22 September 2009

Fumi Yoshinaga's Oo-oku, part 2

Yesterday I gave an overview of Yoshinaga's work and some genre definitions. Today I'm going to talk about Oo-oku: the inner chambers, volume 1. The manga won the 2009 Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, and the English version is being released under the Viz Signature line.

The story opens with a vignette about a farming family in early Edo-era Japan, whose little boy goes off to the woods and is mauled by a bear. After he dies, his brothers and father and all the boys become ill. Eight of ten die. This disease, with symptoms similar to smallpox, remains endemic in Japan, and boy children are rare.

The next chapter is years later, still during the Tokugawa shogunate. A young man, the scion of a samurai family, trying to avoid being wed to a woman he doesn't love, decides to apply to the Inner Chambers of Edo Palace. He's accepted, and he learns of the strange customs there. I won't go into further detail, because that would spoil the story.

The young shogun, a seven-year-old girl, is sickly, and when she dies, her aunt Yoshimune becomes shogun. Yoshimune notices that for record-keeping purposes, the shogun and their retainers are listed as men, and when they marry, their husbands are entered with female names. "It's almost as if the country was once run by men," she says. The reader, being aware that it's an alternate history story, and knowing that the Tokugawas were men (or were they?), knows the truth, and as the first volume ends, wants to learn with Yoshimune why the record keeping is the way it is, and wants to see what else is different, and what reforms Yoshimune will make.

In the Inner Chambers, the men, while treasured and told not to over exert themselves (or they'll get sick), still act like plausible men of their era. Mizuno, the young samurai, is a typical Yoshinaga spunky hero, who's good at kendo and interested in fashion. (In a capital city, upper class families, which samurai were, have to pay attention to trends and fashions. His fashion sense is manifest in the style of his topknot and tonsure.)

The women act like women of their era, to an extent. In an alternate world where women vastly outnumber men, there's competition for 'seed,' and only families of certain classes may take sons in law (ie, marry their daughters to a man.) So women turn, essentially, to brothels. On the other side of that coin, since women outnumber men, women have taken over the government and the army. In the manga, it is explained that, because of the existing bureaucracy, when the men died, it was easy for women to take their jobs seamlessly.

The English version: The Viz Signature line uses slightly oversize pages, and has a very nice full color cover with overleaf. The first three inside pages are printed in color as well. (Other Viz Signature releases include Monster and Pluto, by Naoki Urasawa, both of which are also recipients of the Tezuka Prize.) There's an explicit content warning printed on the cover, which is somewhat misleading, unless one finds mention of sexual activity explicit. The presentation of the manga is very nice. (I continually wish that the title pages for each chapter could be printed in color as well, but I understand that's difficult with how books are printed and bound.)

One interesting editorial decision was to have the characters speaking (oftentimes) in a Shakespearean style, thee and thou and hath, etc. It was somewhat jarring at first, but it makes sense. The Tokugawa shogunate began around 1600, so using archaic language of that period is logical. I don't read enough Japanese to have the original to know whether Yoshinaga wrote in an archaic form of Japanese. It's an interesting decision for Akemi Wegmüller at Viz to have made, and I think it works, once you get used to it.

I, for one, can't wait to find out what Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune is going to do next.

21 September 2009

Fumi Yoshinaga's Oo-oku, part 1

I bought Oo-oku, by Fumi Yoshinaga, a few weeks ago, and I just had a chance to read it. I'm going to do a brief review of volume 1 (all that's out in English so far), but before I do that, I'm going to have to fill out some background.

Fumi Yoshinaga is one of the few mangaka (Japanese comic artists) whose work I'll buy on sight. I want to say Antique Bakery was the first of her works I picked up, and I was hooked. I own everything of hers that's been released in English.

She mostly writes boys' love manga, which is a genre of romance starring two men, written by women, for women. (This is not to say that there aren't men who enjoy BL; just that the target demographic is female.) It's got a particular artistic style, often featuring androgynous characters. Like typical shoujo (comics for girls) romance, there's a focus on the relationships between the characters.

There are two major flavors of BL. The first basically takes a typical shoujo boy/girl romance and draws the girl character as a (particularly effeminate or androgynous) boy. The woo-ee (girl character) is weak, simpering, in need of rescue, too stupid to live, and IMO boring as hell. I don't like that type of character in any story, regardless of its gender.

