I recently posted on Facebook asking my friends for manga recommendations. I used to read a few here and there, especially yaoi when it was harder to find queer comics, but it’s been a while. My friend LM of The Lobster Dance reminded me of Ooku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga, about which they have written extensively, so I decided to give it another go. (The first time, several years ago, I could only find volume 1 in the library. This time I’ve found the first four).
Basically Ooku is a genderswapped Japanese history comic, in which a strange plague went through Japan in the Edo period and wiped out most of the men. Women take over as the heads of businesses, households, and government, while men become expensive prizes. The ooku is the ruler’s harem, historically of women, but of course consisting of men in this history. For in-depth commentary and historical discussion, I happily direct you to LM’s masterpost linked above. They’ve done it with far more skill and experience than I could; I review purely as a reader new to the series.
The main thing I associate with Ooku is tremendous quality. The plot is unhurried but full, occasionally striking with the unexpected. These take me about twice as long to read as other manga, they don’t feel like they’re meant to be thrown away. They aren’t hard to read, but they do require thought. There are several separate arcs as the volumes progress, but even in the first it has almost a short-story or anthology vibe, in which the person you think is the main character is not guaranteed to be the main character. There’s a little intrigue, romance, history, action, in skillful balance. The art is always clear and uncluttered, occasionally striking. I’m never confused about who’s who, and the facial expressions convey a remarkable range of subtle emotions. All of this is really unlike any other manga I’ve read.
I also enjoy the historical setting. It’s kind of a “twisted history” in the sense that it’s all different, but would have looked the same to outsiders. The scene with the Dutch emissary at the end of volume one is my favorite scene because it plays with all those layers at the same time, bringing the rest of the manga into focus and making it seem more real. The historical stuff may also make it confusing, I’m not sure… I only took one History of Modern Japan class over the course of my two history degrees, but it gave me enough grounding that I wasn’t confused and very much enjoyed the historical references. I expect if you’re an enthusiast you also won’t have any trouble, and either way you can enjoy the manga on its own terms. I’m sure there are plenty of layers I didn’t even know I missed, and that’ll just add re-read value in the future. The queerness is also more complex than I’ve seen elsewhere, queer without being mass-produced yaoi. It’s a deeper and sharper queerness about more complex characters, exploring assumptions about gender and how culture shapes people and their options. Sex is often a plot point, but the book isn’t meant for titillation.
I will say, it’s a little disappointing that in this genderbent world, it’s still all about how men are affected. In volumes one and two, the main characters are men who enter the ooku. But shogun Yoshimune in the first volume is amaaaaziiiiing. I didn’t enjoy volume two quite as much, the characters and their situation didn’t grab me to the same degree, but I’ll definitely keep reading knowing that different characters and themes will show up in future volumes, and that the time spent reading this will be worth the effort.
And yes, I am still taking manga recommendations!
CN: Rather sudden violence including rapes, murders, and animal deaths, more so in the second volume.