Major 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, murder, the death of a child, and back-stabbing, and is generally NSFW.
One aspect of Tsunayoshi’s character that I found fascinating was her relationship to beauty ideals. While her small face, round eyes, plump lips, and large breasts would be considered very attractive by today’s beauty standards in Japan, she would have been unconventionally attractive in her own time, in which long, thin faces; narrow eyes; and a willowy figure like would have been more ideal–just like Yoshiyasu.1
Tsunayoshi’s somewhat “unusual” features, and more so, Keishôin’s insistence on raising her to be beautiful but not overly educated in hopes of attracting concubines, cause her pathological sense of self-doubt. In flashbacks to her youth, we see that her first lovers were Aguri and Denbe, men whom she directly asks if they thought she is pretty before engaging with them. Later, starting in her 30s, Tsunayoshi begins to heavily rely on makeup and hair accessories in middle-age in order to distract from or hide her perceived imperfections from her concubines. Although–or perhaps because–she is the Shogun, Tsunayoshi spends her life constantly seeking validation. No matter how much Emonnosuke trains the concubines to butter her up or how enthusiastically they consent, Tsunayoshi lives with the fear that she is unattractive, even repulsive.
Although unobtainable beauty standards for men is a running theme throughout the next arc, Yoshinaga tackles the cultural obsession with women’s beauty being tied so strongly to youth and the appearance of fertility in Tsunayoshi’s. Although women hold the political and financial power in Edo Japan, they are not immune from beauty standards even if they have purchasing power to buy husbands or sex workers. Although we often think of the ubiquitous visual messages with which contemporary girls of the digital age are bombarded from a young age, fashion and beauty standards, as well as treatises on beauty and behavior, were widely distributed to a literate population.2 We see some of this in Iemitsu’s arc, when she noticed the women of Edo have all adopted a updo more suited to movement. Yet while Iemitsu’s endeavors into fashion bring her joy in expressing her individuality, Tsunayoshi appears to feel that her worth as a person is directly proportional to how attractive others find her. When Aguri suddenly rejects her to marry Makino, this sows the seed of doubt that she could ever be attractive or loved.
At first, the doubt seems like the childish vanity of a first break-up, or even the general self-loathing after being dumped; but she doesn’t move on. After becoming Shogun and establishing her heir, she grows bored of her concubines, Denbe, and her husband. At this point, then she returns to Aguri again. Now in a position of even more power, Tsunayoshi coerces the happily married Aguri into a sexual relationship because, in addition to being attracted to him and wanting revenge, she feels she is entitled to him, and she destroys the Makino family without a single regret other than losing Narisada as an advisor.*
My Darling Matsu-hime
This is our introduction to Tsunayoshi: a vain, spoiled, petty, selfish ruler who abuses her power. At the point in the narrative when I didn’t think I could hate Tsunayoshi more, Yoshinaga introduces us to her young daughter, Matsu, and show us an entirely different Tsunayoshi. Both Denbe and Tsunayoshi genuinely love their daughter and enjoy spending time with her. In fact, one of the only times we see Tsunayoshi happy is when she is with Matsu. When Matsu suddenly takes ill and dies, Tsunayoshi and Denbe are destroyed. Although Keshôin rather callously encourages Denbe to have another child with Tsunayoshi, Denbe is broken-hearted over the loss of his daughter and largely withdraws from court life.
When Tsunayoshi’s position is secure and she has full control and virtually unlimited power (and free time), she is a monster. Yet, when the fate of her family line suddenly comes to depend on giving birth to another heir, the her self-doubt returns, and she is consumed by the need to appear young and beautiful, turning to heavy makeup and hair ornamentation. Her own father also doesn’t allow her to grieve for Matsu, urging her to bear another heir immediately to secure the family line. Everyone deals with loss in their own way, but this isn’t the way Tsunayoshi wants to cope, and it’s obvious that while she is pursuing sex with her concubines, she’s just going through the motions.
At this point, Emonnosuke devises a series of events to peak her interest: contests of strength and daring like carp-catching, dancing, and what appears to be capture-the-flag chicken fight. Although the activities do distract her and although she does find a number of concubines who interest her and who enjoy sleeping with her, she never has another child and never connects with any of them on a romantic or long-term sexual level.
During all of these sexual escapades, Tsunayoshi realizes that she has begun menopause; at the same time, Keshôin begins exhibiting signs of dementia. After consulting with a priest, he comes to believe that Tsunayoshi’s infertility was caused by of his own sins, particularly his killing Arikoto’s cat while he was a youth. He makes her enact edicts to protect animals, especially dogs, and continues pressuring her to have a child, truly believing she can since, as she puts it, he was brought up in a monastery and doesn’t know much about the biological factors of conception.
Ironically, Keshôin’s behavior begins to resemble Kasuga’s more and more. The pressure to both bear an heir as well as to care for her aging father place Tsunayoshi in an emotional bind. There is little joy to be taken from life other than from sex, but even that doesn’t bring her happiness. Meanwhile, with those outside the castle hearing about her harem of men and not being allowed to kill even a mosquito, public opinion of her plummets.
I want to point out that this part of the plot steps sideways several tropes:
- The insecure pretty-ugly girl who needs a makeover: Tsunayoshi has been beautiful all along, but there is no cure for her insecurity about her looks.
- The unattractive man–or, in this world, woman–whose power and money attract partners: Tsunayoshi has no scruples when it comes to her sex life (except with Emonnosuke for some reason); she has an entire harem of 300 men all to herself and many of them would like to be with her, but she’s generally not interested
- The bad or neglectful mother: despite being a terrible person, Tsunayoshi genuinely loves her daughter.
