Saturday, January 15, 2011
When we began Fumi Yoshinago's ten-part series-in-progress, the world of the shogun's court was one of rigid, elaborate decadence. The male population of early modern Japan had been reduced to a fifth of the size of the female population by a terrible plague, and the female shogun broadcast her power in this context by gathering the most beautiful men in the nation into a harem (the Ooku, or Inner Chambers), thereby concentrating a tremendous amount of reproductive power on a single woman's body. Not to mention creating a context of absurd uselessness for the men of the Ooku, who (denied a public life) focus instead on endless politicking and lavish attention to aesthetic questions of dress and ceremony.
The shogun of this era was a fascinating figure, all-powerful and yet chained to tradition, and she ends the first volume with a developing curiosity about the origins of the rules and structures that govern her court. She delves into the archives of the Ooku, and would that she would delve out of them from time to time: two volumes later we are still immersed in the story-within-a-story, and I'd appreciate a respite from the considerably more petulant first female shogun at the centre of these installments.
But this petulant predecessor is developing, albeit for all the most painful reasons. She is the illegitimate daughter of the politically savvy and legendarily gay last male shogun, Iemitsu. When Iemitsu dies of the red face pox, his Machiavellian nurse arranges for his daughter to masquerade as the late shogun until such a time as she can bear a male heir, and uses Iemitsu's well-known appreciation for beautiful men as an excuse to set up the Ooku. The Ooku develops as a dynastic tool and a means of protecting the shogun's gender secret: no one who sees the shogun will ever have contact with the outside world again.
In volume 2, through some gender shenanigans, the faux "Iemetsu" fell in love with a dignified abbot named Arikoto. In volume 3, they must confront the fact that love and fertility (thousands of romance plots aside) don't always go hand in hand. When the Machiavellian nurse (the Livia of the Ooku) tells Arikoto that he must remove himself by choice from the shogun's bedchamber to make room for someone more reproductively potent, he loses his composure for the first time I can remember: "I plead not only for myself," he cries, "More than anything, this is too cruel a way to treat her highness! Indeed, 'tis as though she were livestock!! What is to be gained in carrying on this bloodline, if it is to be achieved at so great a cost?! What doth the house of Tokugawa mean to you that you must go to such lengths to perpetuate it?!". The old woman takes a long look at him, and then she says, "It means a country at peace, without war."
Again Arikoto has to reconcile his ethics (which as as strong as any character's I have encountered recently) with the imperatives of passion. He goes to "Iemitsu" to explain his choice ("What canst thou know of me?!" she explodes while he looks at her with desperate eyes, "Thou art not compelled to do a thing. 'Tis only I who must be handled by another man!! 'Tis only my person that must always be sullied, and debased, and made to bleed...!!") and the scenes that follow, in which duty requires sacrifice after sacrifice from the pair, are some of the more excruciatingly effective love scenes I've ever read. Arikoto has always had a substantial capacity for self-abnegation, but the more "Iemitsu" must give up, the stronger and more subtle she becomes, until finally at the end of this volume she is ready to move Japan into a brand new era.
The tumultuous sadness with which I left this volume is largely a product of its immensely thoughtful panel arrangement, which (especially in the novels' many love scenes) gives the reader an almost cubist impression of the characters' fragmented emotions. Small panels detail each expression on the path of a character's developing feelings - each is lovely, and we get a half dozen at a time, composing an emotional arc that lasted only a few seconds. Often I wasn't sure which order I should read these flurry of panels in, a confusion which only underscored the confusion of the character at that moment - my gaze darted rapidly back and forth as I tried to take in all the possible narrative paths at once. Sometimes these moments of cubist fragmentation end with a large panel showing the lovers tangled in impossible, tormented knots of arms, legs, spines, gasping with the need not to be separated, not to be separable. Lovely and terrible, all at once.
Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Vol. 3
(Japan, 2007 - English translation 2010)
Finished Jan 14.
(Postscript - and a slightly spoilery one at that:
Another favorite scene from this volume is the one in which "Iemitsu" is forced to take another lover, one who looks much like Arikoto. The surrogate, a slightly bumbling ladies' man, tries to make it easier for the young shogun with soothing words and the promise that he will take care of everything. She kicks him in the face. "Get not above thyself," she says, pulling the sash from her kimono in a violent gesture, "Thou dost not bed me. 'Tis I that do bed thee." The scene ends with her defiant profile rising above her naked shoulders. Her mouth turns down at the edges, and there are new, terrified lines around her eyes.)