The Rise of the Female Shogun
Volume 4 continues Fumi Yoshinaga’s brilliant historical fantasy “Ooku: The Inner Chamber.” A speculative gender-reversal of Japan’s Tokugawa-era society, three out of four males have been killed by a disease known as the Red Pox leaving no choice but for the women to take over, with a resulting upheaval of gender politics.
In Volume 4, we see the final assumption of power for the women of the Shogunate. Out of necessity, women have stepped into leadership roles of nobility and power, although they are forced to adopt male names and titles in order to reinforce the temporary nature of their promotions. Once the male population recovers, the women will be expected to step down and surrender control of the country back to the men as is proper. The first female Shogun even adopts the name of her father, Tokugawa Iemitsu to show that she is merely a stand-in for the true ruler with no identify of her own. Anyone expecting a female ruler to be more compassionate is quickly disillusioned however, as one of her first acts is to eliminate a hundred of the “useless samurai” hanging about the palace and imprisoning them in the Yoshiwara pleasure district to serve as prostitutes for the overwhelming female population.
There is a vast passage of time in Volume 4 as opposed to Volume 2 and Volume 3. Instead of the personal story of Arikoto and Iemitsu, this story covers the lives of three women Shoguns, and the slow transition between the period when women rulers were thought to be a temporary stop-gap measure to when the concept of male-dominance exists only as a legend.
It is interesting how Yoshinaga deals with the female-dominated society, and probably shows something of her own inclinations. While the women are strong and become secure in their positions of power, they never adopt male clothing and remain in their elegant kimonos and extravagant ornaments. Lesbian relationships are not even hinted at, which would be strange considering the female-to-male population ratio. Sons are considered the treasure of a household, but they are swapped and traded like breed-stallions amongst the peasant populace who cannot afford to buy the “seed” available at the Yoshiwara. While the women maintain political power and toil in the fields, they do not become warriors nor do the men become domestic workers. One of the most brutal concepts introduced is that of the “Secret Swain” who is chose as the first to penetrate any new Shogun, but is immediately executed the next morning. By pure biology, this encounter must result in injury to the Shogun which is an unforgivable offense and thus the execution.
Yoshinaga does a good job threading real history with her fantasy. Allthough obviously the events here never happened, the series is as almost well-researched as The Times of Botchan which is the Gold Standard for period manga. The costumes are accurate as are the names. The English translation is done in a “Shakespeare-style” of “Thees and Thous” which reflects the court language of the time.
Also, like all the volumes in the series “Ooku: The Inner Chamber Volume 4” is tagged with a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label which does the series a disservice. There is no “explicit content” here whatsoever, unless you are talking about mature themes. There is some sex, but no nudity. And although the author is well-known for her yaoi materials, there is nothing of that here.
The end of Volume 4 seems to be setting up for another longer story arc, with this one serving as a bridge between the two stories. Yoshinaga is producing only a volume a year, so we have to be patient for the completion of a story but for a comic this good I don’t mind.