I’ve certainly learned a lot about the minutiae of who held what office in Edo Castle when from Yoshinaga Fumi’s fascinating, feminist manga Ôoku (in English as Ôoku: The Inner Chambers), the first two volumes of which won the Tiptree Award in 2009. The Tiptree citation called the manga “a fascinating, subtle, and nuanced speculation with gender at its center,” and despite some issues with the translation, it continues to be one manga that science fiction fans really shouldn’t miss.
The setup of the manga is a classic feminist science fiction concept: in early Edo Japan (1600-1868), a sex-specific plague arises that wipes out 75% of the male population, forcing women to take on positions of power in society, first in secret and then openly. Ôoku takes its name from the area of Edo Castle—seat of the shogunate which in this era ruled the country—in which the shogun’s personal attendants resided, and the manga focuses on the drama and melodrama of their interactions with each other, the shogun, and the shogun’s family and officials, as gendered norms of power and behavior shift precipitously.
The twelfth volume of Ôoku was released in Japan this summer, bringing the events of the manga up to the arrival of Commodore Perry’s so-called “Black Ships” in 1853 and the Bakumatsu era that followed. Spoilers for the fundamental events of Japanese history: the shogunate fell in 1868. With that absolute historical fact on the horizon, it’s possible now to look back and discern some things about the manga’s overall structure that weren’t initially obvious. (Indeed, this is one of the problems with long-running manga; it can be difficult for creators to impose a structure at all, and the experience of reading the manga volume by volume versus in the magazines versus all at once—as I did with these last few volumes—can be very different.) The first volume began in 1720 with the reformist eighth shogun Yoshimune’s accession to power; it is her curiosity about the history of female rulership that drives the manga’s events for the first seven volumes as the story backtracks to the reign of the third shogun Iemitsu, in whose tenure the red-face pox, as it’s called, first appeared. The manga moves forward from there until, in the eighth volume, Yoshimune determines that, for reasons of national security, every effort must be made to study the pox and thereby find a cure.
Ôoku is obviously a work of alternate history, but one of the most interesting things about it is how little its alternate history actually changes. Alternate history focusing on military history is practically a distinct subgenre of science fiction, with equal emphasis given to military technology and how the outcomes of key battles would change given different technology, materiel, and people on the opposing sides. Although Yoshinaga goes in for a fair amount of historical detail, it’s generally focused on which natural disasters happened when and how they affected the rice-to-silver ratio; the bare outlines of the political history of the highest levels of the shogunate are fundamentally unchanged, as hours spent poring over the Japanese Wikipedia pages for the biographies of the real-world versions of the characters confirmed. Yoshinaga is much more focused on the interior lives of the people in the Ôoku—the female shogun and their male retainers—and how this hothouse environment affects people’s actions. Suffice it to say, all the politics are personal.
This is a very feminine take on the alternate history genre. It’s also very feminist, precisely because it is so focused on traditionally devalued aspects of stories: relationships, childbearing, emotions. (Yoshinaga is one of the few female mangaka to explicitly identify as such, which in the Japanese context marks her out as fairly militant.) Joanna Russ first detailed the “She wrote it, but look what she wrote about!” fallacy in How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983); Yoshinaga is essentially flinging this back in the face of those who might criticize these choices—because the relationships, the childbearing (a very fraught question when the shogun bear children rather than impregnating their retainers), and the emotions are shown to be directly relevant to, and causal of, the story’s political events.
The first seven volumes in particular traded very heavily on the tropes of melodrama, with the result that the manga was very explicitly about gender and power. Beginning in volume eight, however, the manga widens its focus to encompass questions of power, gender, and immunology, and consequently what we would now call the politicization of science. Although the years after the reformist Yoshimune’s retirement are on the surface prosperous and even progressive, as time goes on we begin to understand that Yoshimune, so perspicacious in matters of government and finance, so far-sighted in foreign relations, has in fact made a critical error that may well be a contributing factor in the fall of the shogunate. Yoshimune’s attempt to insure the Tokugawa clan’s survival backfires over the long run: her ambitious, remorseless, murderous granddaughter Harusada quite calmly overthrows the established order of things by elevating her son to the shogun’s seat, having eliminated all rival claimants.
Harusada sets herself against the reigning shogun Ieharu, a liberal and generous ruler who oversees the first research and development of an immunization for the red-face pox through her trusted retainer Tanuma Okitsugu. Tanuma’s faction within the inner chambers is ascendant for many years, led by the half-Japanese scholar Aonuma, the cross-dressing polymath Hiraga Gennai, and their long-suffering secretary Kuroki. Despite Aonuma’s implausible backstory, he and the band of medically minded retainers who attend his lectures on Western science and medicine, and the palpable urgency and excitement with which they undertake their studies and discoveries, create one of the more upbeat interludes in the manga.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and what goes up must come down, but that innocent delight in science shown by Aonuma and his companions—particularly Gennai, whose polymathic genius is matched only by his political naiveté—makes their ultimate fate all the more tragic, as Harusada engineers the overthrow of Tanuma and everyone in her faction while contriving to take control of the shogunate. Despite the fact that Harusada knows the immunization works, for her own political gain she ensures that Western science is discredited at the highest levels and men are once again forbidden to study it. Only the secret maneuvering of Harusada’s son Ienari restarts the research into a vaccine decades later.
To return to questions of structure, even if the manga weren’t clearly drawing towards the end of the Edo period, it would be evident from the themes in the last few volumes that things were coming full circle. The far-sighted Yoshimune is revealed to be anything but infallible, just as Harusada’s murderous machinations recall the ruthless maneuverings of Kasuga no Tsubone, the nursemaid to both shogun Iemitsu at the beginning of the manga—and if the parallels weren’t clear, Yoshinaga helpfully includes a flashback of Kasuga to remind readers just how unpleasant she was.
