Ooku 7

August 28, 2012

Fumi Yoshinaga – Viz – 2012 – 8+ volumes

I did like saving up consecutive volumes of this series and reading them all at once, because I had a difficult time getting into the first part of this volume. I could not, for the life of me, remember who the characters were, what their relationships to one another were, and where their alliances were. With only one volume a year, the solution is to simply re-read the whole thing before the next one comes out. Ooku certainly will reward me for the trouble.

I read the first part twice, but it isn’t really that hard to follow. With the death of Ienobu, the reigning Shogun is a young girl who cannot govern the country. She is also sickly, so her advisers take sides as to who will be the next Shogun, as it looks as if Ietsugu will be unable to produce an heir.

During this time, there’s a beautiful side story about the Ooku, Ietsugu’s father, and his Groom of the Bedchamer Ejima. With the politics of the successor playing out, Ietsugu’s father opposes Ietsugu’s acting cabinet. Thus, a plot is launched. Unfortunately, it is launched against Ejima, who is a humble man that is loved by all, and one who staunchly sticks to all the rules of the Ooku. Ejima is made to look in gross violation of the most sacred of the Ooku customs, and he is sentenced to death in order to get Ietsugu’s father to pledge loyalty to the cabinet’s choice of Shogun. His story is a beautiful, heartbreaking one, and does not have a happy ending. It was absolutely the best part of this book.

Ietsugu’s end is not mentioned at all in this book, though we are meant to assume it happens. Promptly after the Ejima side story ends, Yoshimune is introduced as Shogun. Yoshimune takes a no-nonsense approach to governing, and quickly solves several problems plaguing the realm, while creating others when she insists on having her way. She is extremely pragmatic and action-oriented, which is a breath of fresh air in this series. She also seems immune to outside influence, which will hopefully be important later.

Notably, Yoshimune is also interested in gender roles once again. This becomes less of an issue as the personal lives of the Shogun have taken over the story, but she brings the topic back into play when she reads the old histories and learns that men used to rule over women. She begins putting men to work in more vigorous ways than bedroom exercises, and begins to try and cure the disease that takes the lives of young boys. She realizes it’s important to Japan to open up to outside nations, but their lack of men will be seen as a major weakness.

I’d love to read more about Yoshimune, and I’m very interested to see where the story about her heir goes, hinted at on the last page of the volume. And I’m also curious to see if traditional male roles in society will resume by the time Tokugawa Ieyoshi ends his reign. I’m extremely curious about that, in fact.

But, just in case I didn’t make this clear, this is still an extremely well-written and well-illustrated work. I love everything Fumi Yoshinaga does, but this is definitely her best work. It’s got numerous layers of enjoyment, explains enough about Japanese history to make it engaging for someone with absolutely no knowledge of the Shogunate. And while retelling history with an alternate spin, she still writes really, really good characters. Really, what more can you ask?

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Ooku 6

August 4, 2011

Fumi Yoshinaga – Viz – 2011 – 7+ volumes

The first half of this volume covers the slow, sad death of Tsunayoshi. She’s not actually dying until the very end of her section of story, of course, but it follows her through her old age. She is ultimately unhappy with just about everything in her life, but is powerless to do much of anything about it. She wasn’t a successful ruler, a successful mother, a successful lover, nor a successful daughter, in the end. Only her best friend and adviser, Yoshiyasu, is by her side in the end, and their final scene together is a beautiful and terrible thing. It’s the sort of thing that few aside from Fumi Yoshinaga can really take advantage of. Much is left unsaid, though Yoshiyasu does give a little bit of a monologue, but the power of the story behind the action is what makes it wonderful.

Given all the empty affairs and fruitless love matches in this series, the power of the love between Yoshiyasu and Tsunayoshi, whether it was the love of friends or soul mates, is one of the best things Ooku has offered us so far. Yoshiyasu was there, off to the side, through the entirety of Tsunayoshi’s story. She was always there, and it was always clear that she would do anything for Tsunayoshi. And yet… I did not see this scene coming.

