Ooku: The Inner Chamber Volume 4

5.0 out of 5 stars The Rise of the Female Shogun

Ôoku: The Inner Chambers, Vol. 4 (Ooku: the Inner Chambers)

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.

Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo

yoshiwara

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Lust will not keep. Something must be done about it

It is amazing to me that a place like the Yoshiwara actually existed. An island of sensual pleasure surrounded on all sides by a moat, the only entrance way being through the guarded gates. At the gates, all weapons and social status were checked, and inside was a different realm where the only significant status was the amount of coin you carried, where peasant could pass drinking cups to a lord on one side and a priest on the other, and everything you could see was for sale; it was only a matter of negotiating the price. When you hear stories of the Yoshiwara, if you are a moralist you are filled with deep disgust, but if you tend to the hedonistic side of life you are filled with a bitter envy that such a paradise no longer exists.

Authors Stephen and Ethel Longstreet seem to fall somewhat in between the two sides. Longtime collectors and commentators on art (Stephen Longstreet wrote the various “Drawings of…” Master Draughtsman Series , such as Drawings of Raphael and Drawings of Goya ) they amassed a collection of ukiyo-e woodblock prints dealing with the Nightless City of the Yoshiwara, where the finest artists of Japan made their home.

Written in 1970, “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo” compiles all that the Longstreets have learned during their collecting, which includes manuscripts and tourist guides written during the height of the Yoshiwara. As collectors of erotica, the Longstreets seem to have a hedonistic streak themselves, although the language of the book is tinged with words like “perversions” and “sins,” one senses that they admired more than condemned the society that created and approved of an island whose sole permanent inhabitants were prostitutes and their keepers.

The Longstreets share their insight, quoting long passages from these ancient manuscripts and tourists guides in an attempt to give you an honest look at the Yoshiwara, what it was and also what it was not. They frame a picture of a country that did not know sexual sin, and where it was felt that indulging in physical pleasure was a natural and necessary part of life but one better contained it on a single island rather running rampant. At a time when every aspect of Japanese society was regulated, the Yoshiwara provided the only zone of freedom of indulgence and expression, where the only rules were a prohibition against violence and failing to pay your bill.

All aspects of the Yoshiwara are presented, from the high-ranked courtesans known as the Oiran, or the “Castle Toppers” for their ability to bring down even a Lord with their beauty and abilities, to the non-prostitute Geisha (both male and female) who provided song and dancing entertainment before sending their guests of the final event of the evening. There is the hard life of the low-ranking simple prostitutes, serving the needs of those who could not afford the veneer and fineries that accompanied a night with an Oiran, and open acceptance of homosexuality and lesbianism, of sex toys and bondage games that seem like modern inventions but are as old as time.

The Longstreets do not hide that most of these women were sold by their parents at a young age into the world of the Yoshiwara, but shows us through their diaries that most of them did not despise their profession. The book details the religious practices and dreams of the lovely ladies, and what they dreamed and gossiped about during the day before the customers came. Concepts like sexual shame and romantic love would not appear later when the Americans came in to Japan and were shocked at the openness of what they saw, and forced the Yoshiwara closed.

In fact, the Western letters home are some of the most interesting parts of this book. They are dripping with superiority and condemnation, but also show a familiarity with the Yoshiwara betraying that they were more than simple observers. The biggest difference between the Western societies and Japan was the façade of “morality,” where one would condemn in public the very thing that one did in private. Times have not changed very much.

I loved reading “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo.” The Longstreets approach is one that is half-scholar, half-ribald storyteller and the mix is just right for the subject. There is probably a more in-depth and scholarly analysis of the citizens of Yoshiwara I have no doubt, but few that are as readable and fun.

And just in case you couldn’t tell, I fall firmly in the camp of those filled with bitter, bitter envy…

Geisha in Rivalry

geisha

4.0 out of 5 stars Mean girls

Geisha in Rivalry (Tuttle Classics)

Apparently catty girls fighting over a popular guy knows neither the boundaries of time nor place nor social status. “Geisha in Rivalry” could just as easily be a hot new teen film, starring Lindsay Lohan as the naive new girl being manipulated and preyed upon by the more cynical seniors. Even when set against the elegance of the flower and willow world, these women of the arts are still just ordinary people inside, with hopes and ambitions and disappointments just like everyone else.

And that really is the charm of this book. The geisha here are just allowed to be people, and interact in a regular old-fashioned love/rival story, rather than serving as some great symbol of refined and mysterious Japan. There is almost no emphasis put on the job of the geisha, the endless hours of training, the various roles in the geisha house and the extravagance of rare mockingbird-poop make-up that gives them a special sheen. Instead, they are just human beings doing a job, not all of them happy with it, not all of them good at it, but all of them determined to make some go at happiness, by hook or by crook. Author Kafu Nagai has put forth a story that is far more Jane Austen than Kawabata Yasunari, more light-hearted romp than heavy-hitting classic.

The basic story has Komayo arriving on the Tokyo Shimbashi geisha scene, returning after a short break when she was married are taken to the countryside. Her husband dead and her marriage over, she returns to the only work she knows. Unknowingly stealing a client from another geisha, the established and imperious Rikiji, she sets herself in a position of retaliation, and the gears start slowly working against her. Others move about the scene, like Hanasuke, the second-place girl content to be in the background but still looking after her own interests, or the slutty Ranka about whom it is gossiped that she is little more than a prostitute painted like a geisha but is still very popular with the male customers. The prize for all involved is the handsome and popular actor Segawa, a somewhat fickle man who is content to watch the game unfold and see who emerges the winner.

The translation of “Geisha in Rivalry” is a little outdated, but does a great job of keeping the active and fun spirit of the original language. A few odd choices were made, like literally translating “maiko” as “dancing girl” instead of leaving it as it is or using the more common “apprentice geisha”, but none of this interferes with the story. A short book at a little over 200 pages, it is still a great read and a refreshing perspective for anyone wanting to read about geisha, or just get involved in a fun catty story of a couple of pretty gals maneuvering for the top guy.

%d bloggers like this: