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Relationships and Preconceptions: Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku

This story originally appeared in PW Comics Week July 21, 2009 Sign up now!

by Kate Fitzsimons -- Publishers Weekly, 7/20/2009 3:40:00 PM

The Ooku is the area of Edo Castle, the legendary ancient Japanese military capital, where the Shogun’s wife, concubines and female relatives lived during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). In Fumi Yoshinaga’s new alternate history manga Ooku: The Inner Chambers, the Ooku is instead the residence of the Shogun’s husband and concubines, for in this Japan, the women rule. In this story, males have become the victims of a mysterious disease that has plagued Japan for generations and three out of four boys die in childhood, making men rare and precious.  More nuanced than its premise might suggest, Ooku depicts a history far different but no more modern than our own.

A commercial as well as a critical success, Ooku: The Inner Chambers is a bestseller in Japan and will be adapted into a live action movie filming next year. Ooku is also the winner of this year’s the highly prestigious Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for manga, whose previous winners include such famed manga-ka as Naoki Urasawa (Pluto), Takehiko Inoue (Vagabond) and Hideo Azuma (Disappearance Diary.). Ooku’s American release has been preceded by that of Antique Bakery, Yoshinaga’s manga about the customers of a high end cake shop and the men who work there. The English translation of Ooku, published by Viz, will be released in August of this year. PW Comics Week spoke to Yoshinaga’s Viz editor Pancha Diaz about the creation of this unusual manga and bringing Ooku to an American audience.

PW Comics Week: Ooku is a rather unusual manga. It's a historical drama full of court intrigue, an alternate history tale, a high concept science fiction or fantasy story (hard to tell which) thanks to the McGuffin, and a thoughtful examination of gender. As far as I can tell, there's nothing like it currently on the shelves. Where do you see this fitting on the American market? What is the readership that you're expecting for this book?

Pancha Diaz: This is an experiment on our part to see what the readership is. We’re hoping that people who read science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction will pick up on it. There’s some crossover there, but we’re not sure how much there might be. But we feel it’s a really strong story. Also, she has lot of name recognition, we’re hoping fans of her other work pick it up.

PWCW: What inspired Yoshinaga to write an alternate history story centered around a gender-flipped Ooku? Was she influenced by the recent (at the time she started) movie and television mini-series about the real Ooku? And why alternate history? It's a genre rarely seen in manga.

PD: I can’t speak directly to her motivations but I do know that the Edo period is very popular for television and manga. As an author she likes to explore things—relationships and preconceptions. So that might be what she was trying to do.

PWCW: The English translations of Yoshinaga's other books are being put out by DMP books. What brought her to Viz for Ooku? Did you seek her out, or vice versa? What attracted Viz to Ooku?

PD: She is an incredibly popular author and a very strong author. Ooku was her first manga both available and within Viz’s publication guidelines. Much of her other work is yaoi, which we don’t publish.

PWCW: There's an Ooku live action film currently in pre-production, scheduled to begin filming in Spring of 2010. Is the film distribution end of Viz interested in bringing it to the United States? Did this have any part in the choice to bring Ooku to the US now?

PD: That was not part of our acquisition plan; I don’t know if Viz Pictures is planning to bring it here, it’s a different part of the company. But personally, I would be very happy if they did.

PWCW: In Japan, I believe Ooku is categorized as josei [manga for adult women], which is interesting because it seems as though it would appeal to men as well. How was that decision made?

PD: A lot of time it just has to do with what magazine the manga appears in. When you get into the older genres—seinen [for men] and josei, the distinctions really start disappearing unless you get into the shoot ‘em ups or the heavy romance. For her, probably being known as an author for women contributed to the choice. Even though her story doesn’t fall into usual categories, she has that name recognition.

PWCW: Yoshinaga's previous series, Antique Bakery, is quite unlike Ooku. Although a reader can tell they were created by the same person, the tone is very different. Antique Bakery is something of a gentle comedy of manners, and the art has an airy and lighthearted feel. Neither of these things can be said of Ooku, which is more intricate and at times ominous. Do you think you'll be able to take advantage of the audience for Yoshinaga's work created by Antique Bakery, or are you looking for a different set of readers?

PD: We’re hoping that people who enjoy all of her work and aren’t just fans of a specific series will be interested because they value her as an author. Also, we’re hoping to get the attention of people who might not have picked up her previous work because romance isn’t their thing, since the book is, as you said, intense and ominous.

PWCW: Ooku, unlike many manga, is coming out in Japan at a rate of only one volume per year, with a projected ten volumes. Four volumes are currently in print. Do you think a rate of, at most, two volumes a year will be problematic with an American audience used to a faster schedule?

PD: I don’t know. We haven’t done something like this before. It could be a problem. Fans can be very impatient. When we catch up with the Japanese publication, since it’s widely known to be such a slow release, we hope they’ll be understanding.

PWCW: Ooku is part of the Viz Signature line of manga, which is printed in a slightly more deluxe paperback format that looks almost like a small art book. How are Signature manga chosen and why?

PD: They’re manga that don’t easily fit into the shojo [for young girls] or shonen [for young boys] projected market, which might appeal to older readers. Books that might interest people who like American comics but avoid manga due to preconceptions. We wanted them to have a different presentation, to look a little different. Lots of manga are meant to be read very quickly, almost like a static cartoon, but these are meant to be savored. That’s why we chose the larger size—to signal that to the audience.

PWCW: Is there anything more you’d like to tell our readers about Ooku?

PD: Fumi Yoshinaga is such an incredible author. Even when I thought I knew where she was going with the story, she surprised me. I thought she was going to do a straight genderflip but it was more than that. This was one of the best treatments of the subject, even compared to prose, that I’ve ever seen.

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