Ooku will be hard-pressed to top that scene in future volumes.

Later, we see Akifusa and her complete and utter devotion to the next shogun, Ienobu, and Ienobu’s daughter. And though Akifusa is more outspoken and devout than Yoshiyasu, the bond is just not the same. History is partially to blame, but perhaps it’s also because Akifusa is slightly too ambitious with her plans for Ienobu.

But the next part of the story is somewhat difficult to read. We know, based on the story at the end of the next volume (and also, if you happen to know anything about Japanese history) that the next noteworthy shogun is Yoshimune. So while we are waiting for young, bold, and interesting Yoshimune to enter the story, we are faced with the story of Ienobu and Ietsugu. That is interesting, because we know that they aren’t around for long, but it is a sad kind of interesting. Ienobu, at least, wants to do well, and tries her best.

With the change of the shogun, it’s a shame that an interesting new character will likely be lost. Akifusa, for sure, but a young man named Sakyo is introduced and given quite a bit of story time, and I wonder what will happen to him next volume.

Oh well, guess I’ll find out next year. Really though, while the story moves slowly and includes a lot of history that most will not be interested in, it is fascinating stuff, and Yoshinaga is a top-notch writer. She brings a lot of emotion to the Japanese history, and I must admit the gender swap for a lot of the major incidents is interesting, even without knowing anything about it. It’s not my favorite of her work yet, but it’s certainly the best, and I would recommend it especially to those who enjoy the rare “literary manga” releases from companies like Drawn & Quarterly. It’s not gekiga, but it should appeal to those interested in a more mature and involved story.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Ooku 5

July 31, 2011

Fumi Yoshinaga – Viz – 2011 – 7+ volumes

This volume chronicles the sad, lonely life of Tsunayoshi. I don’t have that much to say about it. Tsunayoshi is fiercely loyal to those around her, and wishes to please them. Those around her are rather selfish, and interested in their own status and the status of the shogun family line. Thus, Tsunayoshi’s life is filled with bad advice made into law for the sake of her loved ones as well as a near-constant stream of men, provided from several sources, that are necessary for her to bear her heir.

As I said in the last review, I do feel I’m missing out on quite a bit by not knowing the actual history that’s being related here. It’s a sad thing to see such a powerful figure reduced to a faceless sex partner, being passed around by several terrible men all hoping to be the father of the next shogun. Obviously this didn’t happen to the real shogun, since he wouldn’t have borne the child himself. Perhaps there were fertility issues, but such things are far easier to hide for men. Even so, what variations in history does the gender swap offer? I’m curious to know.

There are some points of law that are historical fact. The Edicts on Compassion for Living Things is, in the story, a kind of karmic payback for a misdeed the shogun’s father committed in his youth. It’s a tyrannical law, however, that leaves dogs roaming the streets and people thrown into poverty when slapping at mosquitoes.

It’s also notable that Tsunayoshi was the shogun behind the Forty-seven Ronin incident. I didn’t know that, so I didn’t see this particular bit of history coming. The master of the Ronin is a man, one of the few men left as head of a samurai household, and the person he assaults is an old woman. The gender swap in this story offers the variation that the shogun and others thought the incident might not have happened if the master had been a woman, or any of the ronin, as women are naturally less aggressive. It is also much more of a sin to order the Forty-seven Ronin to commit seppuku, since there are so few men to begin with.

The storytelling is slow and ponderous, which is important in a story like this. I don’t have that much to say because not a whole lot happens. Yoshinaga spends a lot of time developing Tsunayoshi, and showing the woman behind what must have been a very unpopular shogun ruler. She’s not a villain, or even a bad person. She means well, but just… can’t. It’s interesting. And I love that much of the emotion is implied, rather than spelled out to the reader. Tsunayoshi doesn’t often talk about her thoughts or feelings, so the only way to infer them is to watch her interactions with others. It takes a great deal of skill to do this sort of thing in comics, and it’s why Yoshinaga is such an amazing creator.

