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.