Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that!
Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating,
vacillating, calculating, agitating,
Maddening and infuriating hags!
–Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, “Hymn to Him”
I recently saw Ōoku (大奥), an alternate history film based on the first volume of the manga of the same name, and the whole time I was watching the men in this film, I couldn’t get “Hymn to Him” out of my head. I’ve written about gender vs. sex in the media before, but this film takes the cake–it would make Henry Higgins scream.
Ōoku (大奥) focuses on the inner chambers of the Shogun’s palace and the people who live and work there. The real ōoku was where all the women connected to the Shogun lived (read: harem), and in the past, there have been films and TV series about the rivalries of his concubines. However, in this Ōoku, distinguished by the modifier “gender swap” (literally “male-female reversal”),* most of the men in Japan have died from The Red Death, a horrible disease that only affects men. As a result of the epidemic, the sex ratio has been changed to 1 man to 4 women. Men have become a hot commodity—only the well-off can purchase husbands for their daughters to marry; the rest must patronize prostitutes if they are interested in having sex with men or having children.
In the film, Mizuno Yunoshin (Ninomiya Kazunari), is a martial artist by day and a freelance sex-worker by night. Because of class differences, he doesn’t think he can marry his childhood sweetheart, the お嬢様 Onobu (Horikita Maki), and it is unlikely his sister can afford a proper husband, so, to support his family, he sells himself into the ōoku, where the Shogun keeps 3000 beautiful men. Right after he enters the ōoku, the young Shogun dies and is replaced by Tokugawa Yoshimune (Shibasaki Koh), a woman who is headstrong and aware of the power in her position but nonetheless a capable and intelligent ruler. The plot follows country bumpkin Mizuno’s attempts to navigate the social order in the ōoku, as his fellow ōoku inhabitants backstab, gossip, hook up, rape, and beat up each other when they aren’t trying on clothes or practicing kendo.
What I loved about this film was how it focused on the reversal of gender stereotypes. Women doing all the manual labor and taking over businesses was certainly no surprise, a la Tatara in Mononoke-hime, but to show middle-aged women leering through the windows of the brothels at the men on display, and to show the men preening over their new outfits, enjoying incense,** and trying to backstab their way to the top was revolutionary. We tend to assume that, in a society run by and dominated by women, women would just keep on fulfilling contemporary gender stereotypes—they would be kind to their male partners; they would search for true love rather than sex; and they would prefer to wear pretty clothes when not working.
Instead, the women run along quite a spectrum: the virginal Onobu has a cute face, minces around in a beautiful kimono, and brings Mizuno rice balls after his martial arts training. The Shogun, on the other hand, despite being beautiful, is better at riding a horse than wearing the shogunal robes; she is level-headed, but keeps her retainers in line so they make no mistake of who is in charge; furthermore, she is sexually confident. As for the women who frequent sex-workers, one of Mizuno’s clients is a sweet older lady who hopes to get pregnant with a son from their encounter and is thrilled to have the younger man’s attention for a night. However, the women perusing the prostitutes in the red-light district are as aggressive and lecherous as men in the same position are usually depicted.
Likewise, the men have a more fluid sexuality and gender. Those in the ōoku are free to explore male-male sexual experiences—for some, like Tsuroka (Okura Tadayoshi), Mizuno’s rival in the dojo, it seems to be actual preference for men; for others, like the men who try to rape Mizuno, it appears to be more situational—it’s about power in a place where they have little, and about sex with whom is available. (Think the British Navy or the Shinsengumi.) Mizuno’s preference is decidedly for women, but he’s not beyond kissing his tailor Kakizoe (Nakamura Aoi), who obviously has a bit of a crush on him.