Ooku continues to impress. I did already read volume 6, and it’s a shame I’ll have to wait a year for the next volume now. I would dearly love a more regular schedule for my Yoshinaga series, but we’re basically caught up in English now.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Ooku 4

July 26, 2011

Fumi Yoshinaga – Viz – 2010 – 7+ volumes

To be three volumes behind on this series is a tragedy. I’m not sure why I suddenly stopped reading new volumes of this, but taking in three at a time is a good idea. It’s a lot easier to follow the characters and the relationships between the shogun this way.

One thing that this brings to light, though, is just how much I was missing by being completely unfamiliar with Japanese history. Yoshinaga is re-telling the story of every shogun in order, I assume all the way through the Meiji Restoration. The gender flip is interesting, but I bet it is even more fascinating if you have grown up listening to the history of the male Shogun. Similarly, she adds twists, such as lovers and whatnot, that I’m sure add some light to historical rumors, and I wonder how much different her version is from the rumors, or even the documented history. I still enjoy it, even without that knowledge, but every volume makes it clear that it was not written for me.

But Yoshinaga is an excellent storyteller, and the characters, their struggles, and just how hard one shogun tries while another enjoys leisure time comes across wonderfully, even without the history lesson. The loves, the losses, the struggle with disease, trouble with social standing and laws both inside and outside the palace… all of it is interesting stuff, and watching the very human characters fight against these things will never get old, I think.

Arikoto is still a major player in this volume, and we see him stand through the rules of both Iemitsu and Ietsuna. In fact, he periodically re-appears through the next several volumes, since his disciple stays and becomes a major player in the life of the third shogun, Tsunayoshi.

Having all three shogun in one book is an interesting contrast in governing styles. Iemitsu is extremely involved and believes in doing good, and tries her best to overcome the disappearing male problem, trying to balance power until the male population is re-established. The problem only gets worse, and during her reign, women slowly assume all the power in Edo. Her passing is grieved by all those around her. Conversely, Ietsuna has an extremely hands-off approach, and simply lets her counselors and cabinet do what they think is best.

Interestingly, save for her relationship to Arikoto, Ietsuna’s life is glossed over. She assumes power at the age of fourteen, and passes away at the age of forty-two. Compared to the amount of story time for the troubled Tsunayoshi, it’s interesting that we aren’t given many details or much insight into the life of Ietsuna.

Tsunayoshi is portrayed rather selfishly early on, and we are shown much about her sex life. It is important for the Shogun to bear many children, and while Tsunayoshi has one daughter when she becomes shogun, her father and consort try everything in their power to keep her interested in men so that she can bear more children. There is a lot of entertaining, a family destroyed for little reason, and power plays by both the consort and her father concerning handsome men and how she might favor them.

It’s difficult to describe why this section of story is interesting. While Tsunayoshi can do cruel things, like take her favorite advisor’s husband as a lover, then her son, she’s not really uncaring or a villain. What’s interesting is that she’s not nearly as bad as a handful of her most influential people, and is mostly a product of her environment. And honestly, what can you expect from her, when everyone around her thinks that her most important duty should be to bear children? That’s simply her job, to oogle men all day and have sex with them at night. It’s a terrible life, and later, it’s no wonder she’s not very popular… she’s not really allowed to do anything else. She’s young in this volume, but it becomes a problem later in the story.

But I’ll talk about this more later. It really was an absolute pleasure reading three volumes of this at once, and helps to keep all the historical details in order. It’s very much worth reading, and I’m thinking of starting from the beginning in order to make sure I have the timeline in order.

