Another one of my favorite titles from last year is still very entertaining in its fifth volume. However, the reasons for that are turning out to be quite different from what I was expecting after reading the first two volumes. The first volume set up a fascinating alternate history of Japan where the Edo era became a matriarchy while the second was equally compelling in the way that it showed how this new order was forged. From there, mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga has traced the lives of the female shoguns and their retainers as this new era progresses. So while the focus has shifted from a deconstruction-centric approach, we’re still getting something that still plays to Yoshinaga’s strengths as a creator.
This is most evident in the way new Senior Chamberlain Emmonosuke maneuvers his way through the halls of power in the capital. Having shown himself to be a very cunning man in the way he secured his appointment, revealing himself to be too old to serve as a concubine he suggested the shogun appoint him to his current position, he proves equally adept at standing his ground against her most trusted advisers. Then things get complicated when the shogun’s daughter dies unexpectedly and the race is on to see which faction can provide her with a mate that can produce an heir.
I’ll be honest, I can’t get enough of protagonists who can outwit and out-think their opponents to the degree that Emmonosuke does in this volume. That’s not all there is to his character, though. We learn that his drive comes from the time he spent as his family’s... man-whore where all of his precious learning and culture was put to the sole use of keeping his siblings in fine attire. It’s his drive to keep from returning there that keeps him going, and it comes back to bite him on the ass in his dealings with the shogun. I won’t go into detail, but it’s a powerful moment when Emmonosuke realizes that he has more in common with her than he initially thought.
While the majority of this volume is given over to intrigue of this sort -- and don’t get me wrong, it’s good stuff -- Yoshinaga hasn’t completely abandoned examining Edo-era Japan in its new circumstances. The last chapter of this volume is given over to her take on the classic tale of the “Forty-Seven Ronin” and it’s remarkable for how she manages to make every party in the tragedy sympathetic. Lord Asano might be a miser, but he’s wracked by a crippling lack of self-confidence that makes his role as one of the last male household heads that much harder. The same goes for his advisor Kira, because even though she comes off as arrogant and more than a little smug, most would agree that her fate is far too extreme. Then you have Tsunayoshi, the shogun herself, who administers the punishments in these situations. Watching her deliberate and try to make sense of these incidents makes for great drama as her common-sense analysis makes perfect sense, but after knowing the whole story and circumstances I still couldn’t help but feel sorry for the fates of Asano and his retainers. It’s dramatic irony at its finest.
I don’t get the feeling that we’ve heard the last of this incident, or of men rising up in this female-led world, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing what new challenges Tsunayoshi faces in the last days of her reign. Even if the focus has shifted to the characters rather than the world they inhabit, this still remains one of the best series on the market. If you haven’t started reading it yet, do yourself a favor and go start now.