I have been thinking about this post for three years.
Initially, when I finished reading the Iemitsu-Arikoto story arc (see here for manga and here for drama recaps), I was emotionally raw. I don’t mean like when I finished volume one and was a little sad because I wanted more Yoshimune. Ietsuna’s inadvertent “betrayal” of Arikoto by essentially repeating her mother’s words about having children with other concubines but only loving him twisted the knife a little too hard. I was ready to walk back to Kyoto with him, shave my head, and become a monk.* I wasn’t really mad at Yoshinaga the author as much as I felt badly for Arikoto because of her amazing writing. I think this is the only media that has made me cry harder or stuck with me longer in that sort of “beautiful pain” way than BeruBara.
With that feeling in mind, I started the next chapter. Yoshinaga doesn’t try to ease you into the narrative–the chapter essentially starts with the new shogun, Tsunayoshi, who is the third daughter of Iemitsu, complaining that she is “bored! bored! bored!” to Gyokuei (now Keshôin and back in the ôoku in his capacity as the Shogun’s father), then proceeding to emotionally and physically destroy an entire family because she wants to sleep with the husband of a daimyô. Yeah.
Normally I love reading about well written but highly unlikable characters. Occasionally I enjoy writing about them. However, I just could not deal with Tsunayoshi and her entourage of equally terrible people, including the delusional Keshôin, the devious Emonnosuke, and the sycophantic advisor Yoshiyasu. I decided I’d write more about Ôoku when I didn’t hate all the characters so much. I finished Tsunayoshi’s story and continued reading several more volumes, and then got involved in writing about the TV show, which took forever, and I saw the Eien movie twice in the theater.
In watching, reading, writing about Iemitsu, Arikoto, and Gyokuei again, I began to see the connected themes with the Tsunayoshi arc, and I realized that, after all these years, I actually did want to write about Tsunayoshi and that I felt that her story was important to discuss.
Yoshinaga’s stories are a slow burn. Other critics (even myself!) have complained that there was not enough character development or gender issues in volume 4-5, but that’s not true at all. While the arc deals less with societal changes, the political is personal, to turn the phrase, for Tsunayoshi, whose story is ultimately very much about gender, and there’s obviously enough character development that I felt truly sorry for one of the most morally reprehensible Shoguns in the canon. It’s a hard arc to get through, but it’s beautifully written, subtle, and under-appreciated.
I’m going to try to tackle this in three parts–this introduction, an analysis of the manga, and a look at the film version.
*Let me be clear that there’s a big difference between Yoshinaga’s tragic love story vs. a narrative with “girlfriend in the fridge,” or my other least favorite, “rape as a character-building plot device,” which has, in the past, made me decide to stop watching or reading some media. Iemitsu wasn’t killed off because Arikoto needed to grow as a character.