Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 1 (2009)

0.  A Statement of Subject and Method

Fumi Yoshinaga’s Eisner Award-nominated and James Tiptree Jr. Award-winning series Ooku: The Inner Chambers is a multi-volume manga series set in an alternative version of Medieval Edo Period Japan in which a terrifying plague has wiped out 75% of the male population.  Using this fictional event as a point of divergence (or Jonbar hinge), Yoshinaga sets about exploring what might have happened had Japan’s Edo-period social and political institutions been forced to adapt to such a dramatic demographic change.

Using a Jonbar hinge to examine the different ways in which the world might have been different is hardly anything new.  For example:

      Philip K. Dick’s

The Man in the High Castle

    (1962) is set in an America occupied by Japan and Germany in the wake of defeat in the Second World War.
      Vladimir Nabokov’s

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

    (1969) is set in an alternative version of the Americas in which large stretches of Canada were settled by Russians.
      Michael Chabon’s

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

    (2007) features a densely urbanised version of Alaska that was set aside after the Second World War as the site of a new Jewish homeland.

Most alternate histories are painted with a broad brush.  Authors tend to focus upon the grand narrative sweep of history and so exact their speculative change in the currency of lost battles, fallen governments and toppling civilisations.  With Ooku, Yoshinaga takes a different approach.  Skirting over the details of both Japan’s place in the world and the chaos of dynastic politics, the series retains an admirable focus upon the mundane details of peoples’ lives as they adapt to the reality that 75% of male children will not survive puberty.  Ooku: The Inner Chambers is not just an alternate history, it is an alternate history of the evolution of Japanese attitudes towards gender and sexuality.  Proceeding with forensic care and attention, Yoshinaga applies her scalpel to Edo-period Japan through a series of intricately layered short stories spread out across a number of generations.  By skipping back and forth within her own fictional timeline, Yoshinaga is able not only to chart the evolution of a particular social change, but also to ask more abstract questions of Japanese society.  Questions such as why it is that the inhabitants of Ooku‘s Japan cling to their old certainties and modes of being  and why is it that the dilemmas facing the world of Ooku chime with dilemmas facing the modern world despite the fact that hundreds of years of fact, fiction and speculation separate us.  Ooku: The Inner Chambers is not just an alternate history, it is a precise and organised critique of our attitudes to both gender and sexuality.

As Ooku is still being translated (to this date only five volumes have appeared in English) I will be structuring my analysis around each of the stories as they appear in order.  Each week, I will deal with another volume and another set of stories.

1.  The Story of Yunoshin

Sole surviving male child of an impoverished provincial samurai family, Yizuno Yunoshin is seen by his family as a valuable resource.  In a world where men are rare, their capacity to impregnate women gives them value and so most males who survive to adulthood are treated like stud horses by their families; rented out to childless women or married off to wealthy women who can afford to keep a man for their exclusive use.  The result of this is that most men are prideful peacocks who never work, never study and spend their time sitting around and looking pretty.  In other words, the men of Ooku‘s Edo period have gravitated towards the gender roles and aesthetic sensibilities traditionally associated with upper class women.  They are painted chattel.

Yunoshin stands in stark contrast to many of his male contemporaries by virtue of his identification with traditional masculine roles.  Far from being a spoiled peacock, Yunoshin devotes himself to the traditional samurai pass-time of fencing while choosing to impregnate women not for money but as a gesture of sympathy and noblesse oblige.

Yunoshin is a fascinating choice as far as protagonists go as his behaviour is both quite masculine even by the standards of our society and quite close to those that we have come to associate with Samurai as a result of engaging with Japanese media and history. Yunoshin’s idiosyncratic tastes and desire to maintain control over both his sexuality and his destiny make it easier for us to sympathise with him and so his reactions to the world around him are more affecting and immersive than they would have been had Yunoshin been more of a painted peacock and therefore more of an obvious Other.

The next step in our introduction to Yoshinaga’s world comes when Yunoshin decides to enter the Ooku in order to avoid an arranged marriage.  In our Edo period Japan, the Ooku was the Edo castle’s harem, a section of the castle inhabited by the ruling Shogun’s female relatives, wife and concubines.  Needless to say, no adult males other than the Shogun were allowed access to the Ooku meaning that it constituted not only an all-female environment in an otherwise male-dominated society, but also an environment in which it was possible to gain considerable political power and prestige through proximity to the Shogun.  The unique nature of this social environment has proved inspirational to generations of Japanese authors as, aside from myriad books and films, there have also been no less than five separate TV series set in the Ooku with the most recent airing in 2005.  These televised tales of romance and politics provide Ooku: The Inner Chambers not only with its basic dramatic template, but also the social and sexual structures that Yoshinaga uses as ammunition in her deconstruction of our own attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