The other, which I prefer, shows both halves of the romantic pairing as strong (in their own ways). There's a bit of cultural something involved with why that's potentially easier to do in Japan with two male characters, rather than one male and one female, and I'm not an expert on that topic by any means. However, gender roles in Japan are currently in the 1950s, and feminism hasn't quite caught on yet. (The very brief overview version!)

So. Yoshinaga's characters fall into the latter category, if you didn't guess that already. They've all got their strengths and weaknesses, and while some are physically weaker than others and/or need rescuing, there's a good reason for it in the story; something other than "the girl character needs rescuing."

The basic premise of Oo-oku is that a smallpox-like disease kills boys, so there aren't many left. It remains a threat, and Japan has too few men.

I read a book, A Brother's Price, by Wen Spencer, based on a similar premise, but it was AWFUL. The men were basically simpering delicate flowers, concerned with makeup and prettiness and all the things you associate with stereotypical women. The hero was too stupid to live. The story was more contrived than a Rube Goldberg device. I wanted to set it on fire. (Instead, I sold it to a used book store.)

Yoshinaga has done it right. Stay tuned for my review, which will be posted tomorrow.

08 September 2009

Back from Dragon*Con

Mostly caught up on the internets I missed, though I admit I just skimmed most of it and triaged the hell out of my RSS feeds.

I saw my dad for dinner and drinks Thursday, which was enjoyable, especially the drink that tasted like Christmas.

I got 3 of my books signed by Lois McMaster Bujold (Memory x2 and Young Miles).

I was on 2 panels: one discussing LMB's SF vs fantasy (which turned into a rousing discussion of the Miles books) and the other about her work in translation.

I heard the first chapter and a bit of Cryoburn, the new (and final ;_;) Miles book, coming out November 2010. I want it *now.* Damn, it'll be hardcover, won't it? That means it won't fit the shelf with the rest of them. Hurm.

LMB reminds me of my mother in law. It's really weird. They're about the same age and have a few accent-wise things in common, despite being from disparate parts of the country.

I met a couple folks from Broad Universe, which I need to join.

And beyond that, I saw a bunch of awesome friends & stayed up too late & ate crappy food & managed not to spend too much money.

01 September 2009

Outer Alliance Pride Day post

As a member of the Outer Alliance, I advocate for queer speculative fiction and those who create, publish and support it, whatever their sexual orientation and gender identity. I make sure this is reflected in my actions and my work.

I'm not yet published, and I've decided to pretty much scrap the SF romance novella I wrote (for a variety of reasons, including that the plot was sketchy at best). But there's a scene in it that I still like, though it'll have to have some reworking to fit the new plot.

Michael is a communications officer on the Free Merchant Ship Donau. Atesh is a mercenary, but Michael doesn't know that. The Donau is taking Atesh's company to their next mission, and the Donau believes they're humanitarian aid workers. So, onward. (And this is still sort of first-draft-ish.)

The bunks on the Donau had not been designed with trysts in mind. The overhead light was too bright, and the bedside lamps, while less blinding, were fixed in position on the door-side wall. Michael had figured out a way to cover it to make it less obtrusive, but there was no way to change the narrow beds without taking the ship apart.

Michael pressed his back against Atesh’s chest, still warm and slightly sweaty from sex. “A guy could get used to this,” he said.

“Used to what?” Atesh draped his arm across Michael’s waist and lazily stroked his chest with a rough finger.

“Getting laid more often than every few weeks when he’s on station leave. The hand is a poor substitute for a good man.” He realized he’d miss Atesh when he was gone, and not just for the sex. He’d started to consider him a friend.

Atesh chuckled. “Maybe I should lay off a bit. Don’t want to leave you disappointed, when you drop us off and go back.”

Michael turned in the narrow bed and faced Atesh. “I think I’d rather take advantage of the situation while I can.” He trailed his hand over Atesh’s back and rested it on his hip. “We can keep in touch, you know. Meet up if we’re in the same place at the same time.”

Atesh ran rough fingers down Michael’s spine and over his ass. “I’d like that.” He shifted his weight and pushed Michael onto his back, then knelt over him, legs between Michael’s thighs. Michael wrapped his legs around Atesh’s hips and pulled him closer. Atesh kissed him, tongue sliding between his lips.

“Take advantage while we can, shall we?” Atesh murmured in his ear. His tongue traced the curve of Michael’s ear, and Michael raked fingernails down Atesh’s back.

“That’s an excellent plan,” Michael replied.