The new anime series on Netflix, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, beautifully brings to the screen Fumi Yoshinaga’s renowned manga series with great detail and amazing visuals. Based on one section of Yoshinaga’s work, the series tells the tale of a monk named Arikoto as he is forced to be a part of Shogun Iemitsu’s private harem, called the Ooku. As the series covers almost the entire rule of the shogun, the narrative is mostly fragmented. Overall, Ooku: The Inner Chambers makes for a great watch and leaves a sense of satisfaction behind.
Plot Summary: What Is The Series About?
Ooku: The Inner Chambers begins with a short scene that is not given any specific time period association, and a young boy named Sadakichi is seen running towards the forest beside his village. Sadakichi finds a bunch of wild mushrooms, which are the first batch to have grown that year, and immediately plucks them. It is believed that the first batch of mushrooms can prolong one’s life for many years, and young Sadakichi wants to give them to his mother. But before he can safely return home, a gigantic bear attacks the small boy and gravely injures him. Although his ailing body is brought back to the village, Sadakichi cannot be saved. Instead, a horrible bout of sickness spreads among the male members of the village after Sadakichi’s death, with red rashes covering their entire bodies and the men ultimately dying within days. While this disease, in all probability, originated from the wild bear that seemed sick, the villagers believe it to be a curse from the angry forest gods and call it “red-face smallpox.” Over the following eighty years, this disease wipes out a considerable amount of the male population, bringing it down to one-fourth of the female population, and society and gender roles change over time to adapt to the new situation.
Presumably some decades later, in 1716, a young woman named Ietsugu, served as the seventh shogun, or ruler, of the lands. Young men now have become prized possessions, who are paid money for their bodies, and Yunoshin spends his time sleeping with women who pay him. Despite having a genuine admirer in his childhood friend O-Nobu, Yunoshin decides to join the Ooku at the Edo Castle and serve as a concubine to the shogun. Starting life at the castle as a page boy, he is referred to by his family name, Mizuno, from now on, and the man only dreams of climbing up the social ladder. During this time, the current shogun passes away at a very young age, and she is replaced by the eighth shogun, Yoshimune. As preparations to search for a concubine for Yoshimune begin, Yunoshin is spotted by the Senior Chamberlain, Fujinami. The high-ranking official soon promotes Yunoshin and ultimately arranges for him to be selected as the shogun’s concubine.
How Was Yoshimune Different From The Earlier Shoguns?
Being selected to bed the new shogun is a great honor among the servers of the Ooku, and Yunoshin is immensely excited by this promotion. However, a rumor that he hears around quickly changes his reaction. Within some time, his fears came true as the elder officials confirmed the rumor he had been hearing. It is part of the Ooku rule that the first concubine who is selected to spend the night with a new shogun is always killed and beheaded after the first night. While it initially seemed like Fujinami had betrayed the trust of his older students to favor the new student Yunoshin, it now becomes very clear that the man had intentionally done so, knowing that Yunoshin would get killed. However, this old tradition is questioned and dismissed by Shogun Yoshimune when she decides to change the rules, at least secretly.
While spending the first night with the man, Yoshimune learns how Yunoshin is scared for his life and also about how the man loves O-Nobu back in his hometown. Like many others, Yonushin was part of the Ooku only because of the money that was regularly sent to his family, but now he did not want to die. Believing that he will not get a second chance, Yunoshin makes love to Yoshimune, referring to her as O-Nobu, and this convinces the shogun about the true nature of the man. When the day of his execution arrives, Yoshimune fakes Yunoshin’s death and instead lets him leave the Edo Castle under a different identity. Yunoshin happily returns to his hometown, confesses his love to O-Nobu, and settles with her for the rest of his life.
Like in this instance, Yoshimune challenges a number of the usual norms and conventions to come off as a really strong and independent leader. She rejects the usual procedures for getting a concubine and instead directly approaches anyone she likes from among the Ooku, showing complete disregard for the conventional hierarchies put in place. The shogun also resisted the pompous and extravagant life that was expected of her and instead focused directly on ruling her kingdom. With an avid interest in the history of the shogunate and how the rules and conventions came into existence, Yoshimune approaches the chief scribe. It is the scribe who then shows her his extensive record, called “The Chronicles of the Dying Day,” and through this, we are also given knowledge of how things worked in the shogunate under the earlier female shoguns.
