Low points don’t get much lower than what we got in vol. 10 of this series. Just about everything that could go wrong for the good guys in this series did, leaving them either dead or out of favor with the new government. Then we left off with the premise of the series being partly upended by having a man become shogun again. Where the hell is mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga going to take things from here? In the end, she manages to defy expectations by making things simultaneously better and worse for everyone in the series. Though I’m certainly rooting for the members of the cast looking to find a cure for the redface pox, I’m also left fearing that Yoshinaga has done too good a job in creating a villain for this part of the story.
Even though the shogun is the ostensible head of the government, Ienari Tokugawa is only a figurehead for the real power behind the throne. That would be his mother, Harusada Tokugawa, and oh boy is she a piece of work. Believing that the male mind is inferior and weak, she utilizes her son as a breeding stud in the inner chambers, fathering more heirs than the treasury can reasonably support. She also double-crosses a good portion of the officials who helped her seize power from Lady Tanuma, which only serves to consolidate her power even more.
What does she do with all this power? Why she indulges herself to the hilt, that’s what. Not only does Harusada renege on many of the promises she made to those who abetted her rise, but she also takes joy in pitting the many families of Ienari’s heirs against each other. Mind you, this is also while the woman is weeding out the heirs she doesn’t like. We also find out that, through a proxy, she was also involved in some of the more reprehensible acts of the past couple of volumes.
While Yoshinaga does give us a flashback to Harusada’s youth to show that maybe some of her actions were a necessary defense with growing up in a branch of the cutthroat Tokugawa family, the vast majority of her actions paint her as a villain of the blackest kind. Caring not for the will of the people, and seeking power only for its own sake, she’d fit right in with most of the Republican candidates right now. In their defense, you could mash together Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and still not have someone as vile as Harusada. ...But don’t quote me on that.
Getting me to hate a fictional character like this is commendable, but it also raises another problem. You see, in building up Harusada as a big bad Yoshinaga creates the feeling that she has to be dealt with in some way. The woman’s actions are too monstrous for her to simply be written out of the narrative -- she has to receive some kind of comeuppance! Yes, I realize that people in power like her tend to weasel out of genuine punishment in real life. Which is a good thing that we’re dealing in fiction here! This way Harusada can be made to account for her actions. Even if the main characters don’t get to see it, we readers can take joy in seeing her suffer for her actions.
I realize that it’s not real classy to demand such a thing of a creator, but that’s the expectation Yoshinaga has created with me in her buildup of Harusada. It also won’t be enough to subject her to the kind of beatdown, dismemberment, and devouring that made Shira’s death so satisfying in “Blade of the Immortal.” No, Harusada still has to die, and she has to die knowing that she made all the wrong choices in her life. I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment here, too. Yet that’s how this volume has made me feel.
Fortunately vol. 11 isn’t entirely about Harusada being really, really eeeeeeeevilllllll. We also get to see the students of Aonuma who were expelled from the inner chambers continue their mentor’s pursuit of a cure for the redface pox. Of particular interest is the odd couple relationship between Kuroki and Ihei that kicks off the volume. It makes for good fun, even though we lose it once the former goes off on a quest through the countryside for a cure. Less fun but just as interesting is in seeing Ienari come to grips with his mother’s domineering nature. Though he starts out clearly under her thumb, the man eventually finds the courage and backbone to pursue a cure for the redface pox by mending a few bridges. In person, even.
Between the renewed hope for a redface pox cure and the rise of Harusada as a big bad, “Ooku” feels like it’s heading towards endgame territory. In another volume or two, we could see a cure, Harusada dealt with, and the re-establishment of the matriarchy in Japan with another female shogun. That’s the way things seem to be heading towards; though, Yoshinaga may have additional plans for exploring this fascinating world she has created. If she wants to explore them, then I’d be happy to follow her for as long as she wants. Except, we could stand to see some antagonists who are just that instead of thoroughly, utterly, and completely detestable villains like Harusada. Just a thought.