Ã”oku: The Inner Chambers Volume 2 by Fumi Yoshinaga
I could see why people were annoyed with the choice for the characters to randomly speak in Elizabethen English in Ooku. For whatever reason it didn’t bother me that much in the first volume, I think because I was taking in all the details of Yoshinaga’s alternate history. There were a few paragraphs of exposition in the first few pages of volume two where all the “forsooths” and “thous” just didn’t seem like they were scanning right to me, and this took me out of the book a little bit. As I went along I was able to settle in and enjoy the story. After setting up the details of the red pox that attacks only young men and the reverse harem society of the inner chambers volume two of the manga is a flashback to the founding of the Ooku.
The red pox has just started to decimate Japanese society and when the shogun dies a former nursemaid named Kasuga rises to prominence as the power behind the throne. She installs the only heir of the former shogun, an illegitimate daughter, in his place. The girl has is allowed no name other than her father’s, Iemitsu. Kasuga founds the Ooku as breeding stock, to ensure that Iemitsu is able to get pregnant with a son and carry on the Togugawa bloodline. Iemitsu is a young girl who is ill equipped for the life of court intrigue that she’s thrown into. Kasuga also puts in place the restrictive rules that withdraw Japan from the rest of the world. We can see how this ties in to the Shogun Yoshimune’s experience in the first volume as she begins to realize all the rituals about what she wears and the rules for interaction with foreign visitors all serve to hide her actual identity as a woman.
Arikoto is an incredibly attractive monk and the third son of a noble family. When he travels to greet the shogun after just being made abbot, Kasuga decides to recruit him to the Ooku against his will by taking extreme measures to ensure that he will renounce his vows and grow his hair long. Arikoto resists at first, but as he begins to learn the circumstances of the Shogun Iemitsu he realizes that he can fulfill his Buddhist vows to relieve suffering even in the Ooku.
This volume seemed a little more focused than the first, perhaps because the situation and societal differences of Yoshinaga’s alternate Edo era were set up in the first volume, and the reader is just able to focus on the characters. I enjoyed reading Arikoto and Iemitsu’s story, but I’m hoping that volume three switches back to the shogun Yoshimune. I feel like I was just getting to know her in the final pages of volume one and I’d like to see her character developed more in this series. Since this volume is part of an extended flashback as Yoshimune and by extension the reader learns the reasons behind the customs that hide a female shogun’s gender, I’m wondering if Yoshimune’s storyline will show the unraveling of the barriers and an opening up of Japan to outside influence. While the plot of Ooku might seem to be inching forward at a leisurely pace, Yoshinaga’s fascinating alternate world and facility with character development ensures that the series is entertaining while it explores Japan and gender roles.