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Ōoku: The Inner Chambers

Entry updated 8 January 2024. Tagged: TV.

Japanese animated online tv series (2023). Studio DEEN. Based on the Manga Ōoku (2004-2020; vt Ooku: The Inner Chambers) by Fumi Yoshinaga. Directed by Noriyuki Abe. Written by Rika Takasugi. Voice cast includes Kikuko Inoue, Sanae Kobayashi, Hitoshi Kubota, Eriko Matsui, Mamoru Miyano, Tomokazu Seki and Setsuji Satoh. Ten episodes: the first is 80 minutes, the rest circa 25 minutes. Colour.

In early-seventeenth-century Japan a boy is attacked by a bear: a disease then runs through his village (zoonosis is implied – see Biology), whose symptoms are that males are covered in red pustules and die after a few days. Named the "red face smallpox", this spreads throughout the country, afflicting boys and young men, three quarters of whom die (see Disaster; Pandemic). 80 years later the country is transformed (see Alternate History): women perform all the labour and commerce; having a husband is a sign of privilege, the other women must make do with hiring men for Sex. The narrator (Kubota) explains that "due to the bureaucratization of the Samurai society, inverting the roles previously held by men to women was a simple feat". As the de facto ruler of Japan the female Shogun has a palace in Edo whose "inner chambers, or the Ōoku" are reputed to hold "3,000 young, beautiful men ... off limits to any other woman", though the actual number is about 800.

Edo, April 1716: Mizuno Yūnoshin (Seki) voluntarily enters the Ōoku, in return for the dowry that will enable his sister find a husband. It is forbidden to speak of anything he sees there – "If your tongue slips, your head will fly" – and he finds conditions worse than expected, being told "our lives are vain and wasteful ... we are kept as pets" and as a sign of Political power. The seventh Shogun, the sickly, seven-year-old Ietsugu, dies and she is succeeded by Lord Yoshimune (Kobayashi), a middle-aged "woman of vigour and valiancy" who wants to reform the shogunate, rebuilding the nation and its finances, which are not in a healthy state: this ruffles feathers. Mizuno is made a Groom of the Bedchamber, then chosen by Yoshimune to be her consort: they then learn that, as she is unmarried and he will "introduce the virgin Shogun into the ways of the bedchamber", he will be beheaded for "defiling Her Highnesses's purity" – nonetheless, it "is a great honour". This is part of the Ōoku's Senior Chamberlain's machinations to get his own candidate as consort: fortunately Yoshimune arranges a fake execution, Mizuno changes his name and goes to marry his childhood sweetheart. Yoshimune, irritated by the various conventions – such as all members of the shogunate having to adopt male names – wonders as to the reason. Meeting with the 97-year-old Chief Scribe, Yoshimune mentions an old man, considered deranged, from her childhood who insisted that once there were as many men as women. The scribe hands her a book called "The Chronicles of the Dying Day"; she begins to read and the 80-minute first episode ends.

From episode two we return to the early days of the "red face smallpox" when, as the men die off, women have begun to take on traditionally male occupations. The young and handsome Arikoto (Miyano), as a newly appointed Buddhist abbot (see Religion), must pay his respects to the current Shogun Lord Iemitsu – but on arrival is brutally forced into the Ōoku. He is shocked to learn the original Iemitsu is dead and his daughter (Matsui) is now the Shogun, with a male "body double" who takes her place at public functions. This had been arranged by Lady Kasuga (Inoue); the original (male) Iemitsu (Satoh) died of the "red face smallpox" without leaving an heir (as had his brother) – but a woman he had raped years previously had given birth to a daughter and, to maintain the bloodline, the eleven-year-old is secretly made Shogun until she produces a son. The daughter saw her mother killed on Lady Kasuga's instructions and has suffered other traumas, becoming ill-natured and slightly unhinged, aware she is viewed as a "nothing but a walking womb". After some conflict, she and Arikoto become lovers, but he proves sterile – Lady Kasuga provides others suitors and three daughters are born, though the couple's relationship survives. Female Iemitsu is "neither kind nor compassionate" but intelligent and capable of making harsh political decisions. Arikoto is made Senior Chamberlain and, on her deathbed at 27, Lemitsu asks that he guides the next Shogun, who will be her eldest daughter.

As this story unfolds we learn more about the changes in Japanese society (see Sociology). The Ōoku is initially filled with samurai, isolated from the disease, who – aside from fathering a male heir – were intended as a potential army for tackling any revolts; but this threat withers away as the male population plummets, and by Mizuno's time the Ōoku's men have become somewhat effete. Concerned that Japan will be vulnerable to Invasion once other countries learn of its situation, the borders are closed to foreigners, with the incursion of Christianity given as the reason. Meanwhile, women undertake what was formerly men's work – in the senior ranks, they adopt male personas, with daughters passed off as sons. The few remaining young males are coddled, too precious to risk and often kept indoors for fear of catching the disease – though their parents prostitute them out to families wanting children. The older generation are not happy, but they die out, including Kasuga – who, just before she dies, orders that the "The Chronicles of the Dying Day" be written and maintained. The ratio of men to women drops to one in five and Iemitsu is finally inaugurated as the Shogun, with the feudal lords openly women, but using male names (just as the male concubines in the Ōoku have female names): everyone is assured this is all temporary, until male numbers increase enough for them to reclaim their hereditary titles. But the male/female ratio eventually stabilizes at only one in four and no objection is raised at the prospect of Iemitsu's eldest daughter becoming the next Shogun. Some of the Ōoku's men are released to work in "a government licensed pleasure district", whose charges are lower than the brothels and so are affordable to poorer women, enabling them to have children.

The narrator makes clear that "it wasn't that the status of men and women was reversed: precisely speaking, men ceased to do anything but father children" – and in poorer communities, when they became too old for this, they would sometimes be left to die in the woods. The female Shogun not only have the same names as their historical, male equivalents but also similar characters – for example, both Lord Yoshimune's were important reformers. Though women are in power (see Women in SF) and there are victories, such as the acceptance of female Shoguns, the ingrained patriarchal cultural and political structures remain, so the nature of Japanese society does not radically change: this momentum of tradition is shown in the similarity of the story's events to the actual history of the Tokugawa shogunate, in which the series is set (see History in SF).

This is an impressive Anime: its animation is unremarkable, but the Japanese voice cast is good and the story and themes are very strong, retaining the virtues of its important Feminist source manga, which won the 2009 James Tiptree Jr Award. It had previously been adapted into two live-action films – Ōoku (2010 vt Ōoku, Danjo Gyakuten and The Lady Shogun and Her Men) and Ōoku: Emonnosuke Tsunayoshi Hen (2012) – and at least one live-action tv series Ōoku: Arikoto Iemitsu Hen (2012). [SP]


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