Review: Ooku: The Inner Chambers

By Lyndsey Holder

ooku01Fumi Yoshinaga. Ooku: The Inner Chambers. VIZ Media LLC; Original edition (August 18, 2009). USD $12.99. ISBN-13: 978-1421527475.

An expertly drawn manga, Ooku: The Inner Chambers tells the story of an alternate Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. In this world, a plague has devastated Japan. Similar to smallpox in severity and symptoms, it only strikes young men, killing 80% of all its victims.

I read a lot of comics and, after reading the first few pages, I thought it sounded a bit like Brian K. Vaughn’s series, Y: The Last Man, where a man and his pet monkey find that they are the only ones who have survived a mysterious illness which has instantly killed every other male mammal on the planet. Although the series gained critical acclaim, I found it a bit too misogynistic. It seemed more like the author wanted to tell us all how awful women can be, using the most ham-handed social commentary imaginable. I was concerned that Ooku would follow this trend and I would be reading yet another tale whose entire point is to make socially-awkward men feel like they’re better than the women who won’t date them.

I’m thankful to say that I was wrong. Ooku is an entirely realistic story of what would happen if most of the men died in a feudal society. Women who are wealthy can obtain husbands, but poor women must pay for a man’s companionship in the pleasure district. Jobs that were once considered to be the domain of a man have now been taken over by women, as men cannot be spared to do such tasks. The roles of men and women have almost completely reversed, to the point where even the Shogun is female, and yet, society remains intact. I think that is one of the most interesting points about this story – the balance of power in society has been completely turned on its ear, but things carry on the same as they ever were.

‘Ooku’ was the name given to the harem of Edo Castle, which historically was rumoured to have held thousands of women, from the mother and wife of the Shogun to maids and servants. No men were allowed to enter the Ooku unless the Shogun was also present. In the story, Ooku is still the harem of Edo Castle, but holds men instead – the most handsome young men in all of Japan.

In Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Fumi Yoshinaga has created characters that are so beautifully human, one can’t help but sympathize with them, celebrating triumphs and mourning losses alongside the protagonists. The characters are so believable, so incredibly real that it’s difficult to believe that this didn’t happen, that Fumi Yoshinaga actually made this all up rather than viewing it through some kind of magic portal to an alternate dimension and then drawing pictures of it.

I have one complaint about this work – and it is a small, superficial one – which is that the translation has tried to make it sound old-world with a liberal peppering of words like “doth” and “shalt”. The whole script is not written in Elizabethan English and so, a smattering of “thee” and “thou” only distracts from the story. The art and storyline are very effective at setting the time, which makes the use of this language even less necessary. Thankfully, the rate at which Elizabethan English words are tossed in decreases dramatically after the first twenty or so pages.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers is a fantastic story. Fumi Yoshinaga expertly blends enough historical fact into her fiction to create an entirely-believable alternate reality. It’s easy to lose yourself in the beautifully-drawn pages: before you know it, you find yourself swept up in the tale’s momentum, rooting for the protagonists through their struggles, feeling elated at each of their victories and grieving with them at each loss. This is definitely a series to follow.

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