From the very beginning, Yoshinaga portrays the Ooku as profoundly stilted and unreal.  It is stilted and unreal because it does not resemble any existing all-male environments.  Indeed, despite effectively being an all-male harem, the Ooku resembles neither prisons, gay clubs, locker rooms, boarding schools or stag nights.  Instead of simmering sexuality, looming physical violence and aggressive male bonding, the Ooku is a broadly well-behaved place in which thousands of equally pretty men spend their days dressing well, doing their jobs and generally following orders in the hope of promotion through the Ooku’s highly formalised system of ranks, grades and professions.  In one of a series of brilliantly low-key aesthetic moves, Yoshinaga downplays the physical differences between the courtiers in order to focus our attentions upon their costumes and hairstyles.  The effect is wonderfully dehumanising as not only does it reduce most of the Ooku’s residents to the status of transportation systems for elaborate kimonos and ridiculous hair-styles, it also emphasises how bizarrely decadent the Ooku actually is.

Life in the Ooku should be easy as to enter it is to enter a life with very clearly defined victory conditions.  Life in the Ooku can be ‘won’ and ‘winning’ means becoming the Shogun’s official concubine, thereby gaining not only the right to have sex but also the political power that comes from closeness to the ruler of Japan.  However, because the current Shogun is a seven year-old girl the inhabitants of the Ooku can no longer ‘win’ at life meaning that their lives are no longer simple. Social structures and fashions originally adopted to create an environment in which the sexiest and most politically astute men rise to the top of the pile no longer select for sexiness or political ability.  The world of the Ooku is a world in which flirtation never leads to sex while scheming and plotting take place without any real political consequences.  Severed from their original intended functions, the social institutions of the Ooku have become twisted and weird prompting grown men to despise each other for daring to wear a different-coloured kimono or hair-style.  Both politically and sexually, the Ooku is frustration institutionalised.  It is a case of blue balls with its own weather system.

The oddness of life in the Ooku only serves to underline quite how decadent Yoshinaga’s alternative Edo period has become. Despite living in an all-male environment in which they are denied access to women and so to the possibility of having sex, homosexuality in the Ooku remains the preserve of rapist bullies and the immorally ruthless.  Similarly, despite never being able to gain any real political power, the men of the Ooku continue to climb the greasy pole towards becoming Grooms of the Bedchamber (the caste from which the Shogun’s concubine is chosen).  Nobody tries to use the Ooku’s infrastructure or wealth to pursue other ends.  Nobody enters the Ooku with an agenda of their own.  The men of the Ooku simply continue to climb an endless and infinitely greasy pole.  Their lives meaningless.  Their efforts bitterly fruitless.

However, with the arrival of a new Shogun, all this begins to change.

2. The Story of Shogun Yoshimune

The Shogun Yoshimune is a challenge to the order to the Ooku because she is unwilling to suborn her tastes to those pandered to by the Ooku’s twisted social institutions.  The Shogun favours active men over peacocks and she favours simplicity over courtly elegance.  Because of these decidedly idiosyncratic tastes, the new Shogun instantly feels an attraction to Yunoshin but, having chosen Yunoshin as her first concubine, the Shogun learns that it is traditional for the Shogun’s first choice to be executed on the assumption that the first cocubine deflowers the Shogun and so injures her body.  This leads to the Shogun and her assistant working out a way to allow Yunoshin to return home and marry the woman he truly loves, but it also leads to her asking some impertinent questions as to why things are the way they are.

By asking these sorts of questions of her society in general and the Ooku in particular, the Shogun is delving deep into the ways in which our senses of sexuality and gender are constructed.  What the Shogun has discovered is that people are basically conservative and tend to cling to pre-written scripts even when these scripts cease to be useful or relevant.  Indeed, despite the men of Japan being reduced to the status of valued commodities, they continue to enjoy a level of status that is completely at odds with their real social function.  For example, there has been no male Shogun for three generations and yet all Shoguns must continue to pretend to be male when dealing with foreign dignitaries. Similarly, despite Japan’s extreme demographic imbalances, attitudes towards sex have not changed at all.  Despite most women not being able to gain access to men, lesbianism is still socially unacceptable just as the sexless men of the Ooku are expected to remain chaste even if it is clear that they will never get anywhere near the Shogun’s bed chanber.

The numerous similarities between the world of Yoshinaga’s Edo period and our modern world are not only striking but also senseless.  Given the demographic and cultural differences between the two timeframes and cultures, sexual attitudes should be entirely different and yet, depressingly, they are not.  The First Volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers ends with the Shogun seeking out an elderly monk in order to learn the history of her realm.  By learning how Japan’s attitudes towards gender and sexuality came to be, the Shogun hopes to help change them.  This is a task that also seems to be on the mind of the book’s creator.