Friday, June 29, 2012

Manga Review: Ooku: The Inner Chambers (volumes 1-4)

I believe I reviewed the first volume of this quite a while ago, I know I've at least read it before (which reminds me, I need to tell the librarians that this series should be in the nonfiction/adult comic section, not next to all the kiddie comics) and while it didn't grab me enough to go out and buy the other volumes un-read it did grab me enough to track down the other volumes my library system had. According to the Japanese Wikipedia there are seven (out of a projected ten) volumes out in Japan right now (and I'm guessing another one should come out soon) and according to The Right Stuf volume 7 will be out in the US in about two weeks. So four volumes covers a good chunk of the series so far and I think it gave me a pretty good feeling for it.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga
Summary: In an alternate Japan, a plauge has struck that spans decades and by it's end the male population of Japan is reduced down to just one-fourth of the female population. Desperate times call for desperate measures with women assuming almost all the major roles of society, from the lowly peasant farmer all the way up to shogun and the shogun's Inner Chambers are now staffed with dozens of young men instead of women. But this was hardly a smooth transition nor a speedy one and everything still feels rather delicate, as if a single action could shatter everything that has been rebuilt. 

The Good: While it can be hard to tell some of the characters apart with such a large cast, by and large all of the major characters are each era are quite well fleshed out and grow as well. The characters are the main draw of the series but I also enjoyed the well-thought out politics and the tiny bit of musing on gender roles the series provided me with (namely that gender roles are more nurture than nature but even with the reversal of men and women that people, usually the guys, will still act in certain ways). Overall it was an interesting, satisfying read, although it did have one huge problem with it.

The Bad: The story starts in one time period (which we are led to believe is present time) and then spends three volumes in a flashback chronicling how Japan went from a male dominated society to a female led one and, while interesting, I would like to get back to the “present” time soon. There is still more to go, I would think at least a volume (going by how enormus the character list on the Japanese wiki is, and while I can see why the story was framed as it was (I can’t deny that it’s much more interesting this way), multi-volume flashbacks just get a bit tedious after a while and I wish that they had either been shorter or somehow connected back to/interspersed with scenes from the present day. Also, as I mentioned just above, since there are so many characters to keep track of I would suggest reading these volumes in quick succession of each other, I think it would be much harder to follow based on it's one-volume-a-year publishing schedule. And finally, a problem that seems to be unique to the US translation, the idea of using psuedo-Shakespeare speak to mimic the old-fashioned Japanese which does not work in the slightest. There were literally pages where I could not understand what the characters were talking about and had to skim until I could again. This isn't a minor problem either, when I first heard about this I thought fans were over-reacting but no, the books are nigh un-readable at parts and that makes it very hard to recommend them.

The Art: Yoshinaga seems to have gotten a bit better at drawing character’s faces since Antique Bakery (ie, she can draw more, distinct faces than she could before, see only six faces syndrome) and while I did have to rely on hair style at times, the cast is so large it’s unsurprising that there is some overlap still, it never looked like she was recycling designs. She also uses chibi faces less, which is more to my tastes, and everything was nicely detailed. I believe these, SigIkki, volumes are a little larger than normal and I also really liked their size and presentation.

So, while I would read more of the series, and there's already only a small pool of people I'd recommend it to, that translation job really prevents me from wanting to re-read the show and is a pretty huge caveat as well. I would just love to know if that was an idea on the part of the American translation staff or if this was some weird request the Japanese publishers made. 

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