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…
Ooku: The Inner Chamber is an alternate history of the Edo period. It is a stunning drama that shows a Japan where the gender roles are reversed. Yoshinaga weaves an engaging tale that shows this evolution, but a gimmicky localization keeps this title from reaching its full potential.
Ooku starts out 80 years since the outbreak of the Redface Pox, a disease that has decimated the male population of Japan. Woman now do most of the work and rule the country. We first see the Inner Chamber through the eyes of its newest member, Yunoshin Mizuno. Shortly after his arrival, the current shogun, a young girl of ill heath, dies and Yoshimune of a branch house of the Tokugawa becomes Shogun. Yoshimune is a more austere person, and has plans to streamline the government, the Inner Chamber included. As she goes about her rule, she begins to question things, such as why the Shogun must wear men’s attire when meeting foreigners, or why women heirs have two names, one feminine and one masculine. Her curiosity leads her to the scribe of the Shogunate where she starts reading The Chronicle of a Dying Day, which is an account of the 3rd Shogun Iemitsu and the first female Shogun. The next two volumes detail that chronicle.
I can’t say I went into this series with an open mind. I’ve heard both good and bad things about it, so I was skeptical at best. My mixed reactions to the other two Yoshinaga titles I’ve read didn’t help. But having read the first three volumes now, I have to say I really enjoyed it, with a caveat. I’ll get to that in a moment. I’m not really a big fan of alternate history stories, but this title is an exception. Yoshinaga has taken an event and used it to explain of the policies the Tokugawa Shogunate set up. The isolation of Japan, the expulsion of foreigners, even the restriction of buying and selling of small holders land, are all explained as reactions to the Redface Pox as it decimated the male population. I was really impressed by Yoshinaga’s handling of the historical events and her new explanations for them.
I also found the drama to be very engaging. Mizuno’s plight in the first volume is just a foreshadow of the much more heavy drama to come. Here Yoshinaga show herself to a master storyteller, as she weaves a tightly plotted tale of intrigue, betrayal and desperation, all in the name of keeping the Tokugawa bloodline going and in power. There isn’t a wasted moment in these volumes as she shows the humanity of the people shaping a new way of life without even realizing it. She also does an excellent job os showing how easily gender roles can be switched. Woman take over their father and husband’s jobs in the fields and in trades to keep their livelihoods and lives. Heads of house begin raising daughters as sons so they will have someone to succeed them, and some of the daughters take to it well. The men of the Inner Chamber also take on a lot of feminine traits, especially in the present, where they could be quite catty.
What is most fascinating is the resistance that is seen to the change by both men and women. A mother who understands why her daughter must look like a son is still shocked by her masculine mannerisms. Even the Revered Kasuga, who worked the hardest to keep the Tokugawa Shogunate alive, is resistant to the very end to let the Shogun be shown to be a woman. This is contrasted with the world 80 years later where such things are accepted as commonplace and never questioned. Even the tale that men once where more abundant and ruled is seen as more of a myth. This outer drama balances well with the more personal dramas of the main characters, even creating many of them.
I said I had one caveat about enjoying this series, and it is sadly a big one. It’s the localization. This story is set in medieval Japan, and to try to get that across, the editors and adaptors chose to use an Old English/Shakespearean style of writing. Unfortunately, this make the characters sound more like they are Renaissance Fair actors rather than from Feudal Japan. It was really off-putting, especially at first. You can become used to it after away, but it can still pull out of story, with one as compelling as this can be, really puts a damper on the enjoyment. If anything were to keep this title out of people’s hands, it would be this localization.
Overall, Ooku: The Inner Chamber is a compelling drama with strong characters and an intriguing plot. History buffs will enjoy Youshinaga’s different take on Japan’s feudal era, while readers will enjoy the well written characters and their often tragic stories. If you can get past the “fakespeare” language, there is a great story here waiting to be told.