In an alternative timeline of feudal Japan, a strange disease that only affects men caused a massive reduction of male population, thus females have to pick up men's jobs, changing the social structure. Now, after 80 years of the initial outbreak and current man:woman ratio of 1:4, Japan has become completely matriarchal, with women holding important political positions and men being their consort. Only the most powerful woman—head of Tokugawa shogunate—can keep a harem of handsome yet unproductive men, known as "Oooku."
Oooku won an Excellence Prize at the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival, the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Grand Prize in 2009, and the 56th Shogakukan Manga Award in shoujo manga category in 2011. The series also received special prize at The Japanese Association of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy's 5th annual Sense of Gender awards in 2005, a live-action film based on the series was screened in 2010, and it received a two television drama adaptations in 2012.
Oooku has been published in English as Ōoku: The Inner Chambers by VIZ Media under the VIZ Signature imprint since August 18, 2009.
Any words I can use to describe this series pale in comparison to the writing, the art, the direction, the flavor of the series on a whole, and indeed I can already feel myself completely at a loss as to how I should go about reviewing it when it is clearly a series that speaks for itself. Nevertheless, I'll see what I can do.
Simply put, this is shoujo, nay, manga itself done right. When people ask, "What is the greatest manga of all time," they are more often than not met with, say, Berserk. For me, now, that series is Ooku. (While Berserk is a
decent series, it fails to live up to the hype after a certain point, while Ooku continuously surmounts the already-nigh-insurmountable hype it builds for itself, but this isn't meant to be a comparison review, so I'll stop there.) I had the pleasure of stumbling onto this series courtesy of ANN's review with classic shoujo author Moto Hagio (whose works are sadly well before my time and I have thus not had a chance to read), who recommended Ooku as one of her favorite manga, and for good reason. Without going into detail for squeamish readers, Ooku tastefully yet firmly tackles the idea of gender identity within a male-oriented society and the societal chaos which ensues once those boundaries are torn asunder by tragedy and disease.
The author, Fumi Yoshinaga, builds what at first seems to be a reverse-harem story, for those familiar with the term, focusing on the myriad of attractive male members, but quickly proves otherwise: this is set in a prison, with the appropriately brutal mentality to go along with it. Yes, there is sexual hazing and non-graphic homosexual intercourse, but I hesitate to call this a shounen-ai title, as MAL lists it, in much the sense that you wouldn't call any of these characters homosexual so much as desperate. From there, we're met with a variety of different characters, many of whom are met with a tragic end, as this story builds an alternate history of feudal Japan, shaping it into a form, well... quite unknown at this point.
The artist uses her pen to craft these emotive characters which, while sparse and not necessarily detailed, evoke some of the most emotive and subtly expressive characters I've ever seen in a manga. One can look at a character from panel to panel and see a dynamic evolution of the characters' thought processes, the furrow of a brow showing slight agitation one panel to be wiped away by some slight joy in the next. I can, in all honesty, say that this is the only author I have encountered who can literally soften a character's expression. (Others I've seen rely almost solely on contextual design.)
And, my God, that translation. Viz's Signature-line translators shine in resplendent glory, choosing to, instead of falling back on a standard modern translation, completely transform the script into a beautiful, flowing piece of literature by opting to infuse the script with a "Shakespearean English" flavor, completely immersing the reader in this grand world which genuinely feels like it could have come from the time period. Where other translators and editors would feel satisfied simply by peppering the dialogue with "thees" and "thys" and forgoing any appropriate research outside of that, this script was obviously written by someone with experience in the field, and it shows. Inu Yasha, this ain't. To be honest, though, this lends a higher level of reading difficulty to the series, so readers who haven't at least dabbled in Shakespearean language might want to crack open a copy of Romeo and Juliet before tackling this series... Oh, and have a dictionary handy, because this was obviously written by a very well-educated writer, for what I can only assume to other well-educated readers. As a reader personally frustrated by the oft-vanilla translations of other inferior titles, I appreciated the extra challenge this script-on-steroids provided.
That said, there is literally nothing of negative value I can say about this series. It's smart, witty, the translation is utterly superb, the characters are engaging and sympathetic, and I'm excited to see the direction it takes from this point onward. At the very least, it's worth a try.
Many people who look at Ooku do not wish to read it because of it's historical context and feel like they are expected to have a large assortment of knowledge in Japanese history. This, however, was very enjoyable and understandable regardless of the nonexistent knowledge I had beforehand. Please do not believe you have to be a history fanatic to understand it when (in all honesty) it does not require much pre known text at all. If it does, the volume has a list of explanations for each new term and gives good examples.
Instead on focusing on one person's story, it connects generation to
generation to fully emerge the reader in an overall idea of the effects the Inner Chambers have on not only the people inside, but the country as a whole. It does go over some mature topics, but nevertheless those explicit scenes do not mask the story like most manga and anime do. Even when I read a person's story and tell myself "the next generation could never be as good as the last" I still find myself hooked in and realizing that each story is amazing in its own special way.
I hope that whoever is planning to read or purchase this manga realizes that they will not regret their efforts. Ooku is a manga unlike any other I have seen, holding emotion, depth, and reason that makes it one of the best I've ever read. Even with the unlimited space I have to write this review, I cannot find the words to describe each and every piece of tragedy and joy that overcame me when I read each volume.
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