Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Alternate History, Japanese Style

The things you can learn at a science fiction convention, even when it’s not a very good one. My wife Marcia and I were at Lunacon in Rye, NY, the weekend before last, and the affair seemed to be run by knit wits. Yes, they actually had programs about knitting. Not to mention beading, blindfold sculpting… still, there were some programs that actually had to do with sf.
One of the sessions was about Japanese science fiction, which is best known here for manga and anime – distinct schools of comics and animation that have caught on abroad in a big way. You can see entire sections devoted to manga at Barnes & Noble, and Princess Mononoke (1997), a feature-length historical fantasy anime, which Roger Ebert put on his Top Ten list after it was released here in 1999, and which is a cult favorite today.
There are many other examples of manga and anime that have found a loyal audience here, and I have seen some of them and at least heard of others. But one I had not heard of before Lunacon is Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku (2005-), a manga series set in an alternate history. Alternate history is a big thing here, as witness the dozens of novels by Harry Turtledove and others. It’s also represented in Japanese literary sf, but usually imagines history changing elsewhere rather than in Japan itself.
Only, Ōoku is set during the Edo period of Japan (the 17th and 18th centuries by our count), after a plague called the Redface Pox wipes out most of the male population. The sex ratio is thus four women to one man; what was once a patriarchy has become a matriarchy ruled by a female shogun who maintains a retinue called the ōoku (inner chamber) of about 800 men – although few among them actually have sexual access to her; the rest are essentially advisors and bureaucrats.
For ordinary women, marriage is hard to come by, and many visit brothels to become pregnant. The first volume of Ōoku, the only one I’ve read thus far, follows the story of Mizuno Yunoshin, a troubled young man who has given his seed to women too poor to afford brothels, and considers it unconscionable that his impoverished mother hasn’t rented him out to the class of women who can pay, and thus enable her to raise a dowry for her daughter. He rejects an arranged marriage to the daughter of a bureaucrat, and forsakes his childhood sweetheart Nobu, to enter the shogun’s service – that way, at least he’ll be able to send a little money home. But once in, never out, or so it seems.
Yoshimune, daughter of the lord of a remote province, succeeds to the throne soon after his arrival, and has fresh ideas about how to run the country. In a combination of real pluck and seeming luck, Mizuno finds himself chosen as her first lover, not realizing that he’s been maneuvered into her favor because he who deflowers a virgin (which she is officially, but not actually) is put to death afterwards. But Yoshimune has fresh ideas about that, too, and Mizuno gets to live and love another day with the girl he’s left behind – under an assumed name. Further volumes in the series move back and forth in time to show how the matriarchy emerged and has shaped not only sexual politics but governmental administration and even foreign affairs.
In Yoshinaga’s history, the Tokugawa dynasty still reigns, but Yoshimune’s accession is the result of a conspiracy: there are three branch houses of the family, and her Kii branch bribed retainers of the Owari branch to withhold news of the death of the previous shogun (a sickly seven-year old girl), from their Lord Tsugotomo. First come, first served: Yoshimune has taken over at Edo while Tsugotomo is still trying to get her palanquin ready. And as soon as she assumes the throne, she shows she’s a take-charge woman.
By coincidence, we’ve recently been watching a Teaching Company lecture series on the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England. One of the burning issues after the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 was their extravagant spending – Charles II, especially, ran up huge bills for courtiers, mistresses and assorted hangers-on. He even conspired with King Louis XIV of France to bail him out, promising to convert to Catholicism at an opportune time – if that secret had gotten out, he might have met the same fate as his father Charles I, executed in 1649.
When Yoshimune takes over, she is approached by a female privy councillor, who wants her to splurge on a fancy new wardrobe. The shogun immediately dismisses her, saying that “only a lunatic” would recommend such extravagance at a time when the shogunate’s coffers are empty. As she later tells a confidant, she had reform on her mind in any case, and Councillor Manabe gave her the perfect excuse to clean house:
But my liege… if you dismiss all of the current privy councillors, you will have none left. Is it your purpose to abolish the post of privy councillor in your government?
Verily so. And instead of having a gaggle of privy councilors, I shall create a new post of intermediary, and have but one person charged with mediating between the senior councillors and myself.
The best-looking would-be studs of the Inner Chamber also have a surprise coming when they are summoned to a general audience. They figure she’s about to pick one of them as her next lover. Only, they’re all sent packing instead – again out of concern for the state of finances and the welfare of the country:
Ye may well ask, then, wherefore the fifty men here? I shall tell you my reasoning. Ye are all young and handsome, and therefore the most likely to find good prospects of marriage in the world outside the castle.
Little is known of Yoshinaga (1971-), but her series is widely regarded as a feminist parable, and she gets in some great digs in a scene where Yoshimune receives a Dutch trading captain – who assumes she must be a man:
‘Tis reported that there is not one woman in your entire company. Wherefore is that?
Yes, my lord. ‘Tis a long sea voyage we must undertake, for we indeed circumnavigate the globe, and ‘tis far too arduous a journey for women to make.
 There’s a live-action movie based on the series, from which somebody posted a music video on YouTube.
I assume the man must be Mizuno, and the woman we see him with most Nobu. From a comment there, I gather the movie may stress the romance more than the manga series – in which these two don’t seem to figure much, or at all, in later volumes.
One of the other sessions was on Young Adult sf and fantasy, which is very hot right now because of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and the movie based on it. Since I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I’ll hold off on that. But there was talk of other YA fiction I hadn’t even heard of, such as Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, which involves genetic engineering.
Heady stuff. Grim stuff, too: it’s dystopian, too (a genetic class system). In fact, a promo for David Weber’s YA sf novel, A Beautiful Friendship (a prequel to his Honor Harrington series, just out) is at pains to stress that it “strays beyond popular dystopian fare.” That it does, although there’s a subtext about genetic engineering on a smaller scale and prejudice against “genies.”
Lots of food for thought there, in another blog post, and in Imagination and Evolution.

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