Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Fumi Yoshinaga

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers(Viz Signature 2009) is written & illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga, 205 pages, paperback, rated M for mature audiences (18+ for explicit content). Fact: the author has been nominated for the Eisner award in 2008 for best writer and artist. This review covers volume 1 in a planned 10 volume series.

I first read about this graphic novel from Jia (Dear Author). Her review made me order this graphic novel straightaway. With buzz words like “historical drama” about an “epidemic” that after 80 years wipes out 75% of the men? You bet, I’m reading it and I’m happy to say that this story didn’t disappoint.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is a historical drama set during the Edo period of Japan. Military rule over the nation has been held by a woman since the third shogun, Iemitsu, died of a mysterious plague. Eighty years ago, a strange disease wiped out almost the entire population of men. Survival rate of younger men was lower than that of the older men. Labor that was mostly dominated by men has been taken over by women. Even though women are now heads of the family, they still have masculine sounding names.

Of course, with young men in so short of supply, they are protected. The gender roles are flipped and the traditional roles of men and women are switched over quite smoothly. The institution of marriage as it was known before has now collapsed. Marriage is now only reserved for the wealthy. In this class conscious society, low born women must visit brothels if they are to procure a child of their own.

Even with the higher classes who find themselves impoverished they often rent out their sons to the daughters of rich merchants and other poor samurai families like their own who don’t have the means to procure a son-in-law. Poor women often have to resort to begging men to lay with them so that they can have children of their own (preferably a son). Since men are the providers of life and there are so few of them left nowadays, the shogun has her own harem of men, at her disposal, at Edo Castle:

As the sole ruler of all the land, the supreme leader of the entire country, the shogun alone had the privilege–the height of luxury in this time of male scarcity…to enter an interior palace populated wholly by beautiful men–said to number three thousand in all–from which all other women were banned.

Mizuno Yunoshin is the son of an poor Hatamoto (belonging to the samurai class). The story is mostly seen through his eyes. Refusing to marry at 19, he decides to enter the Ōoku of Edo Castle. Thus he becomes our eyes and ears at the goings on in such a secretive place. It is through his uncle that Mizuno gains entrance as a lowly ranked page of the Inner Chambers. Inside there is a lot of underhandedness, class discrimination and of course politics.

Going only by his surname of Mizuno, he quickly learns that not everything he heard about the Inner Chambers is true. First of all, instead of 3,000 handsome and sturdy men stabled together for her highness, it is only around 800. It needs to be said that entry into the Ōoku requires a blood oath of silence. Also, the biggest surprise is that the current shogun is only 7 years old. With so many gorgeous men living together, what do you think they’ve been doing?

Mizuno sets out to serve in the Inner Chambers for life with plans to send money back for his family and to see his sister married off. He has a rocky start but he soon adjusts to life at Edo Castle. When seven year old shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, Ietsugu, passes away and another one takes her place. That’s when the story really begins to takes off.

I really enjoyed reading this. Mizuno indeed had some eye-opening surprises in store for him as things weren’t quite as he had expected. However, this is where the romance part comes in– Mizuno’s heart is tied up elsewhere, with the daughter who’s an heiress of a prosperous trader promised to someone else. The two are childhood friends. Moving on. The story is very engrossing especially when the Eighth Tokugawa shogun comes into power –Lord Yoshimune (head of one of three Tokugawa branch houses).

Yoshimune was the first to arrive ahead of her rival at Edo Castle when the young shogun dies. As the new ruler, she is unmarried and “robust of body” and the men of the inner chambers can now rejoice. Yoshimune is shrewd and impulsive. Most of all frugal. She prefers her cotton kimono’s over silk any day of the week.

She dismisses her privy councilor which jump starts a lot of strife within the chambers. And she continues to upset the customs and rituals of the Inner Chambers due in part to the Shogunate’s coffers being nearly empty. The agenda of the new shogun is clear: she is rebuilding the financial institution of the country with an iron fist and a tight purse.

The suspense part comes in when Yoshimune picks her first concubine. This invokes an old and deplorable custom called the “secret swain.” The term is used when an unmarried shogun takes a man to her bedchamber. I will not say anything further only to say: wow, what a sacrifice.

Then of course, the way the story ends kind of leaves you curious. Yoshimune is determined to go through the archives of the Inner Chambers to determine the origin of how women came to outnumber the men which will lead her back to the Redface pox which started it all. Should be interesting. Must mention the language in here because at times it was awkward as well as authentic.

Overall, this is a good start for a new series. I already have the second volume in my hands. If you enjoy such complex stories and especially stories set in historical Japan then by all means pick up this graphic novel. The artwork is really nice and the story moves at a good pace. There’s not very many action scenes in it. The graphic novel reads right to left and has 3 pages of end notes provided by translator, Akemi Wegmüller to provide further insight into the story. B+ overall. This is a good one.


About Keishon

Voracious reader of just about everything.
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