Fumi Yoshinaga is the topic of the Manga Moveable Feast for August. Ooku is by far her most artistically ambitious work, and while I enjoy and appreciate it very much, it doesn’t conjure up in me the same feelings of fondness as some of her other series like Antique Bakery and Flower of Life. Ooku’s more complex alternate history framework ensures that the series moves around telling different stories, without the leisurely time devoted to the slice of life character-based interaction that Yoshinaga excels at.
The sixth volume of Ooku focuses on the Shogun Tsunayoshi. Her unrealistic edicts of compassion for animals make her unpopular with her subjects, and she struggles with naming a successor. Even though she’s caught up in the machinery of government, it is the small human considerations that drive her decisions. Though her father is senile, she doesn’t want to name an heir who he opposes. After an assassination attempt, Tsunayoshi is strangely unmoved, not wanting to make an effort to live anymore. She finds brief comfort in the arms of Senior Chamberlin Emonnosuke. The tension between the official history of the shogunate and the events that actually happened is always present, as the third person narration hints at rumors the reader is shown to be true.
The second story in this volume introduces Sayko, a man so desperate to get away from his abusive mother that he clutches at the possibility of entering the service of the next Shogun Ienobu. He regards the Valet of the Chamber Akifusa as his savior, falling in love with her. One of the underlying themes of Ooku is the way power twists and changes normal human relationships. Akifusa has Sayko trained in all the gentlemanly arts of the samurai, and then tells him that she’s been grooming him for the role of the Shogun’s concubine. When Sakyo sees Ienobu sitting with her official consort, he thinks “These two people should have grown older in happy harmony, with nothing to come between them. Instead, because as Shogun she must produce an heir, her highness must lie with the likes of me…’Tis a wretched thing…”
The constraints posed on the characters by the structure of society and the office of the Shogun ensure that the best anyone can hope for is a moment of fleeting happiness. I put this volume down wondering if the most recent shogun Yoshimune will be able to enact some reforms after spending so much time learning about her predecessors.
Review copy provided by the publisher