Two from Yoshinaga

One of the fascinating things about Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ôoku: The Inner Chambers (Viz) is watching the core elements of the series refine themselves. The fifth volume brings the level of emotional savagery to new heights, which is saying something.

In Yoshinaga’s gender-reversed imagining of the halls of power of feudal Japan, none of the shoguns have fared well in terms of emotional satisfaction. The demands of power and the palpable unease with societal reversals leave everyone at least a little undone, no matter how assiduously they try to adapt (or pretend that they’ve adapted). This time around, conniving Sir Emonnosuke, Senior Chamberlain of the Inner Chambers, continues his sly but ultimately joyless schemes, while the Shogun, Tsunayoshi, is torn between competing demands.

There’s undeniable cruelty in Tsunayoshi’s plight. She’s forced to choose between the demands of governance and succession, and her internal conflict has dire consequences for the kingdom. She’s also divided between the demands of the next generation and the previous, beholden to an elderly father wrestling with his own traumas. Since Ôoku isn’t about triumphing over adversity, readers are left to watch the spiral and marvel in the ways it spreads out, both in terms of specific character and the culture they inhabit.

By comparison, Emonnosuke’s travails seem trivial, but flashbacks provide context for his functional present. And it all contributes to the notion of the personal and political blurring beyond recognition, which really is the defining concern of the series.

Much as I love the title, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge its flaws. The adaptation is sometimes flowery, though its excesses have leveled off over time. Another issue is Yoshinaga’s sometimes repetitive character design. She definitely has aesthetic types she favors, which can make things confusing in a cast so large. (On the bright side, she favors attractive people, so at least the confusion is easy on the eye.)

On the opposite end of the Yoshinaga spectrum is Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! (Yen Press). This is Yoshinaga being aimlessly charming and indulging in one of her favorite obsessions, cuisine. It’s a semi-autobiographical restaurant crawl for the readers of Ohta Shuppan’s intriguing Manga Erotics F and features a Yoshinaga avatar, Y-Naga, dragging her friends and colleagues from eatery to eatery.

Reviewing it is kind of like conducting a serious critical evaluation of chatty emails from a particularly funny, endearing friend. The stories benefit from already knowing and liking Yoshinaga, though I’d wager the food obsession would be an independent draw. As someone who’s read everything of Yoshinaga’s that’s available in English and yearns for someone to publish everything that isn’t, I was perfectly delighted with the book, and I find it hard to imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t be a least a little smitten.

Yoshinaga’s self-portrait is hilariously self-deprecating. The contrast between her grubby working persona to her done-up, out-on-the-town self is never not funny, and her shameless exposure of her idiosyncrasies almost certainly made me like her more. She’s unafraid to admit that she’s more than a little selfish and certainly a glutton, but those qualities make her all the more winning, just as the flaws make her entirely fictional characters more absorbing.

And the restaurant guide, while probably useless to most North American readers, is great fun, partly for the things you learn about Japanese food culture and partly for the cast of dining companions Yoshinaga assembles. The gay friend, the depressingly attractive woman friend, the too-close-for-comfort male assistant and roommate, and the rest all bring distinct and engaging qualities to the party.