Sexual Ethics - Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Volumes 1 and 2

(Jet lag is always worst for me on my second day in a new time zone - when there isn't any travel exhaustion to lure me into sleep - and it turns out that the shift seven time zones to the east is a particular variety of awful.  Last night I didn't get to sleep until almost 7 a.m. (it wasn't just that I saw the dawn, but that I heard all my neighbors get up and go to work before falling asleep), and I slept until 3 p.m.  Brutal. Silver lining: I am getting a lot of reading done, albeit in a dazed, inattentive sort of way.  Last night I swept through the rest of Grave Goods, the third installment of Ariana Franklin's "Mistress of the Art of Death" series.  Gripping. Anxiety-inducing.  And the anxieties have more to do with choices that the heroine, Adelia, makes to pursue happiness as they do with the corpses and psychopaths that litter her path.

Having finished that, I organized all the books on my bedside table and all the books I had brought home from my travels into a strict reading rotation: one slow read / one fast read, cycling through fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and mystery, romance and comics, and interlarding this rotation with Canadian fiction at regular intervals.

Still not tired.

So I picked up the second volume in Fumi Yoshinaga's manga cycle, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, which is the perfect combination of captivating intrigue and thoughtfully paced artwork to soothe the insomniac fever.)

The facts as I know them are these: when the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty came to power in Japan in the early 17th century, he began putting into place a series of isolationist policies.  His grandfather had emerged victorious from a long period of civil turmoil, and had instituted the shogunate, a centralizing authority based on military power that (putatively) administered the workings of all Japan at the request of the imperial family.  The centre of power shifted from Kyoto (the site of the royal court) to Edo, and the political emphasis leaned to stability and unity - of religion, of mercantile interests, and of civic and military power.   European traders and missionaries were increasingly distrusted for their destabilizing influence, and in the 1630s Iemetsu enacted a series of reforms that insulated his country almost totally from their influence.  Traders are restricted to a single island, and to dealings with a short list of approved families.  Citizens must affirm their loyalty to established Japanese faiths.  No one may enter or leave Japan without permission, and those who leave must expect never to come back.

What Fumi Yoshinaga attempts in her manga is not so much a full-fledged alternate history (how would things have gone differently if "X" had or hadn't happened?) as an alternate explanation of the history (let's imagine why this historical turn occurred).  The question of why Japan had to be so firmly closed off - one might even say quarantined - from outside influences and inquiries lurks in the background of this series.

The first volume, which I read in July while in Washington, DC and (alas) left there temporarily in the interest of lightening my luggage, lays out the core of this alternate causality, and it is a bit of a comics classic: an unknown source brings a strange plague to the island of Japan - the red pox - and it spreads quickly among the men, killing mostly the young swiftly and more than decimating the male population.  Those of you who have read Y: The Last Man (or The Knife of Never Letting Go) may find this a familiar premise - the crucial difference is that this plague doesn't seem to obliterate a whole gender, but rather radically diminishes its numbers.

The importance of this shift in the ratio of men to women soon becomes clear. Some years later we find a nation in which the gender map of social hierarchy has been inverted. Since the men haven't been totally wiped out, what happens is an alteration in the economics of gender.  Women are now the labor force, and both families and governmental structures have become matriarchal.  Men are prized, but not for themselves so much as what they carry in their pants.  They are regarded as creatures too delicate and precarious for harsh treatment, and much is done to preserve their value.  But their value is utterly alienated from any sense of autonomy, any right to choose their actions or how they will contribute to the common wealth of family and nation, any sense that an individual man can pursue his personal happiness.  Matriarchs regularly sell their sons' sexual services - temporarily or permanently - to the highest bidder to support the family. Marriage (which ties male procreative potential to a single womb) becomes the province of only the wealthiest families, those who can buy their daughters the exclusive rights to a man's bed. Poorer women muster their savings to afford a night at a brothel, and the hope that they might conceive.

Early in the first volume, the hero (Mizuno, a breathtakingly beautiful youth) talks about his charms with a childhood friend from a rich merchant family.  We all know of your skills with women, she tells him, but I also know that you always choose to sleep with women who are getting older and can't afford the brothels.  This type of heroism - sexuality as generosity of spirit - is unusual in romance or any other genre of literature I have read, and it is one that we see over and over again in the first two volumes of Ooku.  In a readerly world in which sexual restraint and fidelity are exalted (while sexual profligacy is often secreted envied and admired) this is a new model of ethical sexuality: a restraint based on choosing, not a single partner, but a partner who needs you most.  And we frequently stumble upon situations in which a major character is forced into sexual encounters or sexual identities against his or her will (the setting is a harem, after all), and must choose a way of coming to terms with the situation which preserves personal ethics, and with them, a sense of self.

