Manga Reviews: Ooku: The Inner Chambers and A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

This year has been a rough year, I’m not gonna lie. So, of course, I resort to reading things that absorb my attention and give me catharsis in the midst of the icks. And, oh, hi there–I’m so excited to be able to have time to blog with Luna Station again, whee!

I decided this summer that I was really going to dive into graphic fiction (I have the Comixology equivalent of a giant Steam backlog, ha) and wow, I launched myself into the deep end. I lost track of how much I read, to be honest…I would close my eyes and see line art etched in my mind’s vision. I was so fascinated by what made art a success in work I was reading that I even participated in Inktober as a hobbyist doodler just to immerse myself further in imagery when words were just too heavy. On this journey, I discovered quite a few awesome women content creators for both western and non-western comics, manga, and graphic narratives. In my upcoming posts I plan to talk about some of the highlights I’ve encountered on this journey. I’ll note I read all work in English as I do not speak Japanese and while I have a working understanding of a few manga genres, I do not consider myself an expert. I will also be using the American convention of first name/last name in providing author names since that is how the English language versions market the texts. I will say that even though I am no expert, I am developing quite specific tastes and overall, ‘slice of life’ stories will top my lists in pretty much any narrative genre–this is doubly so for manga.

For today’s post, I’ll start with Ooku: The Inner Chambers, an AU Edo period epic by Fumi Yoshinaga. I have only read the first four volumes of the series but I have to say, I hold out hope it will retain my interest.

In Yoshinaga’s Edo Japan, a mysterious illness that affects only men has altered the country’s landscape in every conceivable way, resulting in dramatic changes in even the power structure. We are introduced to a female shogun who possesses what no one woman in the country should: a full contingent of young, robust men entirely at her disposal. I don’t want to give too much away, but how she chooses to handle her situation and power are fascinating and go a long way in making me want to read the next books in the series (I’m starting on the second now) to see how else she changes her world.

With the idea that men are a rare commodity and women must scramble to find viable means of populating their country comes the possibility of some, IMHO, sticky and problematic gender dynamics. I have seen other reviewers note this series almost begs comparison with Y: The Last Man. I won’t go there since I wasn’t able to get very far into Y…I was too put off by the aesthetic and dynamic being set up. In Ooku, I feel that the difficulty of the situation is given enough gravity and dignity to handle the unpleasant aspects of the character dynamics. While there are plenty of instances of people being just awful (because that is sometimes what humans do), the art style, the narrative lens, and the tone of the first volume left me wanting to know more about the political and court intrigue being introduced. The focus on earnest and clever characters dodges some of the issues I thought I might encounter in such a narrative. I do wish, that said, that I had encountered more women characters with strong voice and agency in this first volume. For a world where men are scarce, the narrative is strongly male-centric and while that is not a problem in itself, I cannot help but wonder what the world looks like for the many women who must adapt to taking over formerly male-dominated leadership roles in efforts to preserve their society.

Where Ooku really shines is in its visual impact. For me, the art sells the world, the characters, and the story itself. Facial expressions, palace furnishings and backgrounds, patterns on cloth, shadows from lamplight–they all feel so real and evoke a lush and fully-actualized world that I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon. Add to that the English translation writing style, and the entire experience is–how do I put this?–unique, and almost cinematic in scope. I will note, the style chosen for the English translation is something that takes getting used to, and which I understand was a roadblock for some readers. The story unfolds in a formal, maybe faux Elizabethan style which I understand was a way of echoing the archaic Japanese language used but I’m not sure the authenticity carries over. I was able to overlook it, though, and the wonderfully-developed characters and fascinating world carried me through the problems I had with the story as a whole. All in all, I’m excited to see where this series goes!

Next up is a compendium of classics, Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. Hagio has been writing shoujo manga since 1969 and one of the best aspects of this collection is the inclusion of interviews, historical observations, and biographical information that frame these remarkable stories.

I came away utterly haunted. I knew I was reading some of the classics penned by one of the foundational pillars of the shoujo genre. I knew that Hagio was a woman writing girls’ manga in a time when the market was dominated by male writers. I had an inkling that Hagio’s interest spanned many genres, too–sci-fi, fantasy, romances, fairy-tales…what I did NOT expect was how these stories unwound darkly and richly, with no fear of ambiguity and reader discomfort. So many of the pieces center on problematic and fierce familial relationships, love that doesn’t translate into any easy summation or simple trope, and characters who even when surrounded by others retain an isolation that I found intriguing. The art is, yes, a product of its time, but Hagio has a loud and clear artistic ‘voice’ pitting wide-eyed youth against the shadows in the world at large and it’s interesting to see this voice refine and solidify as her career progresses. Her lush worlds and yearning characters wind their ways through contemporary, sci-fi, or fairy-tale worlds, and the art for any of these diverse settings just somehow works, always in Hagio’s voice and tone despite disparate settings.

Every world in this collection is populated by tears, joy cut short by the realization of life’s difficulties, complex and at times alienating mothers, love-hate filled sisters and friends, love stories tangling through time and space only to reveal new ways a heart can be broken and reborn…these stories are cathartic, gripping, and unforgettable. Warning: if you want to read “The Willow Tree”, be prepared to cry. To UGLY cry. The last piece in this remarkable anthology, “The Willow Tree” encapsulates everything that will linger with me after reading these stories: a dreaminess that is still somehow moored in “the real world,” with unexpected narrative twists, gentle melancholy that permeates each panel, and art that requires few or no words to create a lasting narrative impact. These stories show that manga written with young girl readers in mind does not equate shallow or fluffy, by any means. I definitely recommend this to any shoujo fans who are interested in encountering classic examples of the genre and perhaps coming away with new perspective on how shoujo manga has evolved through the years.

I think I’ve gone on long enough–thank you for reading! If you have any recommendations for manga by female authors that you’ve loved, I would always love to see them in the comments and I’m sure other readers would as well. My read and to-be-read lists may be both growing but as far as I’m concerned, there’s always room for more! <3