Hello to my new readers from d-addicts, where my blog was linked on the Ôoku drama thread. I know I’m rather behind on the write-ups, but I do hope you enjoy them as I get them out.
Warning: spoilers, rape, violence.
I’m a great fan of stories (regardless of medium) that make me experience a range of complex and subtle emotions. Or, as one might say, something that hits me right in the feels. The events of Vol. 2, Ch. 4 in the manga–Ep. 3 in the drama (aired 26 Oct. 2012)– are the precursor to a truly epic emotional roller coaster.
Yoshinaga’s writing and art is extraordinary in that she uses a lot of subtle nuance, particularly in the art and the character’s expressions, combined with a very blunt narration that often closes the chapters with “And then he died two years later” or “But her given name was ______.”
This is one of those chapters where nuance is absolutely necessary, as it sets up the romantic relationship between Iemitsu and Arikoto. Without a good set-up, there can be no angst later.
And there will be angst. Lots of it. On a Rose of Versailles level.
Unfortunately, this episode has a good lead-up and falls flat on its face in the last five minutes. More on that in a moment.
This episode follows the plot of Vol. 2, Ch. 4. This is a longer summary than the others so far, but bear with me.
Gyokuei hears a rumor from the room-boys that a samurai is going around in Edo and cutting off women’s hair. Judging by Iemitsu’s longing glance at Kasuga’s hair and her frustration with her own short-for-a-woman top-knot, I bet you can’t guess who’s behind it. Iemitsu pays a visit to Arikoto and the cat, Wakamurasaki, and tells him about how Kasuga’s selection of a variety of types of men for the ôoku was like when Kasuga tried to get her father, Iemitsu I, to eat by offering him seven kinds of rice. (This makes a little more sense in the manga where we can see how “beautiful” Arikoto is compared to the other men. Ahem. More on that later.)
Wakamurasaki goes missing; Arikoto and Gyokuei find Shigesato, the concubine who lead the rape and torture of Gyokuei in episode 2, playing with the cat and creepily calling it “Uesama,” the honorific given to the Shogun (Your Highness, literally). Gyokuei steals Shigesato’s sword and murders the cat late at night in the garden, then blames Shigesato for it. Iemitsu is present when Shigesato is accused and unsheathes her sword to strike him down, but Arikoto stands in her way and refuses to move. Eventually Kasuga talks her down, but Iemitsu orders Shigesato to commit seppuku, which he does. Gyokuei is quite pleased with himself and tells the kitchen staff how amazing Arikoto was defending Shigesato from Iemitsu. This act earns Arikoto the respect of the male staff, who had often gone along with the other concubines’ plots against him.
Iemitsu thinks Arikoto is ridiculous for making a grave for the cat, but Arikoto says that people deal with grief differently, and she should deal with hers about the cat and about her daughter who died shortly after birth. He also points out that revenge wouldn’t bring the cat back. At some point in the conversation, he realizes that Iemitsu has been sending Denemon, her retainer, out to steal girls’ hair because she’s mad about her lot in life. She shows him the box of ponytails and he yells at her for her cruelty. Iemitsu responds that no one really thinks she’s the Shogun; she’s just a place-holder until they can get a man (read: until she as a son).
Iemitsu is really upset by Arikoto’s condemnation of her actions, so she and Kasuga decide to throw a party. They order the concubines to dress in drag for Iemitsu’s amusement. As Iemitsu laughs at how strange the men (sans Arikoto, who is absent) look, we see a flashback to her past. To preserve Iemitsu I’s line, Kasuga found his illegitimate daughter Chie (Iemitsu II’s given name) and had her mother and nurse murdered before essentially kidnapping her. A few years later, Chie, now dressed as a boy, attempts to escape from the grounds when she is overpowered by a strange man, who is surprised to discover she’s a girl and rapes her. By the time Kasuga and her retainers get there, Chie has murdered the man with her own sword, saying that anyone who violates the body of the Shogun will die. She gives birth to a girl as a result of the rape, but the baby, whom she seems to love very much, dies shortly after birth; according to Inaba, she hasn’t been the same since then.
In the present, Iemitsu sends everyone at the “party” away, and Arikoto enters the room alone (not in drag. NOT. IN. DRAG.). He carries the women’s clothes Iemitsu sent for him to wear, and he narrates a voice-over about how he thought he could do the most good by being a priest and saving others but now has decided his job is to save Iemitsu. After placing the outer robe around her, he removes her sword and sheath and cuts the string holding her top-knot in place, freeing her hair. She hugs him and cries.
