Fumi Yoshinaga–Ōoku: The Inner Chamber, Vol. 1

The What: In an alternate 18th-century Japan, the Redface Plague sweeps through the populace and kills 75% of the male population. Women step into previously male roles, including that of the Shogun. The Shogun keeps an inner sanctum of men called the Ōoku for her, uh, recreational purposes. It is there that our plucky protagonist, Yunoshin Mizuno, finds himself when his samurai family falls on rough times. Mizuno trades in his freedom for money for his family by joining the Ōoku, but what price will he pay for his sacrifice…?

The Good: Oh, the artwork! The artwork! Crisp, clean lines bring the world of the Ōoku to life. Yoshinaga has a well-trained eye; there is enough detail to make a believable and engaging world, but not so much as to bog down the flow between panels. Beautiful. Also, her drawings of facial expressions are incredible. There is such subtlety in them. Outside of the artwork, there are substantive themes for the thinking reader to ponder. Questions about the nature of political power and the origin of gender differences abound. Also, with its many relationships between those of unequal social status and/or age, this title would be an excellent springboard for discussions of what constitutes consent.

The Meh: Rarely have I taken such pleasure in writing a “Meh” section of a review. Here goes: the cast of tertiary characters is poorly differentiated, the plot is ludicrous, the narrative takes a paperclip bend around the middle of the book and never recovers its momentum… and none of these problems hurt my enjoyment of the book. Yoshinaga has a sharp instinct for “feel,” for the big picture of her work, and she wisely chose to put her time and energy into the facets of the book that made it into the “The Good” section. The “meh” aspects aren’t vital to the book’s overall impact, so no harm, no foul.

Hand It To: Older teens (the sex isn’t particularly steamy, and fades to black without showing anyone’s, um, interesting bits, but the themes are mature), Japanophiles, and older reluctant readers.