Ooku 3

August 6, 2010

Fumi Yoshinaga – Viz – 2010 – 5+ volumes

There are certain series that I am ashamed to fall behind on. This is one of them, especially since we will very shortly be forced to wait a year between volumes. On the other hand, rushing through it to stay current should never be done. Ooku is best read at a very slow pace, since it takes some time to digest the full meaning behind everything that is going on.

This volume is still covering the Chie/Tokugawa time period. Reading back through my comments from the last volume, it’s interesting that the shogun Chie was portrayed in such a negative light in the last volume, since in this one, she is a very sympathetic character. I remembered the terrible things she had done to get Arikoto to live in the castle, but other than a shrewdness when it comes to politics, she turns into something of a tool for the elderly Reverend Kasuga. The relationship between she and Arikoto takes on an air of tragedy when she is forced to take other men into her bed in order to conceive a child. Neither takes it well, but Arikoto continues in his benevolent role, while Chie sees it as an extension of her duties as shogun, and something that women have been doing since the beginning of time. This conflict is surprisingly romantic, moreso because the stoic characters show so little of what’s going on that the snippets we catch of their real feelings haunt their placid expressions and compliant behavior.

The way the story moves around Japan is interesting, too. We see the lives of regular citizens when the first man to step in as a potential match for Chie is profiled in his hometown. He’s a lazy womanizer who absolutely refuses to take over his family business or do any work, since he is one of the few young men in town. We see that much of the population still believes that men should be doing the work, while others believe they should be valued and exploited since women still need them to father children. This latter, more disturbing view is showcased in a later segment where Chie visits Edo and encounters families more than willing to prostitute out their sons for high prices, as well as cheap brothels full of men both old and mentally handicapped. The desperation of the general public is kept in the back of the reader’s mind throughout the volume, though most of what goes on focuses on the palace. Women are taking over, people are learning to live without men. The sex industry is rather disturbing, and I could not figure out why Yoshiwara had such sad matches. Perhaps the families of the handsome young men kept them for their own profit? That’s probably what was implied, which means that any family with a son could go from sudden poverty to extraordinary wealth overnight. The social system in Japan seems to be that they still wouldn’t be upper class, even with money, but perhaps things like that will be addressed in future volumes.

We also see how, despite the fact that there are no men, the elders are still unwilling to let women take over entirely. The women do an admirable job of running labor-oriented professions, like farming and fishing, but the samurai families tied to the palace absolutely refuse to let anyone believe that their sons are dead, so they force their daughters to dress and act as men. Pride keeps the warriors from admitting that they have only women in their families, and its interesting that, when women take over every other aspect of life, they refuse to let them take up the position as head of the family.

Kasuga is something of a controlling tyrant in this volume, but she never gets out of hand, and always gives orders in a respectful manner to people who will listen and agree. And frequently, her orders are good advice. Kasuga is given a backstory that didn’t soften my heart to her as it did some of the others, but it does go far towards explaining her practical outlook on everything.

While the first volume focused on why women mimicked men in the world of the book, and had a shogun that looked toward changing that and making women strong in their own right, this book seems to be all about reinforcing the traditional roles of women, even for the shogun, and showing how the outlook more or less remains the same even when they begin taking over the men’s work. It’ll be interesting to see how the story works its way back up to the time period of the first volume, and how the extremely rigid and traditional society portrayed in the book will adapt to having women in the dominant roles. In theory, it should only take a generation, but teachings from one’s parents go a long way to keeping certain traditions alive.

Having put off reading this volume, I am happy to see that the fourth should be here in a couple weeks. I suspect there’s still quite a bit of Chie’s story to tell, so I doubt we’ll be seeing a jump in the timeline anytime soon.

This is certainly the most well-crafted of all the work I’ve read by Yoshinaga, and it only gets deeper with each volume. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble relating to it in the same way I have her other work since it relies so much on Japanese history (which you’d think I’d be an expert in by now, or at least enough so that I could read stuff like this), but not knowing what the events correspond to in history is, amazingly, not that much of a hindrance, and there’s so much else going on here that such problems are rare. There are a lot of good series coming out from the Viz Signature line, and saying this is one of my favorites is pretty high praise.

