This review contains spoilers and mentions of sexual violence.
What would society look like if three-quarters of the male population disappeared? Ōoku: The Inner Chambers depicts such a scenario in an alternative history in which an epidemic wipes out the young men that populate 17th century Japan. Amidst the Oppenheimer media centrality over the summer and attention on Sex Education’s finale season in the autumn, the release of Ōoku in June 2023 has been a modest one. The animated Netflix series is based on a Japanese manga of the same name and is originally produced in Japanese, but dubbed and subtitled in eleven and thirty-seven languages, respectively. It is (in the writer’s opinion, questionably) categorized by Netflix UK as an “emotional” and “romantic” animated drama.
The epidemic forces the practice of patrilineage to be abandoned, with women becoming heads of businesses and inheriting family property. The disease does not discriminate towards aristocratic and warlord families, forcing even the nation-governing Tokugawa family to secretly appoint a female shogun under her father’s name, Iemitsu, with a screen and male spokesperson to disguise her gender during public appearances. From the age of ten, Iemitsu cross-dresses as male and adopts the lifestyle of a samurai. Under the guidance of her councilors, she builds a male concubine cohort to ensure the production of a male heir to succeed her. Thus begins the “Ōoku”, or the “inner chambers” of Iemitsu’s court, and the series’ exploration of gender and power dynamics in the Japan of history and today.
The series follows the development of romance between Iemitsu and the soft-spoken Arikoto, who is selected for his delicate beauty by senior councilor Kasuga. The gender-queerness of Iemitsu and Arikoto’s unexpected budding relationship in the reversed world of gender norms is embraced by the couple; as one of the other male concubines comments, “it’s hard to tell which one is a man and the other a woman”. It is their embrace in episode five— Arikoto in a harmonious josou (female-presenting cross-dressing) of rouge, women’s kimono, and hair extensions embracing the top-knotted Iemitsu— that compels their official confessions of their love.
Ōoku is rife with sexual violence and coercion, both committed by the shogunate’s powerful figures and among the male concubines. The frequency begs questions of necessity and veers the series close to sensationalism. The violence committed upon the young men in the Ōoku, however, grimly spotlights the inevitability of such realities upon women concubines in the shogunate and their roles in the court, reminding us of our perhaps subconscious— yet still complacent— acceptance of sexual violence, particularly against women, in reported history and historical media.
The depiction of sexual misconduct against men and boys is also particularly poignant in consideration of the March 2023 BBC exposé of sexual assault crimes committed by Japan’s late idol production mogul Johnny Kitazawa against the young male idols in his employment. Although allegations have been scarcely reported upon in Japanese media for decades, the company’s public acknowledgement of the allegations in September 2023 prompted televised coverage across national news. It is important to remember that Japan only recognized men as victims of non-consensual sexual intercourse in their 2017 revision to the Penal Code (formerly it only applied to women victims); only this summer, the legal age of consent was raised from 13 years to 16.
The altering gender roles in Ōoku’s Japan also has economic and political implications that echo in the country today. In the series finale the narrator expounds how despite the participation of women in work,
“The roles of men and women were not exactly reversed. The job of men just became fathering children, while women took upon child-rearing labor and business matters.”
With the burden of both household and business being thrust upon the female population in Ōoku’s world, one cannot help but think of the increasing demands upon women in twenty-first century Japan as more women enter full-time employment amid a workplace culture unsupportive of working mothers, yet face social and government pressure to have children as the birth rate declines. The all-male cabinet of Iemitsu’s Shogunate at the beginning of Ōoku also nods to the male domination of politics in the current Japanese parliament; according to the Gender Equality Bureau Office, 20.7% of the representatives in the House of Councillors are female. This is double the percentage of women in the House of Representatives: 10.1%.
On the international stage, Japan sent a male representative for the G7 Ministerial Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in 2023 (a conference that otherwise consisted of women). Locally, Kanagawa prefecture’s “Women Act” committee, which functions to support “participation of women in central roles in society”* yet came under scrutiny in 2015 for appointing an all-male cabinet. The Women Act website cites the reasoning behind the deliberate all-male appointment to the need for 意識改革 (ishiki-kaikaku, “consciousness reform”) among the industry heads in Kanagawa, of which 90% are men; this reform was thought to be most effective when “top men negotiated with top men”. Since November 2022, prompted by “consideration of changes in ideas around gender and diversity”, the twenty-one member Women Act committee now includes four women.
In contrast, as we see in the first foundation episode of Ōoku set generations after Iemitsu’s first female shogunate, the entire cabinet is composed of women and is led by an openly female shogun. In its unsettling alternative take on history Ōoku thus highlights the absurdity of male domination of top positions in politics and corporations and posits the potential for actual female participation in leadership roles. Timed at a moment in Japanese society, media, and legislation in which progress is being made towards gender equality as well as destigmatization of LGBTQ+ issues and towards allegations of sexual misconduct, Ōoku is an animated series that is sure to continue discussion beyond the “emotional” and “romantic”.