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on September 13, 2009
I came to like Fumi Yoshinaga's stories due to her excellent story-telling abilities and yaoi content. But her art is typically considered so-so by many readers. However, the art in this book came as an unexpected delight. Her artwork in this book REALLY improved as compared to all her earlier works I'm aware of (The Moon and the Sandals, Antique Bakery, Truly Kindly, Gerard and Jacques, etc). It is more refined, less "stylized", not sketchy at all, and most of her men look genuinely pretty and pleasing to an eye. Yet, it's still a distinct "Fumi Yoshinaga", just more carefully drawn and aesthetic. The quality of this English localization is absolutely gorgeous too. This is the first VIZ Signature manga I bought, and three (!) color inserts, well-designed cover with "semi-dust jacket", thick paper, careful lettering and inking... well, that was all very surprising, so much unlike DMP, Kitty, Go! Comi or Tokyopop, or any other US manga publisher I know of, and at a such reasonable price! Archaic English used throughout the book is somewhat annoying, at least at first. But give it a try, after the first 20 pages or so, I got used to it, and it didn't bother me that much.

This is NOT YAOI, and really not even a BL/shounen-ai, though there are some mild BL scenes (e.g., one of the main male characters is kissing another young man, there's an attempted man/man rape scene, and implied male same-sex relationship between some of the Inner Chambers' inhabitants (though nothing is shown on that)). Surprisingly, no lesbian pairings are shown or even implied, which I find somewhat unrealistic: with the population being 75% female, I think such relationships are to be expected. I hope it might be shown in further volumes. There are also a few very non-explicit heterosexual implied-sex scenes between a female shogun and her harem men. The book got its mature / 18+ ratings not because of "sexual situations" as the publisher claims, but probably because of its mature themes that would appeal to more grown-up audiences. It's NOT a sword-battling fantasy / adventure full of dragons, angels or world saviors (though there are some interesting sword fights between samurai shown), but a thought-provoking, groundbreaking and possibly quite philosophical work.

All traditional Japanese shogunate era (or just traditional overall) female/male roles are reversed in the story. Because males are so rare (see product description above, most died off because of a mysterious epidemic), they are treated as frail and beautiful "flowers", to be guarded and protected by strong and stern women. However, women are still truly feminine in the book, just a lot of societal stereotypes of how women *should* behave were removed: women are often warriors, or skillful and wise politicians in that alternative-history Edo Japan, but still loving and respectful towards their husbands, eager to bear and have children. While reading this book, I was amazed how realistic it all felt: that's how Edo Japan could have possibly been if such male/female imbalance had indeed happened. The character of the female shogun is interesting and intriguing. Just as a wise male shogun with samurai spirit and principles would behave, she doesn't like any excesses, doesn't care about appearances, yet quite "lustful" and eager to have "surprise" and rough sex with her male concubines. As any wise and highly principled ruler (i.e., unattainable ideal of that era), she does not go for young and good-looking (they are too expensive to up-keep, male concubines just love dressing up in all those bright "peacock" colors and expensive silks...and our shogun cares a lot about saving state money), besides, she's "virile" and "potent" enough to have a "quickie" with not-so-good-looking and older males ("a man is a man" philosophy, just the reverse of "any female would do" stereotype common for the image of a truly "virile" man...) Of course, when men are doing that type of thing in this book, it's often done for money or connections, and they're often viewed as "shameful" or "whores" by others / you see any similarities? Yep, the true history, just with gender roles reversed...

I'm very looking forward to Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 2, scheduled to appear in December this year. Four volumes have been already published in Japan, and it seems that the series is still on-going.

This is the book that could have been written and fully appreciated / understood only in the 21st century, after all the gender equality achievements and reconsideration of women's role in society. The story is most likely to appeal to mature female readers, though my hope is that some male readers read and like it too. It's unique and so beyond regular manga fare. Probably, a book of the year for me, and highly recommended!
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on September 2, 2009
I love Fumi Yoshinaga's work and she always suprises me. I did not like the first manga of her that I read, Gerard & Jacques, for that reason I stayed a long time away from her works. Antique Bakery was so praised that I forced myself to read it and fell in love. After I got Flower of Life and I was fully convinced that she was one of the top manga-kas of her generation. I was very eager to read Ooku, and every nomination this work received increased my curiosity. I was very happy when VIZ announced this title.

