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Published August 11, 2019

Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga is a 16 volume ongoing comic series set in an alternate history of Tokugawa era Japan. Using the cover of “alternative history”, this series tackles issues of government and power, as well as examining gender roles in a nuanced way, focusing on the Inner Chambers (a kind of harem for the Shogun’s use – now gender flipped to include men). This focus focuses on gender, power relations, and sexual politics at a historical level, but also acts as a critique of modern Japanese gender roles.

Ooku is set after a disease called the ‘red-faced pox’ has killed three quarters of the male population of Japan, an event which enacts large social upheaval, leaving the women of the Tokugawa clan to take up the reins of power. Starting from the third female Shogun Iemitsu in 1600s, the series continues all the way to the politics of the American Black Ships ending Japan’s isolationist policy in the 1800’s.

The first thing that a reader will notice is the amount of text in the speech bubbles. This is not the kind of comic one can read in a couple of hours, and it is deliberately paced for a slower and more thoughtful experience. The translation uses faux-Elizabethan English in order to replicate the archaic Japanese used in the original, which may take some readers some time in getting used to the style of language.

Artistically, Yoshinaga uses clear, sweeping lines to express a range of expressions in her women and men, as well as using minute detail to render the fashions and architecture of the Tokugawa court lavishly and with care. Even at a much later point in the story (Volumes 14 and 15) Yoshinaga’s artistic style still stays consistent. Her ability to combine simple layouts with intricate detail makes it easier for a first-time reader of manga to get a handle on the flow of scenes in the narrative. The use of silence, and letting the artwork breathe for itself,  is a technique used to great effect (especially in a dialogue-heavy text). It lets the emotions shown on the face do the telling, rather than simply have things stated outright, and really has its impact felt in pivotal scenes.

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Silence and artistic attention to detail on display.
Source: Fumi Yoshinaga

Yoshinaga’s immense historical research is evident in how many real-life moments in Japanese history are brought to life. It even covers the arrival of the Black Ships from America in 1853, where the 13th female Shogun Iesada must navigate a complex weave of politics between European and American powers converging on Japan, as well as in-fighting between the domains and the imperial family. By including numerous moments from Japanese history, such as the Tokugawa councillor Hotta Masayoshi’s blunder in permitting ‘Imperial Authorization’ (an event which allows the Imperial family to begin meddling in the affairs of government), Yoshinaga lets the reader gain an insightful – if slightly altered – knowledge of Japanese history.

Also, drawing on historical manoeuvring and playing off the interplay between the world of the Inner Chambers and the outer world makes for engaging reading beyond its educational value.

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The American Black Boats arrive,
Source: Fumi Yoshinaga

Where Yoshinaga really shines is her portrayal of gender roles. An early example is the portray of Iemitsu. In an early scene in Vol. 2, the young female ruler Iemitsu is forced to dress and act as a man in order to continue the charade that a male shogun still holds power, and expresses her frustration and anger by commanding her male concubines to dress as women, clearly intended to humiliate and force the same degradation that Iemitsu is forced to undergo unto others under her ‘limited’ power.

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Iemitsu – a woman – has to impersonate her father as a male shogun, wearing men’s clothes.
Source: Fumi Yoshinaga

However, Arikoto, her new male concubine – a kindly monk forcibly removed from his post as abbot to reside in the Inner Chambers – willingly accepts wearing the feminine robes, crossing the boundaries of binary gender, and nullifying the barb of malice intended in the cross-dressing debacle. Although Iemitsu has been forced into a strict and damaging contradiction to her own identity in a culture defined by a brutal gender binary, Arikoto shows Iemitsu that gender is more fluid, and that gender roles for men and women don’t have to be inherently tied to power – she is now not limited by the concept of power being tied to masculinity. This example plays into the other commentary offered in this series.

Positions of power and gender in Ooku do not map a clear 1:1 ‘winner’ in the gender divide – in this universe, both men and women are restricted and harmed by the idea of strict gender roles. And inverting the patriarchal system of such a culture does not necessarily equal to its harmful ideals being thrown away. Nevertheless, the ideas presented in Ooku are engaging and thought-provoking.

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Arikoto offers a way out.
Source: Fumi Yoshinaga

For those interested in a more in-depth analysis of the gender divide and historical context, check out Odorunara’s blog posts here and here. These were influential in helping shape an argument that was already in my head when writing.

Overall, when bringing together the blend of intriguing ideas such as gendered power dynamics and socio-political analysis, an elegant and easy to comprehend art style, and a well-researched story that can educate as much as entertain, Ooku stands as an amazing series. It should be compulsory reading for anyone with any interest in Japanese history or culture more generally – the ideas it makes the reader think about alone have a contemporary as well as historical element. And its easy-to consume art style allows for any difficulties with the language to be balanced out. Definitely a worthy addition to anyone’s library.

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