From the back cover:
In Edo Period Japan, a strange new disease called the Redface Pox has begun to prey on the country’s men. Within eighty years of the first outbreak, the male population has fallen by seventy-five percent. Women have taken on all the roles traditionally granted to men, even that of the shogun. The men, precious providers of life, are carefully protected. And the most beautiful of the men are sent to serve in the shogun’s Inner Chamber…
After a mysterious illness wipes out most of the young men in Edo Period Japan, women step up to take over the roles traditionally filled by men, becoming laborers, merchants, heads of families, and even shogun. Over time, the illness grows less virulent, but remains a common threat, resulting in a population made up of four times as many females as males. Healthy men are prized—families use them as pawns to negotiate alliances, and it’s tough for the average woman to secure a husband, requiring her to visit a brothel if she wishes to have a child.
It’s into this world that Mizuno Yunoshin (name order left intact!) is born, the son of an impoverished family of the samurai class. He’s in love with his childhood friend, Nobu, but because she is of the merchant class, they are not considered a good marital match. Rather than assent to marry someone else, Mizuno instead goes into service in the Ōoku, the Inner Chambers of the shogun’s palace—where many men are kept either for the purpose of becoming concubine to the shogun or for serving those who have been deemed worthy for that honor—which will award his family enough money to perhaps attract a suitable husband for his sister. The majority of the volume focuses on Mizuno learning of the Inner Chambers’ elaborate customs as well as his unexpected rise in rank when he happens to catch the eye of the senior chamberlain.
If I had to pick one word to describe Ōoku, that word would be “intrigue.” In the noun sense of the word, Ōoku delivers abundantly, as jockeying for position within the Inner Chambers is the favorite past-time. There’s some fairly elaborate scheming going on that takes the plot in unexpected and interesting directions. And, of course, in the verb sense of the word, Ōoku intrigues readers by not being easily classified as a simple gender reversal tale.
Instead, it emphasizes the fluidity of the notion of gender, showing how males in a certain situation can exhibit traditionally feminine attributes while females can possess qualities that are generally regarded as masculine. The new shogun, Yoshimune, is an absolutely fascinating example. In this world, where women reign, Yoshimune’s intelligence and political savvy have flourished, and she is a very effective ruler, making unorthodox decisions and sidestepping the ploys of her underlings, all while frequently sating her robust sexual appetite. Her advisor, Hisamichi, is also wonderful, with a mild-mannered countenance that conceals the full extent of her cleverness. Towards the end of the volume, Yoshimune begins to question why it is that women in power are required to adopt manly names, so that it appears in historical records as though they have been men all along. I’m eager to see what will happen next!
Artistically, Yoshinaga’s distinctive style is deceptively simple; one might think that without elaborate designs to distinguish so many dark-haired, similarly garbed men, keeping them straight would be a problem, but it actually never is. Also, I’m particularly fond of the way Yoshimune is drawn; her haughty expressions manage to simultaneously capture her senses of humor and of self-importance. My one complaint here is that though Mizuno is often described by other characters as being handsome, he really doesn’t look it.
Published under the VIZ Signature line, Ōoku has the beautiful packaging generally afforded titles in that imprint, with French flaps, color pages, and a gorgeous vellum title page. Even the “You’re reading the wrong way!” page has been given a classy facelift. I applaud the adaptation for retaining the proper order of names, but am less enamored of the choice to render the dialogue in a very formal sort of English. I get that VIZ must’ve been trying to recreate the feel of the original, but it’s a bit distracting at first. Thankfully, I did get used to it eventually. It’d be a shame to let something so trivial mar one’s enjoyment of so excellent a work.
Review copy provided by the publisher.