Ooku impressed me with the mature, beautiful and neat art style. The story was really interesting, mixing history and gender discussions, the main character, Mizuno, is kind and ambitious, although a little naïve, and I felt very interest to know if he would succeed in his career at the inner chamber. For that who do not know, the inner chamber is the shogun seraglio, in a Japan where most of the man, specially the young, died in reason of a strange disease, the red pox. Women took the power and men are an expensive delicacy and necessary source of seed. Mizuno used to bed with women who wanted child for free. Only the most powerful and rich families can afford a husband, and only the shogun can have so many.

I don't know if Yoshinaga will mix real Japanese history in her series, like the contact with other countries. Does the disease affected other places or is a Japanese plague? I can hardly wait for the next volume. Ah, one problem for me, VIZ was very careful and the text is almost in archaic English. It's difficult for a foreigner - I'm Brazilian - to read it as fast as if it was in current English, but this choice give to Ooku a more elegant face. Really nice peace of work.
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on June 30, 2016
Bottom Line First:
Fumi Yoshinanga’s Ooku, the first installment of a Magna series is an interesting variation; a Japanese Samurai era, post-apocalyptic world where most, but not all of the male population has died off. It is beautiful to look at but the characters are stiff and the dialogue too formal. The emphasis is on the manners and styles of court life but no one ever seems to unbend. The response of the Japanese Empire to the sudden loss of males for leadership position creates some interesting role reversals as men are now mostly bought and sold for procreation and have taken over many female roles without completely losing their male characteristic. Yoshinanga deserves credit for creating a believable world and leaving the reader to grasp the philosophical implications of what could have been a hectoring tone on the unfair roles of women in modern times. I respect her artistry. I do not care about these characters. I do not plan to get more books in this series.

If you want to know who we are,
We are gentlemen of Japan:
On many a vase and jar —
On many a screen and fan,
We figure in lively paint:
Our attitude's queer and quaint —
You're wrong if you think it ain't
From The Mikado, Gilbert adn Sullivan

Each page in Ooku contains one or more beautify, finely details images of courtly life in the Japanese feudalistic times. As is common in Japanese manga, smaller cartoonish drawing are used to denote characters over reacting or being childish. Usually this convention is just part of the experience for these books, but I found the convention jarring and disruptive of the aesthetic experience. This was the more unfortunate the characters were never that interesting.

Yunoshin is quickly established as our hero. Handsome, noble in heart, a skilled swordsman and kindly about sharing his bed with women who had neither the looks nor the money to otherwise have a chance at child bearing. His goal is to become one of the Men of the Inner Chamber (the Ooku) of Edo castle, the center of Japanese government.

Once there he will be at the bottom of a pecking order and exposed to the usual jealousies, hazing and the rest. He will of course catch the eye of the new and not bound by traditions, Shogun/Empress.

And so it goes. There is much intelligence applied to this world tilted against male dominance and yet not free of it. There are some sly insinuations about what is wrong or unfair in our world regarding male and female roles. There is much about this beautiful book that bespeaks a talented writer. The whole is not greater than the parts. Characters are too remote and conversation was too stylized. I never developed any interest in these people. Authentic or not, I enjoyed looking but not reading.
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on January 23, 2015
I came across this series while looking online for a story about strong women for my daughter (young adult). I only bought the first two books to see if she would be interested in the story line, etc. She is really excited about seeing what happens next and is waiting impatiently for the other volumes to arrive, lol. I guess that's a "yes" to the story line. She said I did good. So we're both pleased with the purchase. It was intriguing to ponder the idea of a woman Shogun and apparently they've done well at weaving the tail thus far. The first two volumes have kept her interest. If anything goes foul after the next few, I'll post a review about it as well. But so far, so good.
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on November 13, 2012
This is a very, very good manga series.

I'm an avid comic reader and sometime manga reader. I'm not a manga fan-boy by any stretch but I've read enough and done enough research to get an idea of the range out there. I'd rank this one up there with Tezuka's best.

Very entertaining and interesting story from a dramatic and historic perspective. You get Japanese Edo period culture and history, a very good story and an abnormal level of "class" that you usually don't get in manga. That is to say, in an ongoing story that could have very easily turned to gratuitous sex or nudity, homophobia or homophobic stereotypes, there is none of that. To be sure, gender issues are explored but in an even-handed, non-exploitative way.

Also, there are very instances of the goofy "cutesy" manga/anime tropes are here. This isn't gekiga (alternative, art-house manga) but nearly. The art may not be up there with the very best of manga but it's certainly very good.

About the worst thing you could say about this manga--maybe it's only real typical manga-exploitative aspect--is that it's a more than $100 investment with at least 10 volumes expected.