Ooku 2

November 5, 2009

Fumi Yoshinaga – Viz – 2009 – 5+ volumes

I wondered about the format of this series, but this volume answered my question.  I think.  Here, we jump backward in time to the first female shogun and a monk she coerces into becoming her catamite.  The story this time is much darker than the first volume, and I was quite shocked when the story actually went down the dark path it promised, rather than whimsically taking all its threats back at the threshold to show that the shogun wasn’t a bad person.  This happens twice, the first as a measure to get the pious monk into the inner chambers, and the second when the shogun finally appears in front of the monk.

Unlike Yoshimune in the first volume, the Shogun in this volume (who is without a name, officially, and is covered up to the best of everyone’s abilities) is very much a villain for most of the volume.  I kept trying to sympathize with her.  For awhile, the nurse/advisor character took the majority of my wrath, since everything can easily be blamed on her.  But the Shogun isn’t that pleasant, either.  From the first time she appears, she gives the reader reason to hate her, and most of the good things she does, or anything sympathetic, is balanced out with something obnoxious.  But by the end of the book, Yoshinaga turns the tables, and in the last few pages, I begrudgingly admitted that the match between the poor monk forced to give up his vows and the Shogun looked to be a good one.  I couldn’t believe how masterfully revealing her backstory explained every heinous thing she did, and even made me feel bad for her.  I hated her so much.  There is no other story that could make me hate a character, then make me like her, all in a single volume.

The monk character was a good one, and balances out the Shogun’s evil quite well.  His role is apparently based on a true story, though with the genders switched.  He’s very sincere about his vows, and we find out later that the position he reached at the beginning of the story was his main goal in life.  He really, really does not want to join the harem, but does anyway in an incredibly powerful scene that borrows some of the devices and expectations mentioned above.  He continues to hold his own in the court, speaking up when he feels strongly and bending when something isn’t worth fighting for.

The only link between this volume and the first, other than the premise of the men dying out, is the fact that the other members of the harem wage jealous wars on one another over who gets more of the Shogun’s attention.  I like this element of it, and it’s pretty hilarious given the fact that you can easily imagine the scenarios playing out in a court of women as well.

I rarely mention artwork, but I very much enjoy Yoshinaga’s art.  It’s sparse, but well-composed, and the composition and subtle ways she conveys emotion through facial expression and repetition are absolutely masterful in this story.  It just wouldn’t be the same without the soft touch and insight the artwork offers.  The last page is one of my favorite illustrations in the book, it looks very much like a woodblock print piece.

About the only thing I don’t like about it is the Early Modern English that all the characters use.  It takes me out of the story, especially when words like “quack” come up and I have to look it up and verify that it actually is a ridiculous slang word from 500 years ago.  But otherwise the presentation is quite good.  There are translation notes in the back that help out with the difficult Japanese historical references, and the book itself maintains all the bells and whistles from the first, like the flaps on the cover and the vellum title page before the color illustration in the front.  I’m also very fond of the minimalist design of the whole thing, and I love that there are no ads in the back to shatter the mood.

Basically, this volume is much different than the first, but no less amazing.  I was very fond of the fact it took the expectations from the first volume and warped them to make the story much darker than it could have been otherwise.  And even with the darker and depressing story, the ending still managed to make the reader sympathize with the characters.  I don’t think anyone has a talent for making characters quite like Fumi Yoshinaga, and this really is one of her best and most well-developed series.  I do wonder if each volume will have a different story to tell with different sets of characters, or if they will all tie together in the end, as her series tend to do.  I can’t wait to read more.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Ooku 1

August 6, 2009

Fumi Yoshinaga – Viz – 2009 – 4+ volumes

Here’s one of the last of my most-anticipated series of 2009 (the very last will probably be Itazura na Kiss).  I’m a big geek when it comes to Fumi Yoshinaga, and for good reason.  I have yet to be disappointed by any of her series, and I love seeing her characters interact with each other, no matter what they’re doing.

