Introduction here. Spoilers for the Iemitsu (vol 2-4) and Tsunayoshi arcs (vol. 4-6), including the drama and the Ôoku: Eien film. Warnings: the plot of this story arc contains sexual assault and abuse, dubious consent, suicide, murder, and all the back-stabbing. I’ve kept the mostly images PG-13 (there’s a little gore in one) but the content is not safe for work.
Brought to you by the Bechdel test
Let’s start with the most obvious point: Tsunayoshi can be a morally reprehensible woman precisely because the Ôoku has equal gender representation, both in her story arc and the work at large. Part of the problem with gender imbalance–as well as lack of representation for sexual and racial minorities, et al.–is that token characters tend to become the de facto representative for their group and are often reduced to their one distinguishing characteristic or a set of stereotypical characteristics, a la the Smurfette Principle (original piece here): “My only personality trait is ‘femininity’!”
Yoshinaga, however, devotes equal time to male and female characters in her work even though there is a severe gender imbalance (1:4 male: female) in the population in the world they inhabit. All characters have their flaws (even Saint Arikoto) and even with minor characters, we can always see that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. Because none of the women characters are standing in for the whole of their sex as “good girls” or “strong female characters” or “cautionary tales,” Yoshinaga can actually write her cast as realistic people. The fact that I just wrote that sentence seems ridiculous, but when so many films only offer these characters, Ôoku seems astonishing.
In writing Tsunayoshi and her arc’s cast, Yoshinaga breaks open many of the tropes surrounding women characters, as well as tropes surrounding anti-heroes, villains, and protagonists. A character doesn’t have to be likeable to be interesting, or well written, or feminist. Tsunayoshi and the rest of the main characters are easy to dislike, but all of their poor traits are never implicated as a result of their genders, sexual preferences, or gender presentation.
To really understand Tsunayoshi, we’ll need to look at her story arc. (Spoilers; all warnings apply here.) After the fourth Shogun Ietsuna dies, Tsunayoshi inherits the Shogunate and moves with some of her advisors and staff from Tatebayashi to Edo. The story begins with her being bored of her concubines, but her father, Gyokuei–now “Keshôin,” having taken vows after Iemitsu’s death–wants her to bear a second heir for security (and maybe have fun in the process).
One of her advisors, Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa, suggests a home visit to another of the advisor’s estates. The Baron of Bizen, Makino Narisada, just happens to be married to one of Tsunayoshi’s former lovers; having no daughters, their son Sadayasu has married and received permission to inherit her position. At Yoshiyasu’s recommendation, they gather a number of young men for the Shogun to have for the sleep, but to everyone’s surprise, Tsunayoshi choose’s Narisada’s husband Kunihisa (or “Aguri,” her old nickname for him) despite his advanced age and the protests of both Narisada and Aguri. After Aguri falls ill, Tsunayoshi takes his son as her concubine. Narisada and her daughter-in-law Tokie are emotionally destroyed, and the latter commits suicide. After her son dies of illness in the ôoku, Narisada returns her lands; and Yoshiyasu secures her place as chief advisor.*
Meanwhile, Tsunayoshi’s legal husband, Prince Nobuhira, is not the father of her child; rather, Denbe (O-den), her first concubine, is. Nobuhira and Keshôin are in a power struggle, and the Nobuhira hires Emonnosuke, a new chamberlain from Kyoto in hopes that Emonnosuke will become her concubine and father a child with her so both of them will gain favor. Keshôin takes the side of Denbe out of dislike for husband. Yet it turns out that Emonnosuke is turning 35, too old to be a concubine, and so he wrangles a position as the head of the ôoku, leading to a confrontation with Yoshiyasu, who also used devious methods to attain her position.
At this time, Tsunayoshi’s only daughter Matsu dies leaving Denbe permanently grieving, Tsunayoshi in shock, and the Shogunate with no heir. Emonnosuke organizes a variety of events–feats of strength like carp-catching–to help Tsunayoshi pick out new partners to bear an heir; when nothing comes of it, Keshôin turns to spiritual answers and creates new laws to protect animals in penance for his murder of Wakamurasaki, Arikoto’s cat, years ago.