Anyway, if you're curious about manga, start here.
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on October 2, 2012
I love fantasy/SF works that deal with sex and gender, and Amazon has been recommending Ooku to me for some time, but I was skeptical. It seemed too pretty, as though the focus would be more on aesthetics than thoughtful plotting, worldbuilding, and characterization.

I was wrong. Ooku *does* have gorgeous art--which, remarkably, objectifies neither male nor female characters(including in non-explicit sexual situations). But it also has wonderful restraint and evenhandedness in telling its story of an alternate-history Japan where men and women have exchanged most social roles.

To begin with, Yoshinaga offers a plausible reason for the swap--a sex-linked plague has wiped out more than 3/4 of Japan's men, leaving sons rare and carefully protected and women to fill in the roles men once occupied. No magic, no "Y: The Last Man" mystical pseudoscience, nothing complicated. Just sickness. (And it's limited only to the Japanese islands, which adds an extra depth--the rest of the world continues on with its real-world gender balance, a contrast to woman-ruled and -worked Japan.)

Yoshinaga also inverts men's and women's roles with respect for both genders. She doesn't just make women "act like" men or men "act like" women--she doesn't do what a lot of genderswap fiction I've read does, which is tell a story that reads just like a real-world-gender-balance story, except the visuals for the men and women have been swapped. Men happen to look like women, and women happen to look like men. Instead, Yoshinaga has her women act like *women* in power and her men act like men in less privileged roles. Her women aren't mustachioed or muscley or brutish (to show how "man-like" they are)--they still look and act very much like women. Neither are her men overly feminized. Some of them are, the members of the Ooku who have grown up there or subscribed to trying to out-charm each other in order to gain rank, but many, even in the Ooku, still act with the greater outright aggression that's seen as conventionally masculine.

It's very good. I don't think I've ever seen a genderswap society done as well--it feels as though it could happen and it also feels as though it's out to condemn neither gender, but only to tell a story and make observations. I think it may be a bit confusing to readers who have no background in Japanese history. I'm assuming the translation, which uses "thees," "thous," and other medievalisms, means that Yoshinaga wrote the original text in old-fashioned Japanese. It works well, and only takes a few pages to adjust to. My one surprise was that, though there's mention of male/male sex, female/female sex isn't yet shown. You'd think in a world where paying the groomprice for a husband was out of most women's reach, at least a few women would take up with each other instead!

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the volumes.

Trigger warnings: Contains forced prostitution, threatened rape, doubtful consent (a leader having sex with subjects not in a position to deny her), and fear of being infertile/condemnation for being infertile.
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on November 30, 2014
Very interesting read. Fumi Yoshinaga is a brilliant story teller, her words kept me glued to this book from the time I picked it up,up until I finished the book. I read it in one sitting.

Her writing allowed me to empathize with her characters. I did not mind the Old English translation at all. I know for other reviewers it bothered them, but I found it fitting, especially since the setting was in an Edo era, and I think I would have found it odd if it was in English for a modern setting. So I'm glad for the Old English/Shakespearean tone.
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on August 21, 2010
Ooku tells a brilliant story set to the backdrop of a diseased Feudal Japan. It has beautiful artwork and lifelike characters and my favorite has to be Yoshimune, the strong female shogunate. She is a true feminist, and it shows by how she believes that women are just as capable as men. She has a fierce look to her eye, and it appeals to many fans of Ooku.

My only negative comment is that the translators decided to stick with the old Shakespearean way of talking. So, rather than hearing (or reading) a normal manga, you are reading something as though it was taking words from Romeo and Juliet (forsooth, thou, e'er...). It starts out very tiresome, but it starts to flow beautifully, adding more character as the manga unfolds.

I'm no expert on manga, but this really is a great series, even if you're not up for a historical tale. It's like a manga never before read. Absolutely astounding...
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on January 16, 2012
I've been a fan of manga for most of my life, and have read various different series of all genres. But of all of them, Ôoku: The Inner Chambers is the best in quality and in entertainment value. It's easy to tell that the series actively tries to be historically accurate, and tell an original story at the same time. The Early Modern English and lack of any unneeded comedy or outrageous scenes that almost all other manga use really makes me respect the author and translators of this series. It doesn't try to be 'something for everybody', or fit to any expected norms. It has its own, clear objectives and more than succeeds in them.

I would highly recommend this to anyone who respects and wants respect from their entertainment.
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on September 13, 2011
This book won the James Tiptree Award for exploration of gender issues. The first graphic novel to win the prize. It's great for a non-Japanese like myself to have a glimpse of the Japanese life. I am getting vol. 2 of the novel because this first one is so interesting. No spoilers here. Read it for yourself and enjoy.
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