How Was Iemitsu Made The New Shogun?
Ooku: The Inner Chambers then travels back in time to the time of the rule of the third shogun, Lady Iemitsu. When the second shogun of the region, a male, dies from the red-faced smallpox epidemic, the council of the shogunate is in dire need of placing someone on the throne of the shogun quickly. Lady Kasuga, initially a wet nurse and then a renowned political advisor, came up with the information that the shogun did indeed have an heir outside of wedlock. This heir happened to be Iemitsu, who had been told that her father lived away in some other province while she was growing up with her loving mother and grandmother. Marching to their house with all the shogunate guards, Kasuga treacherously ordered the mother and grandmother to be killed, while Iemitsu was dragged back to Edo Castle, where she was raised to be the next shogun. Despite initially having no interest in such affairs, Iemitsu was forcefully made to sit on the throne of the ruler, with the idea that she would be replaced by the first male child that she would have.
Iemitsu genuinely hated her time spent at the Edo Castle, and after some time, she attempted to escape the place on her own. Disguised as a page boy, Iemitsu made it out into the grounds of the castle when she was suddenly approached by a vile and lecherous man. Believing her to be a page boy, the man tried to force himself upon her and was even more astounded upon finding that she was actually a woman. Nobody outside the very trusted council was aware of the fact that the current shogun was a young woman, and the man overpowered Iemitsu and violated her. By the time Kasuga and her guards arrived at the scene, Iemitsu had gotten back in control and had killed her rapist, but not before she had been badly hurt. She then got pregnant because of the incident and even gave birth to a girl, but the baby did not live long. The trauma and sheer anger that this incident brought upon Iemitsu remained with her for many years. This was actually why she first began the rule later on: that the first concubine to sleep with a new shogun must be killed and beheaded. This was because the first concubine would give pleasure to the shogun for the first time, but then he would also violate her virginity. Therefore, this man was ruled to be punished and killed, just like the first man who violated Iemitsu’s purity.
Along with this incident, the painful memories of how she was dragged away from home while her closest family members were killed often haunted Iemitsu’s mind. She was truly a ruler who had no desire to rule over any kingdom but had to gradually accept her fate and try to find peace with it. It was not until Iemitsu met a particular monk sometime later that she started to have some desire for life.
Who Was Arikoto? How Did He Get Close To Iemitsu?
A young monk named Arikoto had been passing through the town of Edo along with his two trusted followers when they were stopped by Lady Kasuga. Although initially told to stop for some rest in the town, Arikoto was soon revealed as Kasuga’s plan. The woman had already been in search of a young, attractive man to be Iemitsu’s partner, and the charming Arikoto definitely seemed like a great candidate. Like the fierce manipulator that she was, Kasuga soon got Arikoto’s follower killed and managed to convince him to stay on at Edo Castle. More than anything else, Arikoto was sorry and regretful for the lives lost because of him, and the man still maintained the life of a monk under the teachings of the Buddha. Arikoto was also accompanied by another trusted follower of his, Gyokuei, who continued to live beside his teacher for the rest of their lives.
After some time, Arikoto was told about the duty he was expected to serve for the shogunate—to bed the young shogun Iemitsu. Despite initially resisting and wanting to keep his vow of celibacy intact, Arikoto finally agreed and reached Iemitsu’s chambers. The young woman was already a disturbed soul, though, and on one occasion, she furiously expressed her discontent at being kept at Edo Castle to Arikoto. In response, Arikoto also lost his calm and vented his frustration at being kept hostage at the place as well. But the generally cool-minded and understanding man later felt deeply sorry for having hurt Iemitsu in such a manner, for he had now learned about her sad past.
