~by Fumi Yoshinaga
2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award Winner
The second volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, originally published in Japan in 2006, was released in an English edition by Viz Media’s Signature imprint in 2009. That same year the series won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize and the first two volumes published by Viz received the year’s James Tiptree Jr. Award. Ōoku has also been honored with a Japan Media Arts Award and a Sense of Gender Award. I read the first volume of Yoshinaga’s gender reversing alternative history of the Edo period and quite enjoyed it. Despite some unfortunate decisions made with the English translation, I was very much looking forward to reading the second volume of Ōoku. The series has earned a fair amount of critical acclaim with which I agree and I think the second volume is an even stronger work than the first.
What was once thought to be a localized problem, the Redface Pox has steadily become a more widespread epidemic, reaching even Edo. The disease affects men, particularly young men, and due to its high mortality rate the male population has been decreased to almost half of what it once was. When the Shogun unexpectedly falls victim to the illness, those closest to him are determined to keep it a secret, supposedly for the sake of the stability of the government and country although there are also other more personal motivations involved. Arikoto, a young nobleman known for his devotion as well as his beauty, had been recently appointed as the Abbot of Keiko-in when he is swept up in the political machinations of those representing the shogunate. He unwillingly gives up his religious vows to lead a secular life and is forced to enter the Inner Chambers. There he learns the shogunate’s secret and is confronted with the realization that he is not the only one to have been placed in an unwanted and desperate situation.
I did not anticipate how intense, violent, and brutal the second volume of Ōoku was going to be. The Edo period tends to be romanticized in historical fiction, but Yoshinaga doesn’t shy away from some of the more unsavory aspects of the era’s society. The main story in the second volume takes place a few decades after the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate. Although the regime’s power has a firm foundation by this point, there is still some reluctance and class strife among the people. And in Ōoku’s version of history, they also have to deal with a devastating plague on top of the already existing political and clan turmoil. Particularly evident in the second volume of Ōoku is the class conflict between the nobility and samurai. Because of the helpful notes included in the Viz edition, it is not necessary to be well-versed in Japanese history, but not everything is explained in depth. Those who are already familiar with the Edo period and culture will probably get even more out of reading Ōoku than those who are not.
The second volume of Ōoku can be read completely separate from the first. However, there are still significant connections between the two: O-Man, who is only briefly mentioned in passing the first volume, plays a prominent role and the origins of many of the Inner Chamber’s customs and traditions, some of them quite troubling, are revealed. I still find the English translation, a sort of “Fakespearian” English, to be awkward and distracting although I do understand why and how it is being used to indicate the varying levels of formality in speech. The characters in Ōoku are forced to deal with terrible and unfortunate circumstances. They don’t always face their fates well and they don’t always make the best decisions, but they do what they can to bear the unbearable. While I enjoyed the first volume of Ōoku, I personally found the second to be even better and incredibly good. It is not always an easy read, and it can be emotionally draining as well powerful, but it is excellent.