With the release of volume 2 of Ooku in December, I can declare that no other comic I read in the past year meant as much to me as as a fan of both manga and Fumi Yoshinaga.
Fumi Yoshinaga's Ooku takes place in an alternative Japan, one in which a devastating plague has wiped out almost 3/4 of the male population. Yoshinaga works on a much smaller canvas, though, than outlining the resulting reconstitution of gender relations of the entire society. Instead, she examines the workings of the inner chambers of the Shogun, where 80 years after the plague first strikes, a select number of men spend their lives waiting for the female Shogun to show them her favor. Their only opportunity for political advancement is to use either their bodies or aristocratic (or samurai) skills to impress the Shogun or her close advisers.
In the first volume of Ooku, as a reader we were ushered into this word by the decent but naive young man, Mizuno, who had chosen to enter into the inner chambers of his own free will. Mizuno's disillusionment at discovering the harsh realities of that world are tempered by the magnanimous new shogun, Yoshimune, who gives the reader the sense that balance and wisdom can be restored to this decaying and wastefully opulent seat of power. However, before we can move forward and see how Yoshimune will use her new power, in volume 2, Yoshinaga retreats to the years immediately following the introduction of the red-faced pox into society in order to look back at the madness and upheaval that defines the governance of the first female shogun -- the illegitimate child of the last male shogun.
In contrast to the first volume, the second volume follows the forced induction of a man blessed by good looks, status, intelligence, kindness and simple physical and mental well-being into the inner chambers. Renamed O-man by the young, mentally unstable shogun and forced to renounce his treasured identity as a Buddhist Friar, those in the inner chamber attempt to break him down by physical force, literal threats of death to him and his companions, and psychological warfare. Most of volume 2 is a battle of wills between O-Man and the other occupants of inner chambers, a group which often includes the sad and pathetically damaged Shogun. Unlike Yoshimune of volume 1, our young shogun is a tempestuous ruler, who becomes a nightmarish vision of everything dangerous about the very young holding power.
Volume 2 is a psychologically study of two people, O-Man and his ever-developing relationship to the young Shogun. At first O-Man clings to his sense of dignity, supported by his religious training and the social capital he received at birth. However, as he is stripped of more and more of his pretenses and defenses, he learns to relinquish his dignity -- eventually maintained only by the sheer force of his will -- in order to become a true support for the Shogun. O-Man's transformation throughout the book is one that is forced upon him to some degree, but eventually becomes one of his choosing. Although he is forced into a passive, traditionally feminine role -- as all men are to some degree in the inner chambers -- he finally embraces his passivity as a bizarre and troubling form of freedom. That freedom is revealed as his being able to love and to care for another person, not merely as a abstract idea that suited his vanity, as when he was a Buddhist monk tending to the poor and diseased, but as a reality.
Every character interaction in this title is bursting with layers of meaning and weight -- while characters have a tendency to talk more than act, their pretentious speeches, quick-witted conversations, and snarky gossip sessions have the effect of lulling the reader into a false sense of security. When terrible things happen -- and they do happen in this volume -- they are all the more devastating because speech is found to be an inadequate tool to battle the many forces from within and without both the inner chambers and the self that are hell-bent on destruction. Watching these folks go after each other -- out of boredom, revenge, anger, sadness, honor and grief -- we come to see that no matter what position you hold, the inner chamber is a prison.
There is no doubt that Ooku is great work that challenges the reader on multiple levels. Sentiment is wholly absent from its pages and even careful representations of the most terrible violations characters have endured are offered not as a way to excuse their bad behavior but as an immutable fact of their existence. We are forced to accept that bad things happen to people and if you assume that suffering or reactions to suffering makes people good or bad, or makes them anything other than what they are -- human -- you're in for a nasty surprise. In that, Yoshinaga trusts that emotionally-honest representations of violence, love and madness can speak for themselves.
Review Copy provided by Viz.