I used to be a big comics reader in the 1980s. But in 1987 I headed off to college in Moscow Idaho, which did not have a comics shop. Occasionally I would pick something up when I was visiting Seattle, but that remoteness changed my relationship with graphic forms. I focused much more on reading because Moscow had a great local bookstore called Bookpeople, owned and run by a really cranky guy named Bob who knew his books. Consequently I missed the manga boom in the United States.
Last year the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Foundation awarded it’s Tiptree Award to a manga work that had been translated to English and published by VIZ Media. I love the Tiptree Award because the books always make me think, and additionally are great stories. I thought about picking up a copy while I was at WisCon last year, but held off because I’d already got my quota of books and it being manga scared me off. While perusing the dealers’ room at FoGCon this month, I decided that was dumb, and bought the first volume. (The Tiptree Foundation recognized both volumes 1 and 2 as winners of the award.)
Ōoku is alternate history, set in a feudal Japan decades after a plague has permanently reduced the male population of Japan to about ¼ that of the female population. Consequently, most roles that we traditionally think of as being taken by men were taken by women. Samurai are women. The shogun is a woman. Farmers and craftsmen are women.
Men are prized in a possession like fashion and are deprived of much of their agency. Their primary choices in life are limited to choosing which women they will allow themselves to be studded. But often times, they don’t even get that choice. They are a valuable commodity that their mothers sell or marry off to childless women who can provide the most benefit for the selling family.
Mizuno will bed almost any woman who presents her need to him, without requiring payment. His mother has not forced him in that matter either. However, when she decides to marry him off it means separation from his true love O-Nobu. Rather than accept this, he joins the Ōoku, essentially the harem of the Japanese shogun. Numbering around 800, though they are essentially the playthings of the ruler, there is little chance that any one will end up the shogun’s concubine. Mizuno is still separated from O-Nobu, but it’s better than being married to someone else.
One of the subtleties of Ōoku is that Fumi Yoshinaga did not just reverse the gender roles. The shogun still wears male garb for ceremonial occasions, and takes on some male naming conventions. And while the men of the Ōoku are bedthings, they also have their own power structure that isn’t imposed from outside. Mizuno pursues some traditionally masculine activities, though it’s considered unusual.
I thought the artwork was mediocre though. I hate to use such a derogatory sounding term, but what comes to mind is
chicken scratchings. The rendering seemed quickly done, inconsistent, and done with multiple rough thin lines. I often could not tell which character was which because they had few distinguishing characteristics not obscured by the light style.
My own personal preference is still going to be to look for stories like this that are told in prose, but it’s obvious that Ms. Yoshinaga has a well-crafted story in Ōoku.