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Ôoku: The Inner Chambers, Vol. 1 Paperback – August 18, 2009
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The Edo period of an alternate Japan is ruled entirely by women in this manga. A mysterious plague has killed three out of four boys for generations, so men are carefully guarded and sheltered, while women go about the business of daily life. The Ooku was an area of Edo Castle reserved for the shogun's concubines and female relatives; here the shogun is a woman and the Ooku is entirely male. One of the few serious works of alternate history in contemporary manga, Ooku explores the relationship between gender and culture in subtle and unexpected ways. It begins tightly focused on a single heroic character and slowly pans out from there, embracing first the court intrigue of the Ooku, then the new Shogun and Japan as a whole and finally the outside world, unaware and free of the plague. Yoshinaga is the acclaimed creator of Antique Bakery, which has been made into both a Japanese television series and a smash hit Korean movie. Not as visually busy as many historical works, Ooku's art has a spare, elegant aesthetic that shines with carefully chosen detail. Yoshinaga's work is wry and stately by turns, doing full justice to the book's rich tapestry of stories. (Aug.)
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Drawing on themes found in such diverse works as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man comic-book series, and James Clavell’s Shogun (1975), Ôoku envisions an alternate history in which a plague decimates the male population of eighteenth-century Japan. Mizuno is a healthy young man who grants his seed to the poor women of his village, who would never be able to afford the courtesans that provide such a favor. But he must leave his good deeds and his true love behind when he is inducted into the Inner Chamber, the female shogun’s private “stash” of healthy men. Fending off the aggressive advances of the other concubines and proving his intelligence and fencing skills, Mizuno is maneuvered into the position of the secret swain, whose duty to the new and contemptuous shogun is both a sacred and deadly one. Opting for slow-building intrigue and character development, Ôoku explores themes of commoditization and gender with intelligence, and the graceful, uncluttered art creates an elegant world of privilege and duty. An exceptionally strong beginning to a very intriguing manga series. --Jesse Karp
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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.
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.