Manga Review: 『大奥』（Ōoku：The Inner Chambers), Vol. 2
Read the review of Vol. 1 here.
Sad to leave Yoshimune and Mizuno of vol. 1 behind for the next story arc, I reluctantly started vol. 2 of Ôoku, but I quickly left my regrets behind as I got absorbed in the story. Readers, this manga is a tour de force. It’s not just the art or the writing– this volume put me through an emotional wringer in a way that only the endings of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and The Rose of Versailles have.
As Yoshimune reads the records of the ōoku, we travel back in time to the 1630s. The manga starts with an explanation: The first two Tokugawa shoguns, Ieyasu and Hidetada, were men. However, the third shogun, Iemitsu, fell victim to the Red Pox. Little by little, we piece together the (disturbing) story of how the female Tokugawa line started.
Spoilers, of course, follow.
One of the main themes of volume 1 was power, chiefly explored through the Machiavellian politics of the ōoku and the new shogun Yoshimune. The theme of the second volume, though, is the hurts and wounds we carry; this is explored through the theme of physical violence, largely rape.
The narrative technique of revealing the story through flashbacks is brilliant, but to summarize, the real Iemitsu (male) becomes shogun, but he is notorious for having male lovers and fails to produce an heir. One night, he and his retainers go out to make trouble in the town, and he rapes a woman, who gives birth to his daughter. Iemitsu contracts the Red Pox, which is spreading through Edo, and dies. His wet nurse Kasuga takes charge of the situation: in order to keep the shogunate in the Tokugawa (read: Iemitsu’s) line, she finds his daughter, now 15, has her mother and wet nurse murdered, and forces the new “Iemitsu” (Chie) to dress like a boy and pretend to be her father. Iemitsu tries to run away, is brutally raped and kills her rapist. She gives birth to a daughter, who dies. Kasuga tries to build up the ōoku so that Iemitsu can produce an heir. However, Iemitsu hates the three men in it, so Kasuga kidnaps some traveling monks in order to take the beautiful head of their temple, Madenokouji Arikoto, into the ōoku—no matter what she has to do to get him to stay.
The story arc answers a good deal of the questions Yoshimune asks in volume one. The reason why the first man to sleep with an unmarried shogun must die is because Iemitsu murdered her rapist, saying that a man who injures the body of the shogun must die (218). The reason why Japan became a closed country was to keep the Westerners from knowing that the shogun was a woman—which is also why the female shoguns have male names. The reason why the men of the ōoku are cruel and catty is because competition on the battlefields of love, sex and power makes people cruel and catty—whether it’s three men or three thousand.
What struck me about the story, though, was the wounds everyone carried and the vicious cycle of cruelty. The men of the ōoku are angry that Iemitsu seems to favor Arikoto, so they rape and torture his acolyte Gyokuei. Gyokuei murders Arikoto’s cat to frame one of his rapists and to hurt Iemitsu. Kasuga’s use of murder and extortion to achieve her means of installing the new Iemitsu and producing an heir leaves no one untouched, including her biological son, whom she coerces into helping her.
As for Iemitsu, her wounds manifest in multiple: She claims to hate cute things because her daughter died, and all cute things (like the kitten she gives Arikoto) remind her of the baby. She is rumored to have sent a member of the ōoku to his death for not pleasing her in bed.
Most notably, she is angered by her lack of real power and takes out her frustrations on the men of the ōoku. She enjoys playing humiliating power games with the men to show who is in charge. She refers to all the men by feminine names—Madenokouji Arikoto (万里小路・有功）becomes “Oman,” Gyokuei （玉栄) becomes “Otama,” because, as members of her harem, they are “like women” (85). She forces them to dress as women and dance to amuse her (205). She uses violence to this end as well—she beats Arikoto at their first meeting to show him his place.
Iemitsu knows her position of power is precarious, since the plague has not decimated the sex ratio as far as it has by Yoshimune’s reign: in the 1630s, the ratio is 2 women : 1 man. She wants to be revered as the shogun, but she is still very much an angry child at 18. Instead of working to win people’s respect by performing as a capable leader like Yoshimune does,* she takes out her anger on those who do not respect her by showing them they are merely her playthings.
Tied to this is Iemitsu’s largest wound—her kidnapping. Had she not been kidnapped and forced to play the role of shogun, she could have continued her peaceful childhood and lived as a normal woman. Instead, her mother and nurse were murdered in front of her, and she was forced into a role she didn’t want—and, to top it off, she was raped as a result. She takes revenge on traveling girls by having their hair—their sign of femininity—cut off, just as hers was to become “Iemitsu.” She is the demon of the roads, and other girls living the life she wanted must suffer for injustices inflicted on her.
Arikoto, perhaps, has some of the deepest wounds of all, but Arikoto is not like the other characters. Kasuga snatched him away from his beloved profession as a priest who genuinely wanted to help people, and if that were not enough, she murdered his colleague and an innocent woman in order to get him to break his vow of chastity. Iemitsu beat him and verbally abused him. In order get their “revenge” on Arikoto, the other men hurt Gyokuei to the point of the boy snapping. Arikoto does feel regret, sadness, and guilt over these events. However, Arikoto appears to have more compassion than seems humanly possible. He sees how much Iemitsu hurts, and after spending a lot of time with her, he realizes something which is, perhaps, the best monologue in the volume:
Up until now I thought I was born to become a priest. I wanted to help the many people suffering in this world, and up until now, I believed I could help. So, when that became impossible, I despaired and went so far as to throw away my feelings as a human…. Why didn’t I notice it? There was someone I could save. The one person I had to save was always right before my eyes. (pp. 226-7)
This particular scene really wrenched my heart. On one hand, I feel like Arikoto might be on a suicide mission to rehabilitate Iemitsu. Someone who wants to “fix” a partner often ends up disappointed, and I know as well as any that even a man with an abundance of compassion and love can grow weary of a person with too many scars on her heart and schemes in her head.
At the same time, Arikoto’s infinite compassion moved me. Arikoto is kind to everyone no matter what their position is, and, moreover, he’s clever. One of my other favorite scenes in the manga is the one in which Kasuga buys the three men of the temple prostitutes in order to get them to break their vows and join the ōoku. The prostitutes tell Arikoto that they were instructed not to leave until the men “play” with them. Arikoto responds that he’ll play—and plays an older version of janken (rock-paper-scissors) and some other parlor games with them and lets them drink the nice sake provided. Everyone from a courtesan to the Shogun herself is worthy of his company and consideration.
As for his relationship with Iemitsu, the final scene of him coming to her “party” in the women’s wear provided and embracing her reminded me strongly of the scene in Princess Mononoke when Ashitaka embraces San after she stabs him. Could this realization both men have–that everyone deserves love and compassion–be enlightenment?
I think I may have developed a literary crush on Arikoto in reading this. I mean, what’s not to like about an attractive man who is learned, strong, gentle, caring, compassionate, and clever AND comes with a cute smile and adorable Kyoto accent? I don’t know about Iemitsu, but he’s won me over.
『大奥』第2巻 (Ōoku, Vol. 2)
By YOSHINAGA Fumi (よしなが ふみ）
Published 2006/11/29 by JETS COMICS (subsidiary of 白泉社).
*Though Yoshimune is perfectly capable of firing people who mouth off to her, she is not violent with her subordinates.