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Ooku: The Inner chambers
"Ooku" is undoubtly a strange idea for a manga. Taking place in Edo period Japan where a mysterious illness known as the "redface pox" has killed about 3/4 of all the men but had no effect on women, gender relations have radically flipped. Women now make up the entire workforce and fill almost every role in public life and government, up to and including the position of the Shogun itself. Men, on the other hand, are considered too precious to do pretty much anything but provide "seed" to get women pregnant. Poorer families can rent out their sons to those women unable to acquire a husband, and many do.
The hero of most of our story, Mizuno Yunoshin, is from a honorable samurai family that isn't quite poor enough to have to resort to this. However, to ensure that his family can more easily support itself, he decides to join the Ooku, otherwise known as the "Inner Court," a personal harem of beautiful young men from honorable families ready for the uses of the Shogun herself. What he discovers is that the Ooku is unlike anything he could possibly imagine.
The composition of the Ooku (based on an actual institution of Edo period Japan) is perhaps the most fascinating part of the story. Mizuno discovers a strict hierarchy, from the sempsters and cleaners at the bottom to the Senior Chamberlin, Sir Fujinami, who controls everything that goes on in the Ooku. Competition is severe and those men in higher ranks are mercilessly cruel to their inferiors. It is also a place of much decadence, with men sitting around doing nothing and trying to appear as appealing as they can. It's a fascinating place to experience.
Mizuno is an able protagonist. He's brash and a bit uncouth (at least in comparison to some of the other members of the Ooku), but also strong and skilled, being an expert with the wooden sword. These qualities attract the attention of the other major character, the new Shogun Yoshimune, a no-nonsense leader whose main obession is with cutting down waste (which doesn't endear her to Sir Fujinami, to say the least). I quite liked Yoshimune, because she was so unconcerned with protocol or with playing pointless games. After dealing with all of the stuffed dandies that occupy the Ooku, it's a breath of fresh air.
I liked also the skill of the translator, Akemi Wegmuller. She decided to transform the archaic Japanese into very formal English. It doesn't impede reading, but definitely conveys that this is a very different world than the contemporary United States where I am reading it. I really appreciate little touches like that. they work so well.
Readers seeing "harem full of men" and expecting this to be a yaoi will be seriously disappointed. Homosexuality is mentioned frequently in "Ooku" (it's a way of both showing dominance and a way of social climbing), but we don't get all that much of actual "on screen" male on male sex (although there's more of it than male on female sex, I will admit). However, many of the men, including our hero Mizuno, are incredibly bishi, so there is that.
About 80% or so focuses on Mizuno or alternates between him and Yoshimune, but there is a brief section at the beginning that (sort of) gives an explanation for the redface pox and a slightly longer bit at the end dealing with Yoshimune's rule after Mizuno has left the Ooku. Of the two, the beginning works less (giving what seems to be a supernatural explanation for the pox, when no other supernatural occurences are mentioned anywhere else in the narrative), and while the bits at the end work well (revealing some interesting tidbits about what the world outside Japan knows about the change of gender roles), I think they would have worked better in a second follow up volume (the way the ending is written of this volume clearly anticipates this).
If I do encounter a second volume, I would most definitely snatch it up. The author and illustrator, Fumi Yoshinaga, is extremely talented, creating a beautiful and strange world that I want to see ever so much more of. Read this if you want to see how the world might work if gender roles were totally changed. It's a fascinating manga.