To let me know that this series was going to be worth my time, within the first few pages, a small child is attacked by a bear, which somehow (his mother thinks this is because he was cursed by the Gods) spreads a plague that kills most of the young men in Japan.  On one hand, that’s totally sweet.  On the other hand, it’s extremely unlike Yoshinaga to use such a strange plot device.  But the premise of the series is just that, that most of the young men in Japan were wiped out and that those who remain are valuable commodities that are kept like princes, with women taking over manual labor and all other tasks traditionally performed by men.  It’s a great idea, and especially interesting that the setting is feudal Japan.  This first volume only dips its toes in the possibilities of a gender role reversal like that, so I’m very much looking forward to where that idea goes in the future.

Most of the volume follows a man named Yunoshin.  Yunoshin is one of the few young men whose family has not sold him into sexual slavery, and also one of the only men who does not charge women desperate for children to sleep with him.  In order to help out his family, he volunteers to go to the Shogun’s Inner Chamber, a harem, in order to send his family the money he earns.  He does not fit in at the Inner Chamber with all its pettiness and lavish excesses, and sees the whole situation as wasteful, since a harem of 800 men so desperately needed elsewhere are being kept for a single 7-year-old girl, the current Shogun.  But the girl dies, and her successor is a very no-nonsense woman named Yoshimune.  Yoshimune is disgusted by the excesses of the palace.  Naturally, Yunoshin catches her eye in the harem, and she picks him to be her first lover.  Unbeknownst to either of them, the first lover is killed as part of an ancient ritual to punish him for physically harming the Shogun (ie taking her virginity).

After that situation is resolved (about 3/4 of the way through the book), the story switches focus in a very Yoshinaga-like way to Yoshimune herself, the small changes she is making around the palace, and her choice of lovers from the harem.  She is quite a character, and works entirely and delightfully contrary to all the stuffy policies and ways of palace life.  She and her right hand adviser, a female childhood friend from her home town, are also very clever about stepping around the old guard at the palace and satisfying all their various antiquated rules.  The very end of the book is where Yoshimune begins to question why women need to dress as men and take on men’s names in order to do as they do.

Yunoshin’s story has all the best things Yoshinaga puts in her series.  We see how deftly he deals with women, in a somewhat cavalier but caring way.  We see the subtle tugs on his life that compel him to join the Inner Chamber (his parents are too poor to find a husband for his older sister, and he turns down all marriage proposals since he loves his childhood friend, who he can’t marry because of social standing).  We see the lives and motivations behind different members of the Ooku, and the rather ugly politics that work behind it all.  Yoshinaga has the gift of painting a lot of detail with a broad brush, so to speak.  She tells an ambitious story with lots of tangents, but knows just how much to reveal of everything in order to make it touching.

And that last chapter just promises so many interesting things for future volumes.  I admit, it’s a little unusual to read one of her stories with a female lead, but there’s no reason to be suspicious.   Ooku is everything interesting I was hoping it would be and more.  I was expecting a period drama involving lots of women and the members of the harem, which this isn’t.  It’s far more interesting and involved than her other series, but I may need a couple more volumes to like the characters as much as the ones in Antique Bakery and Flower of Life.

Viz did a wonderful job with the presentation, too.  It’s in the Signature format, which means it’s an oversize volume with french flaps and color pages, and the first page is actually vellum.  There are copious translation notes in the back, and the graphic design on the cover and throughout the book is stunning in its simplicity.  The characters all speak with a sort of Shakespearean inflection, which reflects the period and the fact they were probably using an older form of Japanese in the original.  I’m not sure if I like it or not, since it seems strange that characters in Medieval Japan would be using Early Modern English, but I appreciate that the distinction was made, and there really is no better way to show it.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.