Story and Art by Fumi Yoshinaga
Translation and Adaptation by Akemi Wegmuller
Rated M for Mature
(First published in Japan in 2005)
List Price: $12.99
In Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Fumi Yoshinaga (Antique Bakery, Flower of Life) takes her readers to an alternate Edo Japan, where a mysterious disease has taken a heavy toll on the male population. Women have assumed the roles traditionally reserved for men, including that of shogun, while the surviving men have become valuable commodities on the marriage market. And a select number of men, drawn primarily from the most elite classes, enter the Ōoku, the shogun’s inner chamber, where they are servants and (sometimes) concubines.
I am rather late to the party when it comes to reviewing Ōoku, but it was such an interesting read that I couldn’t resist adding my two cents. I first heard about this series shortly after it first came out in Japan, in the context of “Here’s a great series that has no chance of ever being licensed for US English language publication!” Well, thank goodness for our friends at Viz Signature, who have brought it over and given it their usual deluxe treatment (larger trim size, French flaps, and color pages).
At first, this appears to be episodic and character-based storytelling similar to that found in Yoshinaga’s Flower of Life and Antique Bakery. The story begins by following Yunoshin, the son of a samurai class family, as he leaves his family to begin life as a servant within the inner chambers. But just when the story appears to be settling into easy lines around Yunoshin, Yoshinaga shakes things up by introducing other points-of-view. (To go into further detail about this would be excessively spoilery.) It’s quite a surprise from a narrative standpoint, and it works fantastically as a reminder that this is a story about a time and place as much as it a story about individual characters. And in the process, Yoshinaga neatly avoids the feminist problem of making a story set in a female-dominated AU Japan all about the men.
Even without this narrative shake-up, I probably would have been interested in reading more of the series: the clever use and equally clever revision of historical detail alone justify the cover price, and Yoshinaga’s light touch with character interactions and her adorable chibis are a welcome bonus. But the switch in perspectives makes the story about a thousand times more compelling. Let’s put it this way: I borrowed my copy of vol. 1 from a friend, but I’ll probably pre-order vol. 2.
The English adaptation by Akemi Wegmuller uses interestingly archaic language, full of “thou” and “thee” and at least one “forsooth.” I’ve criticized Wegmuller in the past for her very slangy adaptations of Honey and Clover, which I find distracting, but her stylistic choices here mostly work for me. The language does not always feel genuinely archaic–the dialogue sort of makes me think I am watching a children’s stage version of Robin Hood–but that is less of a problem than one might expect. The uneven tone actually meshes well with the subversive playfulness that runs through this often solemn story. And that mix of seriousness and fun is totally consistent with what I know of Yoshinaga’s work from her other series. (I’d be interested in hearing from any readers of Japanese, however, on how much the adaptation reflects and recreates Yoshinaga’s style in the original.)
I always cheer when US publishers license manga series beyond the obvious
shōnen and shōjo blockbusters, and I cheer even louder when those niche series turn out to be more than worth the special treatment. Ōoku might not satisfy those looking for another ninja battle royale, but readers with a taste for historical detail, court intrigue, and interesting gender politics will find a lot to like in this one. Highly recommended.
(Many thanks to oyceter for the loan of the reading copy.)