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.

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