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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.

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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.

Photo from シネコン (Shinekon). Aug. 2010, No. 056, p. 28

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.

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