Ōoku: The Inner Chambers—Volume 3
by Fumi Yoshinaga
2010 (originally published 2007) • 232 pages • Viz Media LLC
I have recently discovered that I have somehow gotten someone else addicted to Ōoku: The Inner Chambers. In my local library system, books don’t really recirculate back to whatever library from whence they came; they just stay at the library they were most recently returned at. This makes for a surreal browsing experience when I’m trying to milk as much air conditioning as I can out of the library before popping over to the drug store. I’m surrounded by books I’ve already read.
My fellow fan, however, is farther along in the series than I am—which is fine with me, because that means I never have to wait for the next volume.
Previously on Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, we were exploring the origins of the matriarchal (but not quite…) society of Japan, something kept secret from the rest of the world. The Redface Pox continues to cut down Japan’s male population. The secretly female shogun Iemitsu (only her favorite lover calls her Chie) has been happy with her lover and seeming soulmate, the former monk Arikoto. Lady Kasuga, the power behind the throne, approves, so long as Iemitsu provides a male heir.
The only problem is that Arikoto appears to be infertile, forcing Kasuga and Iemitsu to look elsewhere. But even as Kasuga clings to the idea that a male heir is the key to Japan returning to normal, the working women of Japan must face the inevitable fact that the Redface Pox is not going to stop.
While the second volume seemed to affirm that all the tempestuous Iemitsu needed was the right man to tame her (even the right man was a kidnapped monk whom she and Lady Kasuga manipulated—at best—into staying at court), the third volume troubles their now idealized relationship with Arikoto’s infertility. The need for an heir—either the male heir Kasuga longs for or just the child that Iemitsu wants—draws other men into Iemitsu’s bed, leading to the occasional and delightful role-reversing panel with Iemitsu looming towards her partners. (Not over—she’s pretty short.) As much as they affirm to each other, over and over again, that they are each other’s true loves, no matter who fathers Iemitsu’s child, we are left with the concept of a man whose worth is reduced to his capacity to create children and his ability to make life calmer for others. When Lady Kasuga falls ill, it’s Arikoto who tends to her, despite her having always held him at arm’s length.
On the one hand, I think seeing something gender troubling like this is always worthwhile, but I’m always a little wary of straight (heh) role swapping when it comes to examining the ends of the gender spectrum. It still feeds into the idea of a gender binary, while the most interesting stuff happens on the spectrum.
Which is why, I think, I’m so fascinated by seeing how the Redface Pox affects gendered work. I’ve read that Ōoku: The Inner Chambers slowly becomes more focused on court intrigue and relationships in later volumes, which frustrates me. The world outside of the inner chambers in this story is just that fascinating.
This volume is where we start to see the long-term effects of the Pox. While the court agonizes over whether or not to reveal Iemitsu’s true gender for political and cultural reasons, it’s only the most privileged that only have to worry about that. A nobleman raises his daughter as a son (she does not identify as such; she’s quite merrily a butch lady) furtively, terrified that his deception will be discovered, only for her to point that his peers are doing exactly the same thing because there’s simply no other choice. The working women of Japan have to take their men’s place or starve to death. They don’t have the luxury of clinging to the old ways, not with their men’s corpses at their feet and their children needing food. Women take to the field and to the market. They arrange childcare as a community, being unable to fall back on the nuclear family as guaranteed childcare. It’s never as radical as I want (which makes sense, given the state of society in the first volume), but it’s still an interesting start.
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers remains a very satisfying series, even if its examination of gender appears to be cooling a little.