of Iemitsu’s line and the gender binary. To them, as Iemitsu bitterly explains, she’s just a walking womb, although she wears the robe of the shogun. The members of her makeshift harem, whom she has no interest in sleeping with, talk about her with the sexual respect you might expect from men who don’t really think women are people. For Japan’s ends and for their own ends, they tolerate the strange diversion they must take to remain on course (which should actually explain what a perverse system it actually is).
Being valued only for her childbearing potential, barely tolerated as a person, and having her only attempt at flight end in rape has warped Iemitsu. It’s difficult to sympathize with her at times. In an attempt to break Arikoto’s vow of chastity, she hires two prostitutes to spend the night with him and his acolyte. Arikoto says that they were hired to provide entertainment, so they play chaste party games all evening. In a rage, Iemitsu has the prostitutes killed and their bodies dumped in a field, one of the volume’s most haunting images. Is it a precursor of the large-scale female-female violence to come when society has restructured further, or more proof that the noble build their lives on the corpses of the common? Iemitsu is hardly Yoshimune, the elegant, dashing, and wonderful. She’s ruthless, fickle, violent, and… scared.
Arikoto bears all of this as best he can, until he decides—as much as he can, being a prisoner of the shogun—that his purpose in life is not ministry, but to take care of Iemitsu. The volume ends when Iemitsu, finally disgusted with how the men of her harem treat her, demands that they come to her chambers dressed as women. The men treat it as a joke, but Arikoto arrives looking absolutely beautiful. She orders everyone out, but he disregards her and drapes his garment over her. Overcome by this gesture that recognizes that she’s more than a fake shogun, Iemitsu clings to Arikoto as they both break down in tears. Sycorax Pine is very right that this scene is not as transgressive as it hopes to be. It still reinforces a gender binary, even in the very positioning of our “lovers,” but it’s the first step towards the Japan we see in Volume 1. Arikoto, due to his training, is willing to be Iemitsu’s help meet, and Iemitsu finally has someone who sees her for who she is, not who she can give birth to. It’s messy, painful, complicated, and deeply unethical, but it’s all they can scrape for as their world crumbles around them.
I rented this book from the public library.