It is the era of the shoguns, and a mysterious plague spreads through the land, killing off eight in every ten men. Within eighty years, the demography, labor practices, social norms, and political structures of Japan have transformed, and no one can remember the way things used to be. Men are protected from hard labor due to their weak constitutions, as those belonging to wealthy families are pampered, while those of poorer households are prostituted off to a population dominated by women who consider it their highest achievement to bear a child. Amid this matriarchal world, nineteen-year-old Yunoshin Mizuno hails from a family caught in between, a lower-ranking samurai clan who cannot quite afford the dowry for a husband for their daughter, but who nevertheless refuse to sell their son, Mizuno. Out of appreciation for their care for him, and to secure his sister the funds she needs, Mizuno makes a bold sacrifice: he volunteers to join the Ooku, or royal inner court, and devote his life to domestic labor among a community of men whose services—both daytime and night—are reserved for the lord shogun herself. Labeled a country bumpkin, Mizuno finds himself the target of hazing and intimidation at the palace, where he is a low-ranked page, but he gives as good as he gets and eventually manages to catch the eye of the new shogun. She too hails from the provinces, and her stern, practical nature doesn’t fit the soft luxury and coy whispered scheming of the Inner Chambers. Will the two find themselves unlikely partners as they shake up the Ooku? It certainly looks like it!
And then it doesn’t. Because actually, this feature film-length premiere has a great deal more still to cover. We’re only at the halfway point here! About two-thirds in, a major twist (or more accurately, bait and switch) yanks the focus of the story off Mizuno and firmly elsewhere. But I don’t want to spoil it for you…
This was such an interesting premiere! At a runtime of 80 minutes, it rivals last season’s Oshi no Ko opener. But that’s not where the comparison ends. Like Oshi no Ko, this first episode cycles through several different genres, pulls a major plot twist that redefines the entire trajectory and focus of the series, and refuses to shy away from the seedy underside of an aspect of Japanese (feudal) society that is often romanticized—the royal court. Mizuno is threatened with sexual assault, and it is clear that such abuses are ingrained in the culture of the court, though the story thankfully does not linger on these harrowing moments. Courtly life is not simply manipulative and deceitful, it is also cruel and destructive, regardless of whether it is the women or the men doing the household chores. In this way, the series’ exploration of gender roles and power dynamics manages to steer clear of a simplistic inversion that either “solves” society’s problems by swapping men and women or, alternately, replicates them almost fatalistically. Instead, the Ooku reveals how some things have changed while others have stayed the same with the loss of so many men. Which is what makes this such a clever and coherent reimagining of shogunate-era Japan! What’s more, I could even go so far as to say that this is the most believable version of the “all the men have disappeared” trope that I’ve come across, which is saying a lot as I’ve read my fair share of 1970s feminist sci-fi.
Added to the fresh way that the premiere engages with its central premise is the stunning art on display here from Studio Deen. The backgrounds, the fabrics, the decorations, the lighting—simply gorgeous! This one is a treat for the eye. But the real clincher for me, and the reason I may very well be binging the rest of this 10-episode series this weekend instead of watching other premieres, is the character of the shogun. Nobu Yoshimune is a fascinating multi-faceted lead, and I have a feeling that we’ve only just seen a fraction of her full brilliance. Count me in for The Inner Chambers!
Ooku: The Inner Chambers is available on Netflix in its entirety!
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