The other big tip-off, of course, is that by the end of the twelfth volume Kuroki’s immunization program, under Ienari’s sponsorship, has been rolled out nationally and has largely succeeded in normalizing the population sex ratio. It’s not entirely clear that gender relations have returned to their pre-pox patriarchal norms—significantly, the new shogun who inherits from Ienari’s son is a woman—but one of the other remarkable things about Ôoku is Yoshinaga’s remarkably even-handed treatment of unequal gender relations. Japan post-pox isn’t a second-wave feminist utopia of total equality, but it also isn’t a paranoid fantasy of total male oppression, either. One of the refreshing things about the manga is the ways in which it shows that behavior that was taken as gendered—the tortured hothouse politics of who’s sleeping with whom in the Ôoku, for example, a mainstay of contemporary Japanese historical TV dramas—is in fact a consequence of political and societal structures: placed in the same rigidly constrained roles as women once occupied, the male characters resort to the same kinds of backstabbing and gossip to get their way, because those are the only means of influence they have. Given that, the prospective demise of the female-dominated shogunate is by no means an unvarnished tragedy, but after twelve volumes dominated by women it’s hard to relish the prospect of a return by whatever means to more typical sexism in the world of the manga.
Here, too, Harusada’s sociopathic selfishness proves crucial; if Yoshimune is the pivot of the manga, it’s easy to read Harusada as the dark mirror of the second shogun Iemitsu, who oversaw the transition from male to female power in the first few volumes. Harusada thinks only of her own amusement—she forces her retainers to play games of Russian roulette with poisoned food to alleviate her own boredom—and her backhanded politics force her enemies to adopt her own underhanded means to defeat her. Although the storyline in which the mothers of two of the children she murdered secretly join forces to bring Harusada down is undeniably satisfying, the fact that Harusada’s career normalizes poisoning, traditionally a woman’s weapon, as the means to deal with one’s rivals in the Ôoku is a perfect metaphor for what she does to the shogunate, and for what Ienari does to society overall.
If there’s one complaint I have about the manga overall it’s the nearly relentless heteronormativity. For a society that at times verges on 75% women—and for a manga set in a mono-gender environment—the world of Ôoku is very, very focused on heterosexual relations. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether Gennai, who was born female but dresses and acts like a man, was transgender or a very butch lesbian, but in the end it didn’t matter, because the subtext of his passionate friendship with Aonuma came to naught and because Yoshinaga simply isn’t interested in those kinds of gender questions. There have been mentions of same-sex relations at various points, but by and large such relationships have been depicted only in passing. On the one hand, manga marketing categories can be quite restrictive, and a comic that’s marketed as josei (women’s) would probably have to be reclassified as BL (boys’ love, written for female readers but focused on male/male relationships) if it did feature much same-sex content. But on the other, and particularly given that Yoshinaga is a popular and nuanced BL writer in her other manga series, it very much feels like a missed opportunity for a manga that’s so focused on gender to ignore queerness. (Aonuma and Gennai aren’t the only characters whose relationship has a lot of queer subtext.) Historians have demonstrated that the actual Edo period was a lot queerer than this, and given Yoshinaga’s highly detailed focus on accurate historical minutiae, that omission says a lot. On the third hand, I suppose this is what dôjinshi (fan comics) are for.
Ôoku’s innovative content isn’t precisely matched by its art style; as befits a manga that is named after an enclosure inside a fortified castle, Yoshinaga’s style is on the whole very rectilinear, and her scenes of the Edo townscape recall nothing so much as the full-scale models of the same in the present-day Edo-Tokyo Museum. Her talents lie with human drama, and the ease with which she portrays the characters’ varied appearances, personalities, and expressions is where the manga is the most visually engaging.
I wish I could say as much for the English-language translation, or, at least, for the English-language adaptation. Most professional translations of manga into English these days are in fact team efforts: one person, the translator, will prepare a “literal” translation of the text and then send it to the adapter, whose job it is to render that version into natural-sounding English. In the case of Ôoku the adapter (who may also have been the translator; for marquee titles, the translator is sometimes given the entire project) decided to render the formal, pseudo-Edo-period language the characters speak into Elizabethan English. Unfortunately, the Elizabethan English in the manga is often not very good Elizabethan English (word choices range from inaccurate to lacking in nuance), which is a real shame, because Elizabethan English actually has the potential to more accurately render subtle nuances of formality in the Japanese than modern English. But the larger problem, which is particularly acute in a series that is about the sweep of history, and how the work of individuals and even institutions is completed or undone by the long tides of events beyond their knowledge or control, is that rendering the speech of people from the 1630s to the 1850s in the same (early 1600s) style flattens many real changes in language and in society. And while it’s true that Yoshinaga’s language—a kind of Edo-period-lite that isn’t too difficult for people who’ve taken classical Japanese in high school (as all students in Japan do)—does not necessarily change a lot over the course of the manga, it is a shame that the English language version is so stiff throughout.
Still, these caveats aside, Ôoku is worth seeking out as a significant work of speculative fiction and alternate history in manga. Yoshinaga’s feminism doesn’t arise from exactly the same lineages as the works of feminist SFF that are native to English, and for that very reason, it’s well worth adding its incisive questions, and nuanced answers, to the global SFF conversation.
Electra Pritchett lives in Tokyo, where she splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. She blogs at electra.dreamwidth.org.