Monday, November 16, 2009
Ooku: The Inner Chambers, vol. 1
The story: An epidemic has struck Edo-era Japan, killing three-quarters of the male population. With men in short supply, women step up to take over jobs traditionally held by their male counterparts, including that of shogun. In the shogun's inner chambers, or ooku, thousands of men toil behind the scenes, serving not only as administrators, but as a harem. When a new shogun takes over 80 years after the first infected boy dies, the monetary wastefulness of the ooku is shed in an effort to "rerelease" these highly desired men back into the general population. At volume's end, the shogun is determined to learn how the epidemic came to pass and the subsequent elevation of women in Japan.
Reaction: I'll admit that I'm a big fan of Fumi Yoshinaga's prior work Antique Bakery and had high hopes for this title. While the settings, characters and plot do not disappoint, I do have to agree with other reviewers initially put off by the flowery language used. However, perhaps due to my familiarity with Shakespeare, it passed quickly.
Otherwise, this is a slice of life-style manga with an alternate history bent. While this volume gives the series a slow start, it does have a lot of "world building" to do, which is to be expected. My largest criticism is regarding the "tell versus show"-style of storytelling Yoshinaga uses. Characters are prone to long bouts of dialogue and there's a narrative voice present throughout, not to mention the occasional soliloquy.
Deep thoughts: Yoshinaga is well known for her yaoi work and makes a point of including homosexual characters and/or situations in her non-yaoi works. Ooku is no different; with so many men quarantined from contact with the outside world, they resort to finding carnal pleasure in the only way available to them (not everyone is in service as a concubine for the shogun). While I am not familiar with Yoshinaga's yaoi work, she avoids the all-too-easy trap of making homosexual characters into glib stereotypes in her non-yaoi works. Since American mainstream media often succumbs to just such portrayals, it's refreshing to read Yoshinaga's works.
Artwork: This being a period piece, there's a great sense of place established from architecture to costumes. Backgrounds are relatively sparse, either reflecting a simple aesthetic or Yoshinaga's ability (or lack thereof). However, the art isn't so much the focus here as the storytelling. There's moments of action, but mostly these are well-drawn characters dealing with their own inner turmoil and their reactions to the sacrifices that must be made when men are in short supply.
The verdict: If only... While I find this story intriguing and the characters enjoyable, there's something to be desired here — mostly less text and more setting/plot movement. However, compared to all the other manga out there, this is still one of the best and well deserves the Viz Signature treatment. I know I'll be first in line to pick up volume two when it hit shelves later this year. Ooku: The Inner Chambers is available in the U.S. from Viz.