~by Fumi Yoshinaga
2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award Winner
2010 ALA Great Graphic Novels for Teens
Out of all her series so far, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is probably the one that has garnered the most awards and nominations for Fumi Yoshinaga, including the first ever James Tiptree, Jr. Award given to a manga. Even though Ōoku was the first of Yoshinaga's works that I learned about, I actually ended up reading, and thoroughly enjoying, several of her others before picking it up. The English edition of Ōoku is published by Viz Media as part of their Signature line. As of October 2009, five volumes of the series have been released in Japan and it is projected to run for a total of ten volumes. There is even a live-action adaption planned for October 2010. The release schedule is slower than most manga, only one volume per year, which results in some impatient readers, but also encourages the savoring of each individual installment.
After a brief introduction, most of the first volume concerns Yunoshin Mizuno. The year is 1716, more than eighty years have passed since the beginning of the Redface Pox epidemic; the male population of Japan has been reduced to nearly a quarter of what it once was. Out of necessity, women have taken on the roles previously held by men, including even the military rule of the country. In order to avoid an unwanted marriage and to best support his family, Mizuno decides to enter into service in the Ōoku, or Inner Chambers, of the Shogun. There, hundreds of men are kept and women barred except for the Shogun herself who may choose among the men for her concubines. Mizuno quickly realizes that life in the Inner Chambers is not exactly what he was expecting and finds himself caught up in others' political maneuverings. The first volume also give a good picture of Yoshimune Tokugawa, the current shogun--a strong-willed woman not afraid to challenges the status quo.
Ōoku is more serious overall than most of Yoshinaga's other work that I've read, but she still incorporates lovely moments of humor. Her artwork is as expressive as ever and I personally think it is some of her best. Backgrounds are slightly more detailed than I am used to seeing from Yoshinaga and her depictions of Edo era clothing are simply gorgeous. A few color plates are also included and are stunning. Viz's presentation is beautifully done, although occasionally a panel is cropped a little too closely, and the larger Signature format shows off the artwork nicely. All of the main characters have distinctive looks and even the secondary characters show a good variety of design, something that Yoshinaga seemed to struggle with in her earliest works but here is executed elegantly.
As any good alternate history should, Ōoku incorporates historically accurate elements--such as Japan's Edo era isolationism and the events surrounding the succession of the Shogunate--and gives them new meaning and reason. While the women are officially in charge, the men still have a tremendous amount of influence. Even so, Yoshignaga's women are strong and can hold their own--the Baron's smackdown of the Senior Chamberlain was brilliant, for one. Occasionally, Ōoku can be rather text heavy but the information conveyed is interesting and generally important. Unfortunately, the faux-Early Modern English is rather awkward when used. I think I understand what Viz was trying to do--capture the different levels of formality inherent in the Japanese language but no longer a prominent part of English--but they don't quite pull it off; the language is distracting. But overall, the first volume of Ōoku is a strong start to the series. Beautiful, emotional storytelling accompanies beautiful, expressive art. I am very much looking forward to continuing the series--I love what I've seen so far.