First of all, a bit of (old?) news from the entertainment world: Kanno Miho, who played Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in the film Ôoku: Eien, and Sakai Masato, who played Arikoto in the drama and Emonosuke in the film, registered their marriage on 2 April. おめでとうございます！May your work in excellent gender-based dramas lead to you happiness. (Sources: Oricon, Tokyo Hive)
Aired Nov. 23, 2012, on TBS.
1642: a famine and the Pox have devastated Edo, but in town is as lively as ever, bustling with working women–shopkeepers. Iemitsu (TABE Mikako) and Denemon are out on the town, and she notices the new popular up-dos, which Denemon says make it easier for mobility. Iemitsu purchases combs from a shop, and the shop-keeper offers her a night with her (adult) son, as well. Iemitsu is shocked that the men are being prostituted out by their families. They head to Yoshiwara (the famous brothel and the same one from which Kasuga procured the female prostitutes for the monks), which is populated by sick men.
In order to combat the famine and the farmers’ fleeing, Iemitsu decides that peasants will be tied to the land.
Meanwhile, Gyokuei (TANAKA Kôki) is preparing to sleep with Iemitsu at Arikoto’s (SAKAI Masato) request. He and Iemitsu chat in the bedroom first. Gyokuei is very hesitant about the request since sleeping with her, especially in the same bed that she and Arikoto shared, makes him uncomfortable, like he’s betraying Arikoto. However, he says that refusing Arikoto’s request–something he says he cannot do–would have been more painful still. But Gyokuei doesn’t want Arikoto to “lose” to Onatsu, the new concubine, and says, “I don’t serve you or Buddha, I serve Arikoto.” Iemitsu finds his devotion attractive (see “Best Scene”), and they spent the night together.
The next morning, Iemitsu and Arikoto talk about Gyokuei/Otama, and Arikoto says that Gyokuei is the light to his shadow (are we in BeruBara now?), an extension of himself. He tells Iemitsu about a time when a monk predicted that Gyokuei would become “the father of the entire country.”
At the August greetings to the Shogun, Matsudaira and Terutsuna (who is cross-dressing) meet the governor of Sanuki and his son Tadatomo. Terutsuna tells her father afterwards that Tadatomo is a girl. Meanwhile, Masukatsu’s son returns from the event with a “heat rash” (read: the pox).
At a meeting of advisors, Masamori and others suggest that women should be able to inherit the daimyoship. Kasuga (ASO Yumi) objects, saying that such a position is a birthright of the samurai class; what the peasants and shopkeepers do is their own business. Kasuga asks if the men want to see women as generals, and the men say that Iemitsu is doing a great job as the Shogun–sex doesn’t seem to matter. (Bravo!)
Kasuga is quite angry and becomes even more angry when she discovers that Arikoto has arranged a chrysanthemum-viewing party for the men of the ôoku. Arikoto is advising Gyokuei on his outfit for the party (“don’t be too showy”). Kasuga is furious that the men of the ôoku. are doing something so “frivolous” instead of something more manly. Arikoto argues that all they do is martial arts and working on protecting the Shogun; why can’t they just have a small party to enjoy themselves once in a while? (More on this scene here.) Kasuga exits in a rage and collapses.
In discussing Kasuga’s sickness, Arikoto suggests that Kasuga is sort of a mother figure to Iemitsu; Iemitsu says that even though Kasuga killed her mother and has tried to ruin her relationship with Arikoto, she still feels something toward her. When the wet nurse Yajima neglects Kasuga on her sick bed, Arikoto becomes her nurse. Oraku, still an invalid after his fall, and some of the servants have caught the pox, and Arikoto becomes nurse to them all, moving the sick men into the room next to Kasuga’s since she can’t catch it. He orders the men to tell Iemitsu that they all have a cold so as not to worry her. Kasuga allows him to move the sick men into her room. Finally, Masakatsu’s son Masanori has caught the pox, too.
Compared to the manga
 Actually, very similar–I had previously written something about Terutsuna and about the Yoshiwara being different, but now that I have my manga, I see that the manga and drama were the same on these points.
Best Scene and Acknowledging Female Sexuality
Gyokuei’s preparations to sleep with Iemitsu, particularly his dialogue with Arikoto, broke my heart. Cutting to shots of Arikoto sitting in his room as Gyokuei’s hair was shaved off and dressed, as if Arikoto were mentally tracing his path to her chambers, was particularly effective. Both the men clearly were conflicted about the request.
Also, when Gyokuei tells her that he’ll do anything for Arikoto, even sleep with her, her reaction is priceless. “You and I are similar… Arikoto and I will talk about what happened here tonight,” she says, caressing his lips. “Arikoto will still love you.” Is Iemitsu (un)secretly a Arikoto/Gyokuei shipper?
I love that this drama and the manga acknowledge female sexual agency and sexual diversity, including kink. In a way, Iemitsu gets off on Gyokuei’s relationship with Arikoto, but that does not mean she loves Arikoto less. In contrast, Tsunayoshi’s sexual experimentation in vol. 5-6 and the second movie arises as a cure for boredom, and while it’s easy to dislike that character because of her cruelty and her disinterest in running the country, Yoshinaga has plenty of other female characters who deviate from sexual norms, both those of the real world and those of the world she built.
That’s really the crux of her ability to explore sexual and gender: there are so many female characters and so many male characters that no single character somehow represents the entirety of a sex. A token female (or racial/ethnic/sexual minority) often ends up standing in for “all women” in media devoid of other female characters. When a story has a more balanced cast, we can see character flaws not as an indictment of women but as a facet of well developed characters. Tsunayoshi’s inability to lead is not because she’s female any more than Iemitsu’s and Yoshimune’s leadership qualities come from their being female. We rarely accuse men of being poor leaders because they are men, after all. Similarly, Yoshimune’s and Hiraga Gennai’s (of vol. 9) tendency to dress plainly and practically becomes a personal choice rather than a rejection of feminine dress; Iemitsu, when she has the power to choose, chooses to dress like a fashionable woman and wear makeup. The same is true of the men. There’s no one right way to be a woman or a man in this series.
Next time on Ôoku: the lipstick Shogun.