Okay, so here’s the thing…
I started in on the sixth volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers without bothering to re-read either the previous volumes in the series or my thoughts on those five books. As a result, I spent most of my reading time trying to remember who the various characters were and what their struggles were supposed to signify. I know that this makes me sound like a bit of a scatterbrain but Volume 6 does not feature any self-contained story lines, instead it concludes storylines from the previous volumes and lays the foundation for a storyline that will (hopefully) feature in Volume 7 if and when Viz Media get round to translating it. Given that characters in Ooku frequently change names and physical appearances with the passage of time and the somewhat interstitial nature of this volume’s narrative, I think that my disorientation is at least understandable, if not forgivable. I mention this because, as I struggled to make sense of the images and words that swam before my eyes, it suddenly occurred to me that I might have been reading this series in completely the wrong manner. Let me explain…
I first encountered Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers as a result of the first two volumes in the series winning The James Tiptree, Jr. Award. The Tiptree is an award given out every year by the good folks at Wiscon, a science fiction convention with a particular interest in what is widely referred to as ‘Feminist SF’. As a result of this context of discovery, I initially approached Ooku as I might approach a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin or Joanna Russ: as an exercise in alternative history building intended as a thought experiment that would shed light on our current attitudes towards gender and sexuality. However, while I still think that one can read these manga in that manner, I now realise that one can also approach them as being akin to something like Robert Graves’ historical novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935).
Graves was a poet and a classical scholar who wrote his Claudius novels because he needed the money. The novels (which were famously adapted for television in the 1970s by the BBC) were heavily based upon a series of historical biographies known as The Twelve Caesars written by the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. While contemporary classicists acknowledge that Suetonius’ writings are still a hugely important document, they also question the reliability of many of his claims because they suspect that his ‘vision’ of historical events may in fact be nothing more than a collection of rumours and sensationalist gossip loosely held together by a heavy pro-Senate bias. Suetonius is an interesting touchstone for Ooku as Volume 6 repeatedly makes clear that many of the events that take place within its ‘history’ are merely rumours and conjecture. Once you remember that the events in Ooku are actually supposed to be a historical document written by a long-lived monk then the similarities between Ooku and I, Claudius becomes all the more obvious as I, Claudius is presented as a history of the Roman Empire written by the Emperor Claudius himself.
Much like I, Claudius, Ooku is structured as a history rather than a traditional epic. What I mean by this is that while Ooku spans a number of generations and its themes of evolving attitudes to gender and the tensions between the needs of the individual and the needs of the state are present throughout its six volumes, Ooku’s narrative arcs are in fact strictly generational. Indeed, Ooku does not so much tell one story as a series of stories that begin and end with the rise and fall of each new generation. If Ooku can be said to have a single story it is not the story of a particular Shogun or a particular concubine but rather the story of Japan itself.
Volume 6 begins by concluding the stories of the aged monk Keisho-In, the self-involved Shogun Tsunayoshi and the ruthless courtier Emonnosuke. At the end of Volume 5, Tsunayoshi’s unpopularity and lack of a child meant that she was considering the possibility of adopting an heir. This ended the volume on something of a positive note as the Shogun’s indulgence of her father’s (Keisho-In) obsessions had taken her country to the brink of collapse. When Tsunayoshi decided to adopt her eerily insightful ten year-old niece as heir apparent, Japan seemed ready to turn the corner and make a fresh start. Unfortunately, Volume 6 begins by explaining to us that while Tsunayoshi went on to live for another decade after the events in Volume 5, this still meant that the capable niece was too young and too untried to take over running the country. Her life drawing to a close, Tsunayoshi realises that she cannot leave her realm to a girl and so the court tries to guide her towards selecting a more experienced and yet more distant relative to succeed her. You would think this decision would be an obvious one but Tsunayoshi is still indulging Keisho-In and Keisho-In is still obsessed with his bloodline.
Fearing that the lack of an obvious heir may lead to civil war, the now aging Emonnosuke demands that the aging Shogun select the older woman as her heir and, in so doing, reveals his long-standing love for the self-involved Shogun. In a beautiful and touching scene, these two ruthless individuals allow their guards to drop and what it becomes clear what might have been if only they had been partners from the start. By depriving himself of love, Emonnosuke became a spendthrift who zealously defended the court’s lavish lifestyles. By depriving herself of love, Tsunayoshi indulged a senile old man at the expense of her people.
