~by Fumi Yoshinaga
Because Fumi Yoshinaga is such a skilled creator, it's difficult for me to choose a favorite among her works but one of her most recent series, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is definitely one of the major contenders. It is also her most awarded series so far, having won a Sense of Gender Award, a Japan Media Arts Award, an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, and most recently a 2010 Shogakukan Manga Award, in addition to being nominated for many other honors. Ōoku is currently up to seven volumes in Japan; the most recent volume to be published in English being the sixth. The third volume of Ōoku was published in Japan in 2007 and was released in English under Viz Media's Signature line in 2010. Because Ōoku is one of my favorite manga series, and not just one of my favorite Yoshinaga works, I do intend to review each volume. The fact that August 2011's Manga Moveable Feast features Fumi Yoshinaga doesn't hurt either.
The Redface Pox continues to spread across Japan and more and more men are dying of the disease. Even the shogunate isn't immune, but the death of Japan's military leader has been kept a closely guarded secret. His daughter Chie is the only person remaining who can carry on the Tokugawa bloodline. Lady Kasuga is determined that Chie will bear a male heir and will stop at nothing to ensure that that happens. Chie and her chosen suitor Arikoto, who was initially brought to the Inner Chambers against his will, have managed to find some happiness together in these troubled times. However, their happiness is short lived when Chie fails to conceive. Although Kasuga's power over them and the rest of the Inner Chambers is beginning to slip, she forces them to consider the fate of peace in Japan against their own happiness and desires.
The third volume of Ōoku begins about a year after the end of the second volume and continues the story for several more years. Some of the most noticeable things in the third volume are the changes and developments in the characters themselves, the Inner Chambers, and Japanese society. Lady Chie, who once was prone to violent outbursts, has matured greatly, much thanks to the presence of Arikoto. She has also shown herself to be quite keen and more than capable to act as the leader of state, much to the surprise of some of the senior ministers. Arikoto's presence has also begun to change the nature of the Inner Chambers as he brings in aristocratic influences and is accepted by the other men there. Arikoto, as always, retains his dignity even in the face of tragedy; only Lady Chie and his attendant Gyokuei are privy to what he hides from others. And speaking of Gyokuei, he also has grown from a boy into a young man.
The characters are not the only things to change in the third volume of Ōoku; the society in which they live is also slowly developing into the Japan seen in the first volume of the series. While women, especially those in the upper classes, are still subject to their expected gender roles, the social system keeping them there is beginning to break down. Out of necessity, they will have to take on the work and leadership positions once reserved only for men, but at this point in the story it is still considered a temporary measure. One of the most interesting things for me, as someone with a particular interest in the Tokugawa period, is that with all of the changes Yoshinaga has made to history in Ōoku, some things remains the same, such as Japan's seclusion policies, but for drastically different reasons. Ōoku fascinates and engages me on multiple levels which is one of the reasons I like the series so well.