Ooku: The Inner Chambers is a new anime series on Netflix adapted from Fumi Yoshinaga’s celebrated manga by the same name. The series follows an alternate history timeline of feudal Japan, when a strange disease named red-face smallpox wiped out a significant portion of the country’s male population, and females had to step into the roles of administration as well as the shogun, or ruler, to keep society running. Even for someone not much into anime, Ooku: The Inner Chambers was mesmerizing and captivating till the very end. It is easily a must-watch recommendation for anyone with an interest in anime or history, for that matter.
The story in Ooku: The Inner Chambers is designed quite intelligently as well, with the first episode of seventy minutes laying the foundation of the world and the following shorter episodes presenting the actual tale. The series begins with a young boy in a village entering the nearby forest in search of some wild mushrooms. These specific mushrooms, the boy has learned, can prolong one’s life greatly, and so he wants to pick them for his mother. However, the boy is soon attacked by a wild bear, and by the time he is brought back to the village, he is on his deathbed. As the boy passes away, some abnormalities crop up among the villagers, with men falling sick and blisters covering their entire bodies. This new disease, termed red-face smallpox, gradually eradicated a significant number of men in society, making the male population dwindle to one-fourth of that of women.
As would perhaps be natural in such a scenario, the women of the households and society stepped up to the roles once dominated by men, and gradually every facet of life had women in charge. Men were reduced to the role of prized possessions and became highly regarded for their importance in advancing generations. Only women of high class and fortune could now afford to buy respectable men to become biological fathers to their children, and the pleasure districts also now had women paying money to buy time with male servers. With the shogun, or ruler of the land, being a woman as well, the traditional harem, once made up of women, was now filled with men who were appointed to be concubines by the council. This harem is called the Ooku, and the men who are part of it become the focus of this anime series.
The first episode begins in 1716, during the rule of the seventh shogun, with a focus on a man named Yunoshin, who is soon appointed to be part of the Ooku. As Yunoshin gets acquainted with the difficult and strange rules of the place, the young shogun passes away and is replaced by the eighth shogun of the land, Yoshimune. Unlike the women who previously ruled over the land, Yoshimune started questioning the conventions and rules, which she found to be strange and started to take a more advanced role in rulership. It is she who then seeks out the chief scribe, the man responsible for keeping a record of the shogunate for many long years. Yoshimune is confused about why women rulers and leaders continued to use male names, and the chief scribe answers her question through his account, “The Chronicles of the Dying Day.”
It is through this chronicle, from the second episode onwards, that we are taken back to the time of the third shogun, Iemitsu, when women started to take on a more dominant role in society. Ooku: The Inner Chambers then provides a detailed account of the happenings of the time, but with a subjectivity that is quite different from an official chronicle. From shrewd politics to unfulfilled love to the many complexities of human emotions, this retelling has it all. The takeover of power by women from the hands of men was not an easy or simple affair, and despite it ultimately happening because of a very basic shortage of male members, the efforts of the women of the time were not any less tiring. In this regard, the characters of Iemitsu and her chief advisor and guardian figure, Lady Kasuga, become greatly enjoyable.
The fact that women now rule over society does not mean that they always get the same respect that male leaders had earlier. There are moments in the series that poignantly bring out thoughts of how women still have certain expectations of them. In one instance, a nobleman raises his daughter to be like a man in attitude and appearance after his two sons die of red-faced smallpox and is then disappointed that she openly talks about her bodily discomforts. A woman should never talk so openly about her private matters, the nobleman angrily claims! The elderly men, who are no more than a burden on the drought-hit villages, still demand permission before the women of the families, who do all the work from farming the fields to running the family, can take any important decision.
Despite changing gender roles and norms and covering power struggles for the most part, Ooku: The Inner Chambers does not feel poised to be against any of the genders at any point whatsoever. The way in which the plot here unfolds seems to me to be the strongest factor about the series, as it genuinely feels like a historical retelling despite being a creative invention. Each of the characters comes off as a living, breathing person who existed during the Edo period and is now written about in the pages of history.
The visual and animation style here also deserves praise, as it very aptly brings out the fervor that the series wants to show. The style is mostly adhered to by realism, and era-specific items, clothing, and visuals, in general, are also greatly presented. It is almost remarkable how Ooku: The Inner Chambers gives the feeling that an entire era and period of history has been covered when one is done with the ten episodes. Perhaps only some better pacing would have made things perfect, but then that might have also taken away from the overall watching experience.