It soon emerges that Mizuno's childhood friend is madly in love with him, but her wealthy family feels she could make a more advantageous match, so she is left to watch him bestow his generosity on poorer, more desperate women.  Despite a rakish bravado, Mizuno loves her as well, but since he cannot have her, he chooses to join the Ooku, the inner chambers of the Shogun's palace where the leader's sexual attendants are cloistered.  This is a bit of status maneuvering for him and his family: he is outflanking his mother's attempts to force him into profitability for the family by asserting his autonomous ambition.  He will choose, instead of having his fate thrust upon him (as Malvolio might have put it), to become a member of the elite group of those who give their sexual bodies to the state itself.  It conveys great honour on the family, while allowing him to pick his poison.

The shogun, like almost everyone else in a position of power at this point, is female, and thus the Ooku is filled with men.  Catty, backstabbing, politicking men.  The fact that the current shogun is just a child doesn't dull this poisonous atmosphere.  In fact, because the shogun never calls upon their services, and no other woman is permitted into the Ooku, it just means that they are more likely to turn to rape as an instrument of domination. (Or so they claim - I am not sure that certain members of the Inner Chambers wouldn't have turned to this tactic without any excuse at all, simply out of unbridled cruelty.)  I became uncomfortable at a certain point in the first volume, thinking that homosexuality would be portrayed as almost synonymous with violence and degradation, but, as with the treatment of gender differences, Yoshinaga's approach to the issue is more indirect and complex than I anticipated.  Of course, she asserts, an insular society of men (one as cut off from the rest of Japan as the female-dominated insula of Japan is from the rest of the world) yields violence and specifically the violence of sexual frustration, but it also produces bonds of profound affection and longing.  And sexual generosity operates within these bonds as well.   Still, I hope to see relationships between men in future volumes that are not based in either cruelty or a sort of affectionate pity.

After the first volume, I had a few qualms. First among them (and shared by almost all of the English readers whose comments and reviews I have read) is a discomfort with the diction of the translation.  The Japanese is rendered in a sort of Renaissance Faire English which is almost unbearably clumsy.  Luckily this fades into a gentler archaism in the second volume. Secondly, the first volume sets up a compelling story - about the brash Mizuno and the impossibility of his childhood love - and then resolves it with shocking swiftness by the end of the first volume, abandoning these characters just as we were getting to know them.  Their romance seems short-changed, and I found myself wondering why I had even bothered getting to know Mizuno if he was going to prove so unimportant to the ongoing story of the Inner Chambers.  Perhaps if this had been a one-off middle volume I would have felt less like the victim of a bait-and-switch.

At the end of the first volume, a new and dynamic shogun has come to power, and she is driven by an unprecedented curiosity about why the customs of the shogunate have ossified in the particular way they have.  Why, for instance, does she have to dress in men's clothing when receiving the rare and highly-guarded diplomatic envoys that make their way from other countries?  She seeks out the archives of the shogunate, and begins to read about the origins of the Red Pox-scarred society.

The second volume takes up this tale-within-a-tale from years before, choosing as its peep-hole into history the experience of a nobleman-turned-Buddhist-abbot in the age of Iemetsu, the first shogun to see the land ravaged by the Red Pox.  Prior Arikoto is a man of striking beauty but also untouchable holiness, and he has high hopes for the good he can do now that he is finally ascending to a position of some prominence in the clergy.  He goes to present his credentials to the shogun, as is customary, and is shocked when he is ordered to extend his stay.  He will be joining the Ooku, he is told, to be one of Iemetsu's catamites.  His carefully phrased excuses are not accepted, and he is forced to break his vows of celibacy with a courtesan in the most brutal way.  Finally he is taken to the Inner Chambers, where he becomes one of only a handful of men who know that Iemetsu is dead, and the shogunate is being held by his illegitimate daughter until such a time as she can finally produce a male heir.