As Tsunayoshi ages, her strange edicts, ordering the death of the 47 ronin, and “wasting” her concubines on herself post-menopause results in widespread distrust, culminating in an attempt on her life by a concubine, who is then executed. Giving up at last, she names Ienobu, the head of the Owari branch family, as her heir. Finally free of the Shogunate, she and Emonnosuke share a night of passion–her (and possibly his) first time having sex purely for fun instead of duty–but he dies soon after of an aneurysm. Tsunayoshi’s health declines, and she is eventually murdered by Yoshiyasu after Nobuhira tries to strangle her. (The real Tsunayoshi was actually murdered by his wife.)
The Pit of Vipers
Returning back to the Bechdel test discussion, Tsunayoshi and the other main characters are all bad people but are not badly written. For example, Tsunayoshi herself is very vain but very insecure about her appearance; she is vindictive against those she feels may politically betray her; she feels she has to prove that she’s tough, unlike her sister; she uses both backstabbing and violence to show everyone who is in control.
One of the first major plot points is her using her position of power to coerce Aguri and his son into sex. Although Aguri had been her (consenting) lover before Tsunayoshi became Shogun, he married Makino Narisada instead, which set a series of events into motion: Tsunayoshi’s marriage to Nobuhira, who wanted her more than she ever cared for him; her request for Denbe to be her concubine; and her discovery of Yoshiyasu’s betrayal.
At the time, Omoto, the girl who became Yoshiyasu, was a mere attendant and a favorite of Tsunayoshi. When Tsunayoshi discovered the affair between her father and Omoto, she stabbed Omoto in the thigh to both prove her power and Omoto’s loyalty. Yoshiyasu grows to resent Tsunayoshi both for her indifference to others (including to Yoshiyasu herself) and for her position. [Edit: It's strongly implied in their final scene that Yoshiyasu was sincere when she said she only wanted to be close to Tsunayoshi, but they have a very codependent, intense, jealous relationship. Take a good look at Omoto's face in the image below--pain? ecstasy? Thanks to Alice for her comment on the following piece.]
The men are equally as manipulative and cunning. Denbe and Nobuhira both crave Tsunayoshi’s love and affection, but her marked indifference toward both of them as partners after the birth of Matsu causes Keishôin to conscript Denbe, whom he grudgingly approves of as the father of the heir, against Nobuhira, whom he finds “mincing” and soft. Denbe really only wants Tsunayoshi’s affection and to be with her and his daughter, so he’s willing to play into the game in exchange.Nobuhira’s retaliation by hiring Emonnosuke, who has ambitions of his own to secure a safe position of power close to the Shogun without having to worry about losing her favorite because of his age, backfires.
The minor characters tend to be more sympathetic and better people: Narisada and Tokie don’t see a male heir as a problem even though Sadayasu is teased for it. Akimoto, the auditor, comes from a poor background and tries to stay out of the way of others; his secret is that he came to the ôoku to support (and possibly avoid) his sister, with whom he had an affair.
Also, the Asano incident occurs in this arc: Lord Kira is a pompous and privileged old woman, and Lord Asano is a bumpkin misogynist, an Edo-period men’s rights activist whose family only employs male samurai.**
I always get the feeling there’s a lot more going on in the background that we get to see in the narrative, and writing good characters means that even the minor characters are treated as complex themselves. In addition to having equal representation between men and women characters*** the main characters are all using the same backhanded techniques so often attributed to women when taken out of the context of working the system. Tsunayoshi is ultimately the only one with recognized power, but she’s trapped in broken a system (partially by a parent) that privileges biological heirs, and this comes at a cost to her agency.
In sum, Yoshinaga’s skillful writing shows that, by giving equal representation and not attributing character flaws to gender, writing flawed or unlikeable characters doesn’t have to be anti-feminist. This is particularly salient in terms of writing flawed female characters: flaws may develop from socialization and the social systems may stunt their ambition or twist them, but writing flawed women as “hysterical,” “weak,” or as needing to be punished for not following social rules is lazy writing. The depth and breadth of her characters shifts the focus to the individuals their interactions with institutions and society instead of relying on tired tropes about gender that still infiltrate SFF writing.
This post got pretty long, so I’ve separated the manga post into two and will write more about the themes of obsession with beauty and of toxic and failed love next time, and then cover the film in fourth post.
*Yet, despite her position of extreme privilege, Tsunayoshi is also somewhat of a pawn in the system she supposedly controls. That said, nothing at all entitles her or anyone else to have sex with anyone who does not or cannot consent.
**The Chushingura section deserves its own post.
***No genderqueer characters in this particular arc but more are coming!