The men, like the women, experience life in a different world with a different social order than men and women did then or do now. Instead of having the power in relationships with women, they are a commodity to be bought and sold, whether in the sense of sex-work or being purchased for marriage. (What is a dowry, after all?) In the ōoku, the men have little to do but do domestic labor, martial arts, and sex, and so they occupy their time with beautiful clothes, parlor games, and gossip. While a causal observer might just chalk all this “feminine” behavior up to “the harem is entirely gay men,” that would be equating sex and sexual preference with gender. We find it so hard to separate the three things in the individual, and certainly there are more than enough cultural cues that are encouraged based on the physical sex you possess, the sexual preferences you have and the expression thereof, and your personal mannerisms, preferred fashion, way of speaking, etc. For most people, the sex-sexual preference-gender triad is somewhat subconscious, a result of trying to fit in to established norms in order to feel attractive and desirable (see: fashion magazines, women’s magazines, men’s magazines). But in reality, the way we express our physical bodies and our sexual preferences through our gender is cultural, whether it is a conscious construction or merely subconscious or unconscious.***
The men in the ōoku, then, are acting this way without thinking about it because the kind of gender they are expressing is not linked to sex or sexuality, but to a society in which the privileged class of one entire sex is sheltered, coveted, and shut off from the world, and encouraged to pursue light entertainment (and martial arts, to some degree). It’s not because they are this way intrinsically but because they are allowed to indulge only in these things. Consider the “accomplished” but very “silly” women of any Austen novel—this is no different. Certainly the Shogun enjoys her nicer clothes and surroundings, too, but she has a country to run and can’t sit around sniffing incense and gossiping all day, and neither can the female laborers, business owners, pimps, or government officials.
Regarding fashion, there is a great scene in which the eligible men of the harem gather to receive the Shogun and, they hope, her attentions. All of the veterans of the ōoku deck themselves out in bright, vibrant colors, and the impression is of a hundred butterflies flitting about in a tatami room as the men compliment each other and scope out their competition. Mizuno, on the other hand, requests that his tailor make an outfit entirely in black—not because he thinks color is too “girly” (whatever that means in this universe), but so he will stand out—and stand out he does, as most of the men are shocked that he would turn up in such “dour” clothing. This is, of course, the trick of the “little black dress”—if the cut is flattering and the wearer is beautiful, the understated simplicity of a well made LBD will make her beauty stand out all the more while making her seem sophisticated enough not to need a flashy garment. Mizuno has apparently learned the art of understatement, but to make such a fashion statement is a conscious choice which he had plenty of time to think about precisely because it is acceptable and normal for the men in this culture to consider fashion and how to play up their best attributes.
In sum, these behaviors have absolutely nothing to do with sex and everything to do with culture and circumstance—and the film is quite clear in showing this. Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Because cultural and societal forces have historically shunted us into separate spheres.**** Alter the circumstances, and the idea that we are somehow mentally and emotionally different on a biological level—that is, equating social forces with physical sex—falls apart entirely.
Ōoku is a well acted film with gorgeous costumes and sets and an intriguing story, and I highly recommend it. The only thing that was difficult for me while watching it was understanding some of the finer plot points, as the Japanese is fairly old-fashioned and has somewhat of a specialized vocabulary. Still, it’s a fascinating and fantastic film, and most definitely worth your time and money. A hymn to him? Nonsense! A dissection of how social roles, class, and population shape gender roles? Well, why can’t more movies be like that?
「男女逆転大奥」Danjo Gyakuten Ohoku (Oooku)
English titles: The Lady Shogun and Her Men; Ohoku: The Inner Chambers
Theatrical release: 1 October 2010
Directed by 金子文紀 (KANEKO Fuminori)
Based on the manga by よしなみふみ (YOSHINAMI Fumi)
二宮和也(NINOMIYA Kazunari) as 水野祐之進 (MIZUNO Yunoshin)
柴咲コウ (SHIBASAKI Koh) as 徳川吉宗 (Shogun TOKUGAWA Yoshimune)
堀北真希 (HORIKITA Maki) as お信 (Onobu)
佐々木蔵之介 (SASAKI Kuranotsuke) as 藤波 (FUJINAMI)
大倉忠義 (Okura Tadayoshi) as 鶴岡 (TSURUOKA)
中村蒼 (NAKAMURA Aoi) as 垣添 (KAKIZOE)
Official website: http://ohoku.jp/
*In English, the manga is called Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, which I like as a translation.
**I actually really enjoy this 香道 (incense ceremony) activity, though I’m not really well versed in the matter. There are three kinds of incense cones burned, and two of them are the same. You smell them in order, then write a kanji that represents the order in which they were presented on a slip of paper. (Example 1,1,2; or 1,2,1; or 1,2,2.) Although, as one of the commenters pointed out, this was activity in which both men and women participated, I have a feeling “accomplished young ladies” in the Regency period would have loved this.
*** Conscious: Deciding to follow magazine advice about what men like in women to attract men.
Subconscious: Absorbing the cultural ideas and practicing them without fully understanding why. (A constant reader of women’s magazines may have some fashion and sexuality issues influenced by the magazine without realizing it.)
****Those this is more obvious in the monied or landed classes. A married couple who worked side-by-side on a farm or ran a home business might have more overlap (or might not), depending on what was practical.