- Parenthood, specifically motherhood, making a character a better person: Tsunayoshi loves Matsu, but she has little regard for other families or people.
- Character death, especially of a loved one or child, making the character a better person or acting as a plot device (aka women in fridges): Matsu’s death makes Tsunayoshi realize her ironic lack of body agency–even as her actions limit or remove the agency of others–but it doesn’t make her a better person even if it does drive the plot.
Most Deeply in Love With You
As for the men, Keishôin, Emmonosuke, and Nobuhira are all constantly moving their pawns around behind the scenes in hopes of gaining not just power and influence but Tsunayoshi’s affection. In the end, no one truly succeeds.
The person Tsunayoshi fears losing the favor of most is her father, who has doted on her his entire life, which is why she hesitates so long in naming an heir. Had she named someone earlier, when she realized she had hit menopause, she might have been able to retire gracefully. Yet because of Keishôin’s distrust of the other branch families, as well as his Kasuga-like insistence that she bear the heir and keep the line going, her failure to act against him loses her the support of her advisors, the daimyo, and the people.
Returning to her relationships with sex partners, Tsunayoshi’s self-doubt is coupled with the conniving of the people around her. To her, the affair between her father and Yoshiyasu is proof that Yoshiyasu doesn’t love her. Although Nobuhira was an arranged marriage, he fell in love with her at first–until she showed her indifference to him and Denbe fathered her heir. Ironically, Denbe is overly affectionate and emotional in a way that makes her feel smothered. She does not seem to connect with any of the other concubines, even the ones with which she enjoys sex.
Over the years, Tsunayoshi and Emonnosuke genuinely connect over their being forced into having sex for the sake of their families (his mother and sisters prostituted him; she is required to bear an heir); their knowledge of literature and wry sense of humor; and their physical attraction to each other. However, political issues (his age and her infertility) keep them apart for years. After he saves her from an assassination, he finally confesses that he loves her and kisses her. Everything seems to be going well until Emonnosuke starts to remove her robe. She protests because no one has seen her nude in years because she feels like she’s old and repulsive. Unlike what he told the concubines to say– “like all the men of the ôoku, I am deeply in love with you”–he exclaims in Kyoto-ben, “I have dreamed of this all my life, and I won’t let it go! I love you!” This is the first time he has ever had sex for pleasure rather than procreation, and the first time she has had sex with someone she really cared about.
This love affair spurs her to name an heir, and there’s a beautiful scene in which her father protests, saying that the heir must be her child. As she turns to leave the room, Keishôin grabs a hold of the hem of her outer robe, and she slips out of it, free at last from the mantle of the Shogunate and from him, finally her own person.
Unfortunately, Emonnosuke dies suddenly, probably of an aneurysm, before she gets to return to him. Tsunayoshi lives out her life believes herself to be alone in the world, until she’s visited by Nobuhira, who tries to kill her because “she never loved him.” Yoshiyasu rescues her only to murder her for the same reason: everyone, especially her, loved Tsunayoshi so much and wanted her favor and attention, and she ignored them and pushed them away. In a very intense scene that mirrors the sexual tension of Tsunayoshi’s stabbing Yoshiyasu, Yoshiyasu smothers Tsunayoshi with a wet cloth while holding her, telling her that no man will ever take her away from her again.
Everyone is Terrible and Maybe that’s Okay
The reader’s eventual feelings of sympathy or pity for these unlikable characters is a testament to Yoshinaga’s writing. Everyone claims that they just wanted to be loved, but they each dealt with their feelings in the most dysfunctional way possible. Yoshinaga makes it clear that feeling pity for a character doesn’t excuse a character’s actions. Tsunayoshi may be mourning her child, but that doesn’t redeem her prior actions of sexually abusing or destroying the Makino family; her lack of agency regarding her body doesn’t justify her taking away the agency of others.
Is this storyline still about gender? The narrative focuses less on gender in politics or relationships than Iemitsu’s did, but the theme of gender is present: Tsunayoshi’s story repeats, in many ways, her mother’s trope of being the most powerful person in the nation but not having control over her person or her personal life. One might draw parallels to contemporary fears of the birth dearth and women’s choices about work and family being hampered by the government and society at large, particularly in the face of the decade-long “birth dearth.” Or, to look at Tsunayoshi’s own actions, the persistence of rape culture. In particular, the idea that sex should be consensual, fun, and caring and not just for duty or power play is especially poignant because it reflects back onto contemporary society.
From a writing perspective, however, Tsunayoshi’s arc, as I’ve stated before, is important because women are allowed to be flawed and complex characters and to do terrible things, just like male characters have been and still are in popular media. No women has to be a saint or a villain purely on virtue of her being female; anyone can have a tragic backstory but still be an awful person. No woman has to stand in for all women; women’s experiences and characterizations are as diverse as men’s. Characters still have to deal with problems socially and biologically (fertility, here) specific to their gender. There are no “strong female characters” in the reductive sense.
What critics miss by looking only to the plot, especially if you’ve only read Vol. 4, is the meta aspects of gender. Focusing on characterization may be more subtle than the in-text discussion of women becoming the heads of household and even the Shogun in the prior story, yet Yoshinaga’s versions of Tsunayoshi and Yoshiyasu are novel among female characters. It took me three years to really process how deep the story really is, and I hope I’ve done the themes justice here.
Next time: how does the movie compare?
1. For a concise description of changing beauty ideals for women from the Heian to the Heisei, see Laura Miller (2006), “Changing Beauty Ideology.” Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics, University of California Press, pp. 19-26.
2. See Yuki Yabuta, “Rediscovering Women in Tokugawa Japan,” Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University, May 2000.