Manga Review: 「大奥」（Ōoku：The Inner Chambers), Vol. 1
Although a friend of mine had suggested I read 「男女逆転大奥」(Ōoku: The Inner Chambers) back in May, I didn’t really get the Ōoku fever till August, when I went to see my first movie in a theater in Japan. (For 1700 yen–and that is why I will probably stop at three movies while here.) On the cover of the movie magazine you get with your ticket was a photo of a man and woman in period clothing, which I thought nothing of till I opened the magazine to this page:
“This is the Shogun. This is her retainer,” it read.
Well, sign me up!
I saw the movie in November, and I finally read the first volume of the manga in December. I loved the movie, but because I’m not accustomed to the non-contemporary language—the Japanese equivalent of Shakespearean English—I had a little trouble on the finer points of the film. I was really worried that the manga would be too difficult for me, but after looking up some of the words (thank god for Japanese-Japanese dictionaries), I actually got through it in a reasonable amount of time.
There are spoilers here for the film and the manga. This refers to the Japanese version, not from the official English version form Viz.
I loved every single page of it. The art style is sparse but gorgeous—the style is quite realistic but the attention to detail is phenomenal. The way Yoshinaga draws facial expressions is definitely one of my favorite parts. There were parts I hadn’t quite gotten in the film that I could understand in writing—especially a scene in which a fellow member of the ōoku makes fun of the simple, plain way Mizuno has cut and shaved his hair and Mizuno goes off on him in Edo-ben, telling him that the way he styles his hair is like a true samurai of Edo, not like a vain ignoramus.
I also liked the interspersed omniscient narration—it actually added to the story. When Yoshimune picks Mizuno to be her first lover (neither of them aware of the death sentence it carries), she picks him because, the narration reads, she is pleased with both his lack of fear in the face of the Shogun as well as his simple but beautiful kimono—he is, to her, a kindred spirit in a castle full of what she sees as unnecessary extravagance and ritual. I found this very romantic, actually.
Ōoku is one of my first “grown-up” manga. As much as I love Ouran High School Host Club and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, I’m not a teenager anymore, and I want to read stories about people my age. That is, as a bookish type, I often look to literature to help me sort out my thoughts about friendship, romance, and gender, and the rules of high school romance haven’t applied to me in years. As a manga for adults written by an author who has published BL (boys’ love) manga, Ōoku does have a fair bit of sex in it and many allusions to it, but the manga itself is not explicit. It doesn’t skirt around the issues—we know exactly who is sleeping with whom and in what context, but the way in which the author leads right up to and then suggests the actual sexual activity is surprisingly—how can I put this?– literarily satisfying.
The film is very close to the manga, with the exception of having added some dramatic elements to make it more of an “exciting film”—namely, Tsurugaoka’s suicide, which doesn’t happen in the manga. The Shogun’s visit to Edo was added in, but it greatly added to the world-building of the film, so it was a welcome addition. Also, one part was removed for the film—the final chapter, in which Yoshimune and her court are visited by a Dutch captain—which ties vol. 1 to vol. 2 but has no real bearing on the main story the film aims to tell.* However, this is one of my favorite parts of the manga, because it alludes to the greater world Yoshinaga built.
I’ve just started volume 2, which takes us back to when the last male Shogun died and the female Tokugawa line started, but I have to admit that, as satisfied as I was with the ending of the Yoshimune-Mizuno story arc, I miss those characters. However, the prospective of exploring this world and answering the questions Yoshimune herself asks–why do the Shoguns have men’s names? Why does the man who deflowers an unwed Shogun have to die?–is exciting, and I can’t wait for that next long train ride to find out.
「大奥」第一巻 (Ōoku, Vol. 1)
By YOSHINAGA Fumi (よしなが ふみ）
Published 2005/9/29 by JETS COMICS (subsidiary of 白泉社).
This review refers to the original Japanese version, available at Amazon.co.jp
The title of this post is a reference to the Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman by Gary Kates. For a Japanese take on d’Eon–with zombies, check out the anime series Le Chevalier D’Eon (シュヴァリエ), which ran from 2006-07.
*As the Red Pox has only affected Japan, men are still in power in Europe. Yoshimune dresses as a man and has her harem pretend to be ministers; the captain asks her for women for his sailors. Yoshimune, baffled, asks why he didn’t bring any on the ship; when the captain replies that women are too weak for sea journeys, which flies in the face of the female-based culture of Edo. Yoshimune then goes to the record-keeper to see if the rumors that there used to be as many men as women and that men held some kind of power are true.