There are certain volumes in some of my favorite series that I just dread re-reading when I get to them. “The Sandman vol. 9: The Kindly Ones,” “Blade of the Immortal vol. 11: Beasts,” “Berserk vol. 13,” and I could go on. Even though I love these series, I always dread getting to these particular points in them because that’s where things go bad for either the protagonist or certain beloved members of the supporting cast. It’s just painful to see the characters I’ve come to know and care about suffer through great physical and/or mental pain in the course of their story. Now you can add vol. 10 of “Ooku” to that list. As always, it remains a compelling look at an alternate history of feudal Japan; but, this time it’ll have ruined your day by the time you’re done with it.
Let’s start out with the fate of Gennai, who I expressed an inclination to see taken down a peg or two when I wrote about the last volume. I take it all back now. I wouldn’t wish the violence and its fallout on any woman. Gennai’s fate is sad, and tragic as she is faced with an end that will not have her remain as she is. In spite of this, she spends her remaining time looking for a source of the weaker strain of redface pox so that an immunity may be crafted that could benefit all the men in Japan. It’s a struggle that’s as inspirational as it is heartbreaking.
Yet success is not the answer to all of the problems that plague the key characters we’ve been following for the past few volumes. Privy Councilor Lady Tanuma faces the wrath of the people after her efforts to try and create more farmland for crops are waylaid by natural disasters and subsequent famine. This breeds resentment in the general populace that doesn’t boil over into revolt, but finds more insidious ways to let the Councilor know how unliked she is. Even though she supports Aonuma in his efforts to cure the redface pox, his teaching of foreign medicine and status as a half-breed have always rubbed some in the capitol the wrong way. When he gets seriously burned by the odds involved with surviving the cure he comes up with, it may not be possible for Lady Tanuma to save him.
Yes, this is a volume where everyone that we’ve come to know and like in this series gets kicked in the teeth. Metaphorically speaking, yet repeatedly so in some cases. Even though that we can see that the villains are up to no good, the full scope of their plans is kept hidden until we find out along with the protagonists that it’s far too late to do anything about them. I say “villains” here rather than antagonists because they’re only acting in their short-sighted self interests. Only power matters to them rather than the betterment of the country. I’m also taking this rather personally because of what they do to the good guys here and how much this reminds me of modern politics in this country. You’d think a manga about the matriarchy of an alternate feudal Japan wouldn’t have any relevance to the current state of the good ol’ U.S. of A., but you’d be wrong.
Looking back on it now, the cover to this volume almost seems like a cruel joke. Particularly since a couple of the people on it are no longer with us by the end of it. At first I thought that with the way it broke the series’ tradition of “one character on a black background,” its “group shot on a white background” was a signal that this was going to be the final volume of the series. Fortunately, I was wrong.
I say “fortunately” because there’s no way that I want “Ooku” to end anytime soon. Yes, even though I was thoroughly bummed after finishing vol. 10, it was still an engrossing read from start to finish. Malicious as they may be, all of the evil schemes present in this volume still felt organic to the narrative and not like some cheap attempt to spike the drama. Aonuma’s race to discover a cure was also gripping in its examination and application of science in this era. Though things end on an ominous note, part of me actually feels encouraged for the future. With the morale of everyone who has worked for the good of the people at its lowest ebb, now is the perfect time for them to start trying to turn things around. I’m not saying that I expect Lady Tanuma to rise up from a drainage ditch and say, “Okay suckers, you’ve taken your best shot! NOW IT’S MY TURN!” I can dream, though, and I’m still left feeling excited about what mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga has in store for the next volume.
(Unless she decides to hand Lady Tanuma a shovel and tell her to start digging. Then we’ll have words next time…)