Sakai and Tabe did exceptionally well in the scene in which Iemitsu says that no one respects her as the Shogun. Their facial expressions really showed how each of them handles anger differently–Iemitsu a bit ferally (she reminds me of San from Mononoke-hime sometimes), while the anger Arikoto feels rolls over him like a wave. Tanaka as Gyokuei shone during the scene in which he tells the kitchen staff how awesome Arikoto was when he stopped Iemitsu from killing Shigesato. I think that Tanaka’s doing a great job conveying Gyokuei’s love for Arikoto as well as his character’s dark side.
Who cares if Iemitsu is the one he “has to save” because what was the point of this whole scene if he doesn’t cross-dress?
Let me explain.
What I like about Manga!Arikoto is that he is not afraid of androgyny. When he asks Iemitsu at their first meeting to call him “Arikoto” instead of “O-man,” he’s afraid of being emasculated; he would really just rather be called by his first name. (We should note that the other current concubines really seem to hate this practice.) When he is angry about being forced into the ôoku, it’s not because he’s afraid of being treated like a woman, but because he had to give up his calling to be a priest. Later, when he accepts that he loves Iemitsu, he even references his desire for philanthropy in that maybe he can do more good in the world by saving her than he could have in the temple. When the other men in the ôoku tease him for being an ex-priest from an aristocratic family rather than a samurai and for having an “effeminate” Kyoto accent, he turns the other cheek but seems generally unconcerned with what they think of him. Although he later trains in martial arts and speaks perfect Edo-ben, he does so because that’s the path of solving conflict, not because he is ashamed to be “feminine.” Furthermore, while he is surprised at Iemitsu’s appearance at first, he is not intimidated by the fact that she cross-dresses for political reasons, that she prefers to wear lipstick and women’s kimono later, or that she is in a higher position of power at a historical point when many men are downright terrified about changing gender roles and norms. (Most of this is detailed in my posts on Vol. 2 and series on Vol. 3-4.)
However, the biggest indicator of Arikoto’s being completely okay with his gender and sexuality is his willingness to participate in Iemitsu’s cross-dressing game. The other men seem awkward and unhappy to be dressed as women, and Iemitsu keeps laughing at them because they seem so odd. But when Arikoto enters the room, he stuns everyone with how good he looks in drag. As I’ve stated, Arikoto is androgynous in appearance and has good taste in fashion, but what makes his performance flawless is his willingness to participate in this gender play.
Compare this to the drama version: when he gives Iemitsu the women’s robe she sent him for the party, removes her sword, lets down her hair, and says, “It would suit you better,” I felt like the message was “I’m not a woman, but you are, so you should have this.” However, in the manga, when he takes off the outer robe and puts it around her shoulders, telling her “it suits you better,” he seems to be saying, “Wearing this for you doesn’t insult my gender identity. We don’t have to play into gendered roles of any kind. I love you for you, and if you want to wear women’s clothing, you ought to. I won’t think less of you as the Shogun.”
Furthermore, in the manga, he does not take away her sword or cut her top knot. He is not trying to feminize her. Manga!Iemitsu eventually settles into her own gender expression as she becomes more comfortable as a woman in power. Arikoto’s physically feminizing her appearance for her in the drama seems patronizing and patriarchal.
So why change it? From a practical standpoint, Sakai isn’t as androgynous as the manga Arikoto is, though, as I’ve said before, casting an actual androgynous ikemen-type actor, of which there are many in Japan, would have solved the problem. From a gender standpoint, perhaps the director or network did not want to “emasculate” their leading man or felt that having Arikoto in drag would be too “distracting.” Arikoto’s physical and performative androgyny, however, is a really critical part of his character. By changing the narrative to have him reject Iemitsu’s “demeaning” request, the drama detracts from what sets Arikoto aside from the other characters, most of whom have ideas about the way men and women out to act, whether it’s misogynistic Lord Asano (the 47 loyal ronin are proto-MRA types) or Onobu’s assertion that “men are weaker.” By changing this scene, the drama has erased Arikoto’s gender expression and his rejection of gender policing.
Honestly, I’m so angry with this point that it overshadows the good things about the episode, like the dynamic between Arikoto and Iemitsu as they warm up to each other, or the love that Gyokuei feels for Arikoto. This series deals with a lot of complex gender issues, and if the director or network won’t do them justice, they should let someone else handle it.
Read more about Ôoku here.
Next time on Ôoku: trouble in paradise.