Manga this week: Powerful 'Ooku' flips Edo gender roles

Manga this week

Ooku (The Inner Chambers)

By Fumi Yoshinaga (Hakusensha)

In the early Edo period, the male population decreases to one quarter that of women due to a contagious disease that infects only young men. As a result, women become the main labour force, and the feudal system barely manages to be maintained by acknowledging female feudal lords, with the Tokugawa shogunate being no exception. Beginning with the third shogun Iemitsu, women pursue the post of shogun. The "Ooku," inner palace within Edo Castle, becomes a harem filled with men.

The manga is meant to be a fictional epidemic period drama in a bizarre setting. The Tokugawa shogunate's history is reconstructed in a world where roles of men and women are completely reversed. But no one can deny the possibility that such "truth" could have been covered up at a time when history was recorded only in writing. This manga is written meticulously enough to make its readers believe so.

Because of the considerable gap between the number of men and women, the traditional system of marriage leading to childbirth doesn't work any longer.

Women wishing to have babies pay money to men to get them pregnant. Young men begin to have commercial value, so some of them become male prostitutes and others provide paid services for women wishing to have babies to help their household finances. If male readers find such a world grotesque, they may have been trapped in an idea of gender they thought was "common sense." What is reversed in this world are not the roles of men and women, but the "power structure in gender differences." The author previously wrote many works themed on so-called Boys' Love (BL), or love stories between men. Yet, she has an extremely keen sense for gender-related social criticism.

Putting aside such a complicated argument, imagine a country where the prime ministers and all the Diet members are women while all bureaucrats are men. The delicate soap opera unfolding between the female shogun and her beloved concubine reminds me of the phrase: "Power is the source of eroticism." Yes, this work is extraordinarily entertaining as a girl's manga above all.

The comic's publisher is specifically promoting it as "science fiction" because apparently some readers came to believe Yoshimune actually was a woman. Such a society might not be bad. If history were really like it is in "Ooku," Japanese society might be a little different today.

Ishida is a Yomiuri Shimbun senior specialist whose areas of expertise include manga and anime.