The characterization is deeper here, although it covers some of the same ethical ground (how to maintain an integrity of self when one's right to sexual autonomy is infringed or even removed), and these story arcs (thank goodness) look like they will last over at least one more book.  But I was still perturbed by one scene, at the end of the novel (skip to the next section if you are feeling spoiler-shy today), when Arikoto finally submits to the shogun and the manner in which he does it is clearly intended to be transgressive.  To punish the arrogance of the inner circle of men who know who she actually is and fail to respect her as a shogun because of her gender, the rather petulant shogun (she has no name, since she is merely a vessel for the next male leader) demands that they all attend her wearing women's garments. She is dressed, of course, in her customary boy's clothes, lest anyone catch a glimpse of her and know that the nation is lacking masculine leadership.  She humiliates the men who have presumed a gendered superiority to her, asserting through the crudest symbolism that, whatever they may say, it is she who holds all the power.

But then Arikoto walks in wearing his female garments and he looks ... impeccable. As stunning a courtesan as she is a boy.  And he proceeds to give her a seductive speech in which he lays out his new calling.  He had believed that he was fated to bring solace to many through religion; now he sees that he was put on this earth for a much more focused purpose.
"Why did I not see what was so plain?  I can provide succor to one person in this world, and to one person alone.  And that person, the one I was born into this world to help, was right in front of me all this time."
The volume winds to its close with her weeping uncontrollably in his arms, as he murmurs, "How lovely she is, my lord and master." On the final page, a real stunner, they cling to each other, and the text reads, "It was a love that began like two cold, hurt, bedraggled chicks huddling together for warmth."

You will get no complaints to me about that last page - it is flawless in tone and execution.  But I worry that the scene that precedes it is too convinced of its own transgressions, when in fact it just affirms very established gendered codes.  The shogun, dressed and addressed as a man and a lord, punishes her upstart underlings with a forced feminization.  The only one who escapes humiliation is Arikoto, and he successfully resists it by being sincerely feminine - lovelier than anyone else in the room in a costume and elaborate make-up that do not read as falsehood.  And why can he do that? Because he has come to the room with the intention of submitting, of dedicating his life to a single being (not himself, by the by) and to the act of caretaking. Hmm.  The troubling of this association between femininity and caring submission comes in the final panels, when it is the dominant party (the shogun herself) who breaks down in tears and requires the strength that underlies that seeming passivity.  And why does she break down?  Because she is an overwhelmed, underloved teenaged girl, for all the power she wields.  Complex, but not revolutionary.

Righto.  Return to me now, ye spoiler-shy.

Awards have showered down on this series all over the world, praising it for the quality of its aesthetics and its nuanced treatment of gender and sexuality.  The publishers note how unusual a phenomenon it is - it fits into none of the gendered genres of manga, refuses a rushed reading, and appeals equally to Western comics readers and manga aficionados.

I  myself am not an experienced reader of manga, apart from a few Osamu Tezuka classics and some Western imitators along the lines of Scott Pilgrim. In fact, I found myself attending to the visual composition of Ooku much more appreciatively than I normally do (to my shame) with Western comics, because I had to be constantly vigilant about the way I was reading to keep myself from falling back into old habits like starting at the left-hand side of the page or turning the pages right to left.  And it was worth it: as a visual phenomenon, this is an elegant work.  The edition is poetically beautiful, with richly textured black endpapers and a semi-transparent title page.  It is a finely paced work, visually, managing the reader's attention by enforcing reflective pauses as characters come to slow realizations over several panels. And it punctuates the romances in both volumes with whole-page, climactic moments of iconic sweep - the characters caught up in a whirl of robes and emotions - that rival the highlights of classic Hollywood love.

I have the next volume on my bedside table, and the fourth one on order. The fifth is due to come out in December.  The series, which I understand will be ten volumes long, is still unfinished even in Japanese.  Although I quibble with aspects of it above, I can't help but give it this compliment: it is a rich and thoughtful world, so much so that I argued ethics with myself continually as I read.  Seek it out, and let me know what you think.  It is certainly worth it.

Note that it is almost 3:30 a.m. as I post this. Ah jet lag - when will you release me from your sleepless clutches?

2 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    here via It's totally fascinating to read an eloquent person's first in-depth exploration of manga. You picked a good one and made me glad I found this medium myself ^^.

  2. Thanks, Estara! Do you have any other manga you would recommend to me? I am eager to pick up more, but the world of manga is so vast, and I would prefer (obviously) to start by limiting my reading to the highlights of the field....

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