December 23, 2009

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Ooku The Inner Chambers Volume 1

Written by Fumi Yoshinaga
Illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga
Viz

[First of all, an apology. I have no idea how to make my laptop accent the first "o" in Ooku. -Rob]

I've enjoyed the other two Yoshinaga titles I've read, Antique Bakery and Flower of life, so I was pretty excited about getting ahold of this manga, which combines a creator I like with an alternative history setting.

Those are two things that usually make a good combination for me. Unfortunately, Ooku, at least initially, didn't really connect with me as a reader, as I felt like I was spending too much time reading background that could have been filled in later and left me looking for the snappy patter that I love in Yoshinaga's works.

Ooku's alternative history is that sometime during Edo period Japan, a virus zaps the population of most of its men, forcing a radical change in culture. Women must become the main focus of life, while those men who are left are treasured commodities. This extends all the way to the government, where the Shogun herself is now a woman, with a large harem of men to display this power.

It's the house of the Shogun, or the Inner Chambers, which is the focus of Yoshinaga's series. After an origin for the "redface pox" opens things, we turn to Yunoshin, a young man who basically whores himself out to those in need. When faced with marriage, he flees to the inner chambers, where he encounters all sorts of ingrained rituals and conventions that are not one bit to his liking.

Luckily for him, they're not to the liking of the new Shogun, Yoshimune. Soon, she is testing convention left and right. Unfortunately for Yunoshin, there's one convention she can't stop--his death! Still, when one is the most powerful women in the land, there are ways to bend the rules. By the end of the book, Yoshimune and her trusted aid are making reforms unheard of in the chambers, right up to why women are playing at men instead of just being women in power. What will the Shogun do when she learns the answer?

Yoshinaga has to do an immense amount of world building in this first volume, and I think that put me off the book a bit. In her other works, we've been given a quick setup and let the characters charm you into learning more about the world they live in. This time, she's opted to go full-on origin story, and I think it almost stops the story cold. Had the first volume been entirely explanation, I probably wouldn't have wanted to keep reading, but luckily things start to improve when Yoshimune comes in and starts making people react to her. That's the type of writing I like from Yoshinaga and it gives me hope that she'll continue on that path going forward.

Instead of being engaging and quirky, for the most part, Yunoshin and his supporting characters are like audio-visual displays at a museum. Turn the page, read them explain the culture in which they live, and repeat as needed. This is made worse by Yunoshin's fate. After spending so much time focusing on him, we're then shifted to a new set of main characters within the same series. I admit, I felt cheated, even if the Shogun is a far more interesting character to follow around experiencing this world that Yoshinaga's created.

There are touches of Yoshinaga's ear for patter in the early goings, such as Yunoshin's family and the servant he eventually earns in the castle, but we don't see that endearing quality of her work until towards the end.

As she shifts focus to the Shogun, Yoshinaga seems to feel freed of the need to endlessly explain things to reader. (It still happens here and there in stilted dialog, such as when Yoshimune conveniently repeats her past to a character who already knows it.) That allows Yoshimune and Hisamichi to jump into this world and use their cunning to try and get their way in a very established society that resists change. The Shogun's very clever unpredictability is exactly the type of character Yoshinaga does well, and I wish she'd started with her and let the rest just fall into place as time went on. That would have made me a lot happier as a reader.

There are two other things that bothered me about this one--the text boxes to explain things we should have heard as dialogue and the half-hearted use of Shakespearean English for the characters. I found the former mildly annoying but the latter distracting to the point of not wanting to read further at times. (I wonder if this was a translation glitch?) Both seemed to happen less as the book went on, so I'm hoping it disappears for good in the next volume.

Overall, I think I wanted this to read immediately like a Fumi Yoshinaga book and didn't give it enough of an allowance for world building. Most first volumes feature a lot of setup, and this one is no exception. So I think I am going to like the rest of the story a lot better, particularly because I find the Shogun so interesting and her desire to get to the truth behind the lies of the Edo castle is a compelling plot that I look forward to following in the future. Even with that allowance, however, the start of this book is painfully slow at times.

I'm not ready to recommend this series to others yet until I read volume two, to see if some of the things that really bothered me go away and I get the Yoshinaga I know and love. I do appreciate the time it must have taken her to research this series, though, because she sure does know her Edo period culture, to be able to adapt it like she does into this mirror image. I also like that she slips in homosexuality without it feeling forced, just like in her other books.

(Digression: Is it wrong of me to be a bit saddened that this title gets an "explicit content" warning mostly because it has homosexual references when I read many a manga with similar heterosexual references that don't get an explicit content warning?)

Ooku, like the inner chambers it portrays, is a series that seems to have secrets it's not ready to reveal yet, preferring to keep the reader at a distance with block text and some exposition-heavy dialog. I hope that in the future we're able to get closer. In the meantime, I wouldn't put this on your must-read list just yet, unless you really like Yoshinaga or alternative history. I also wouldn't put it past Yoshinaga to blow my mind in volume two!