12. The Story of Sakyo
Outside the world of the Ooku, Japan is in tatters. Protected by a set of ill-conceived edicts that have made it illegal to kill animals, wild dogs roam the streets and tear innocent people to pieces. Huddling for shelter out of the darkness, Japan’s population have turned inwards and bitter as wealthy older women keep all the young men to themselves.
Sakyo is a descendant of a noble warrior line. Fallen on hard times, he now earns his living in the taverns. This image of a nobleman forced to work in taverns is eerily reminiscent of the stories of both Yunoshin in Volume 1 and Sutezo in Volume 3 but, unlike his predecessors, Sakyo does not earn his living as a sex worker. Instead, he makes his living by challenging women to drinking competitions and then drinking them under the table. Sakyo cuts an interesting figure as rather than being coiffed and well dressed, he favours simple robes and has not yet had his hair styled. In effect, this means that he is something of a perpetual teenager. This state of arrested development is laid bare when it is explained that Sakyo’s mother has been abusing him since the age of 14. Having sired two children with his own mother, Sakyo cannot abandon his children and so cannot leave home until he refuses to bow down to the wrong woman and gets beaten to a bloody pulp.
The beating is interrupted by order of Lord Tokugawa Ienobu – the older more distant relative who is poised to inherit the Shogunate – as her valet Manabe fears that passing by whilst a man is beaten to death in the street may cause something of a PR problem for the country’s soon-to-be leader. Finding in Sakyo a man of distinguished countenance and keen intelligence, Manabe proposes him a deal: become Ienobu’s concubine and he can escape his current life. Sakyo jumps at the chance.
As time passes, Sakyo slowly emerges as a skilled concubine and courtier. Not only does he clean up very nicely, but his mind appeals to the aging Ienobu and his virility is such that he swiftly fathers her a child, thereby assuring the stability of the realm. Grateful for allowing him to escape a life dominated by his incestuous mother, Sakyo devotes himself utterly to his mistress. His devotion is such that it even rivals that of Manabe, Ienobu’s valet and secret lover. When Ienobu dies leaving only the infant Lady Chiyo as heir, both Sakyo and Manabe want to join her in death. Indeed, while both characters enjoyed a close bond from the start, the bond they shared was a devotion to Ienobu. A devotion that could never quite be satisfied as Sakyo would always be a common concubine and Manabe would always be a female aide. When Ienobu dies, the pair turn to each other for consolation and Yoshinaga concludes with an ominous message.
At this point, it seems pretty pointless to attempt to review Volume 6 in anything approaching a meaningful way. Ooku’s structure and release schedule is such that Volume 6 will make literally no sense to you if you have not read the previous five volumes. In fact, it is a book that would ideally be read at the same time as those other volumes as many of this comic’s emotional beats rely heavily upon groundwork carried out in Volume 5. Despite Viz Media’s decision to break the series up into separate volumes, Ooku should ideally be read continuously or dipped into on a generation-by-generation basis as the series’ ‘chapters’ and ‘volumes’ are not a particularly sound basis for working out where one story-line ends and another begins (which is one reason why this series of reviews is, as much as possible, structured around character stories rather than the contents of the individual books).
The truth is that, if you have read the first five volumes of Ooku then what you want to know is whether this volume demonstrates the same levels of quality, insight and ambition as the previous volumes. Let me be clear: It certainly does. As Ooku: The Inner Chambers progresses from volume to volume, the historic structure of the series becomes more and more apparent and it is easy to see both the tragedy and the beauty of time’s cruel passage. If you have not yet read any Ooku then let me simply say this: This manga is rapidly emerging as one of the great achievements in early twenty first century speculative fiction. This is the absolute bleeding edge of alternate history and if there is any justice in the world it will be considered as a work on a par with that of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series… only with female characters… and decent writing.
By stepping back from the lives of the individual characters and focusing instead upon the historical themes that emerge from the passage of the generations, we can see that Yoshinaga is suggesting that history is above all a product of human passions. Yoshinaga’s characters are the twisted and broken products of a twisted and broken society and while their exalted positions allow them the power to shape and reshape society as they wish, there is the growing sense that Yoshinaga’s characters repeat the mistakes of the past because they simply cannot help it. In Yoshinaga’s history, change happens more by chance than by design.
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.