During an event organized by the shogun to ridicule her concubines, Arikoto approached Iemitsu gently and provided her support and warmth like nobody else had ever given her. This was enough to melt down Iemitsu’s rough exterior, and soon she found herself devotedly in love with Arikoto.
Why Could Arikoto And Iemitsu Not Remain Together?
While this beautiful romance was budding, Lady Kasuga followed the entire matter from a distance, looking out for her plan to come into play. All Kasuga wanted was a male heir to be born to Iemitsu so that he could then be made the shogun, and in order for this to happen, Arikoto and Iemitsu’s romance was an absolute necessity. However, after many nights spent together, Iemitsu did not get pregnant, and Kasuga’s patience wore thin. She got hold of another young man from the streets named Sutezo, who had a great resemblance to Arikoto, and brought him in as the new concubine in the Ooku. When Arikoto learned of this, he was indeed saddened, for he was by now genuinely in love with the shogun, but he did not put up any protest and instead supported Kasuga’s plan.
But Iemitsu was naturally more enraged by this, for she had no intention to be passed around like a mere means to produce babies. She told Arikoto in private that it was she who had a problem becoming pregnant following the difficult childbirth during her first time, and she also admitted that she would always be in love with Arikoto no matter how many men she had to sleep with. However, the first statement later turned out to be a false assurance that Iemitsu must have given to Arikoto, for she soon got pregnant with Sutezo’s baby. After giving birth again to a girl, Iemitsu finally found some purpose and will in life. She admitted that while she had no will to live before, becoming a mother had genuinely given her hope and yearnings for life. But her love for Arikoto had not waned, and she continued to express her emotions for the man.
But on the other side, Kasuga was still demanding a male heir, or at least more babies, from the shogun, and for this, she seemed to keep searching for more men to be the shogun’s concubine. Arikoto was well aware of this, and after being shaken and grieved by his lover’s interactions with Sutezo, he decided to do his best to ensure her safety. Instead of trusting other men to lie with Iemitsu, Arikoto ordered his trusted follower Gyokuei to spend time with his lover and get her pregnant. Despite initially being completely against such an act of betrayal, Gyokuei finally agreed, as it was his teacher’s ultimate order. This also turned out to be successful, as Iemitsu gave birth to another child, this time a daughter.
Ending Explained: Why Did Arikoto Refuse To Be With Iemitsu?
Gradually, over time, the shogun Lady Iemitsu grew more adept at ruling over her shogunate, and she even took decisions and actions on her own. This coincided with the decaying health of Lady Kasuga, the woman who had always served as an advisor to the shogun, no matter how cruel she was. Kasuga had made a vow to never take any medicines when the previous shogun was sick from red-face pox, and she was still devoutly dedicated to this vow. Lady Kasuga eventually died, and Iemitsu was finally free to do what she wanted with her personal life.
She called upon her lover Arikoto once more, but now the man pleaded to be exempted from any such service. Arikoto admits that he genuinely loves Iemitsu, but the fact that he could never be with her, that he could never really satisfy her with the blessing of a child, had taken a heavy toll on the man. The constant reminder of his physical shortcoming, for which his lover would have to sleep with other men, makes Arikoto break down. Stating that he is, after all, a man with all the usual emotions, Arikoto asks to stay away from Iemitsu, and she accepts his wish.
Around this time, the population of men was still steadily declining, and the horrific pox infection had entered the confines of Edo Castle as well. With a severe dearth of men holding official positions, women started serving in these roles while a select few men were fortunate enough to live and serve the shogunate. Among them was Arikoto himself, as he took on the role of the Senior Chamberlain and continued to serve the shogunate even after Iemitsu’s untimely death.
With the sickness still spreading rapidly, the leaders and officials of the shogunate believed that their society would ultimately come to an end soon, as they predicted everyone would eventually die because of smallpox. This was the reason why the record was named “The Chronicle of the Dying Day.” Along with this, the people also believed that the women serving as leaders and workers in every field of society were temporarily filling the seats for male members, and they would give up their positions as soon as male members were available for the respective positions. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that this period would ultimately give rise to a matriarchy that would allow Yoshimune to question the norms and revisit history so many years later.