A Full Review
(Note: this review is rated "G," but the anime is "TV-MA.")
I just watched (well technically binged) Ooku: The Inner Chambers (Ōoku), and long story short— I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up! (Netflix changed its rating system from stars to thumbs.) So, let me tell you about it.
Serialized in Hakusensha's manga magazine Melody from 2004 to 2020, Ooku: The Inner Chambers (Ōoku) is an award-winning, 19-volume manga by Fumi Yoshinaga that has been adapted to an anime directed by Abe Noriyuki (dir. of Black Butler: Book of Circus, My New Boss is Goofy, Bleach) and produced by Studio Deen (Vampire Knight, Sasaki & Miyano, and When They Cry). The anime aired during the summer 2023 season. Ooku has also been adapted as a live-action television series and film. If the name "Fumi Yoshinaga" sounds familiar to you, that's no coincidence. Fumi Yoshinaga is an award-winning mangaka whose works have been published in English for decades. Her works span many genres and include What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Antique Bakery, All My Darling Daughters, Gerard & Jacques, and more.
Unfortunately, I'm not well-versed in Yoshinaga's works, but I do remember reading some of Ooku, which is what prompted me to watch the anime, and full disclosure, I'm way overdue for a re-read. It has been a long, long time since I read (and at one time collected) the first few volumes or so of Ooku, and I totally forgot how it started. 💀 I stopped mostly because the story was super dense and intense. (Still is apparently, lol.) At the time, I had only gotten through the first shogun's entire story, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
VIZ describes the story:
In Edo period Japan, a strange new disease called the Redface Pox has begun to prey on the country’s men. Within eighty years of the first outbreak, the male population has fallen by 75 percent. Women have taken on all the roles traditionally granted to men, even that of the shogun. The men, precious providers of life, are carefully protected. And the most beautiful of the men are sent to serve in the shogun’s Inner Chamber…
Alright, If I had to describe the entire anime (and maybe the manga too???) in a nutshell, it's this: the series walks you through the alternative history of Edo-era Japan where women ruled the country, from its inception to present day, thanks to the Redface Pox. The first episode starts with "present day" at the start of the 8th Tokugawa shogun Yoshimune's reign in 1716. It has been 80 years since the first shogun and first outbreak of the Redface Pox. The country is somewhat stable, but the palace is a mess. Finances are terrible, and the harem is rumored to be the absolute worse. (And it is!)
Over the course of 80 minutes, you're following the newest Page of the inner chambers, and you're introduced to a new shogun and set of characters only to say goodbye to all of that at the start of episode 2. That's right. The first episode is a very nice but very long prologue. We're now entering a new era where first episodes become a flashy mini movie. First, Oshi no Ko, now Ooku. Wonder what anime will do this next? The rest of Ooku's episodes are the normal 30 minutes.
Episode 2-10 covers the first story arc, which is the first shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa's reign, and it focuses on her and her consort Arikoto Madenokoji. The final episode ends with the introduction of the next shogun, which is my biggest gripe about the series. Ooku isn't a self-contained 10-episode anime, but it could have been that with more episodesif it went the cliff notes version of events and end with the present day. (It's Netflix. Ooku could have totally could have been a mini-drama, limited-run series.)
As it stands now, these 10 episodes would be a solid first season of the anime...if we get more seasons. It's always annoying and disappointing when you stumble across a half-finished anime. (Yes, yes I know. Anime = big budget advertisement for the manga in Japan but still!) I truly hope that Ooku will not be one of those. As of this review, there has been no news of a second season, but the live-action series has multiple seasons and the manga ihas been 100% completed a few years now so I have hope for more anime.
My second gripe about the series is the structure of it. The manga started off with this prologue and so does the anime. However, I wish the anime worked in Yoshimune and the people we need to keep track of in present day as we went through this first arc. The look back on history is prompted by Yoshimune's reign and her questioning why certain rules and traditions are in place so she can change them. From the most mundane and smallest detail (Why is there a cat, "The Honorable Cat," in the inner palace?) to the most horrific (Why is there a "Secret Swain?") to the just plain sad (How did the inner palace get to be so extravagant?), everything is answered in the flashback. Instead of visual cues, it's just an omnipresent and omniscient narrator that's filling in the gaps and keeping you on track as the story unfolds. Given we have several more people and story to get through (the anime stops at volume 4, chapter 15), you can see how dense this series is. Add in drama, politics, and a lot of dialogue, and it became a "no-brainer" for me to watch the anime in English. (Not that I need an excuse.)
It's 2023. Watch anime however you wish. (This should go without saying.) I watched Ooku dubbed, and I really thought it was good. I enjoyed hearing all of the voices. Okay, I miss hearing Mamoru Miyano voice Arikoto Madenokoji (played by James Simenc in English) for a solid 9 episodes, but that's nothing a second (or third) viewing couldn't fix. Other cast members include Eriko Matsui/Anne Yatco as Iemitsu Tokugawa, Tomokazu Seki/John Omohundro as Yunoshin Mizuno, Kikuo Inoue/Cindy Robinson as Kasuga no Tsubone, Yuki Kaji/Alex Bankier as Guyokuei, Jun Fukuyama/John Choi as Sutezo, Hitoshi Kubota/Steven Blum as the Narrator, and more. The Japanese cast is stacked with names and voices you'll recognize. I don't recognize all of the names (or voices) of the English cast for this series, but it's nice to hear new voices. Check out this clip in English below!
In conclusion, if you're looking for a mature historical, political, and dramatic anime to watch exclusively on Netflix (before the price increases again), then you MUST check out Ooku: The Hidden Chambers. Mature topics are explored, and they include precedent and tradition, rules, the role of government, life purpose and identity, sex, sexuality, gender, and gender roles. (If you have problems with feminism or feminist topics, you will not like Ooku.) For the more sensitive viewers, note that rape, violence, illness (from a potent and deadly virus), death (including children and infants), sex, and forced prostitution are either shown on screen or implied. Netflix has officially rated the anime as TV-MA so definitely not something you'll want to gather your multigenerational household or family around to watch over the holidays.
With that said, once you do sit down and get comfy to watch it, you'll be sucked into the anime immediately. I binged this series over two nights, the bulk of my viewing happening on night #1. I would have finished it in one night if I hadn't started so late in the evening. Still, my first viewing of Ooku is way shorter than the time it took me to type out my review. 💀 In closing, Ooku is absolutely worth your time. Go watch it now!
Watch Ooku: The Inner Chambers exclusively on Netflix here.
What to read/watch after Ooku:
All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga (and check out her other works!)
Gou - Himetachi no Sengoku by Kumiko Tabuchi and Kaori Akatsuki (unlicensed)
Hanasakeru Seishounen (2009) anime (the manga is unlicensed)
My Happy Marriage light novel by Akumi Agitogi and Tsukiho Tsukioka, manga by Akumi Agitogi and Rito Kohsaka, Netflix-exclusive anime (2023), and live-action film
Raven of the Inner Palace light novel by Kōko Shirakawa and Ayuko and anime (2022)
Requiem of the Rose King manga by Aya Kanno and anime (2022)
The Story of Saiunkoko manga by Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura and anime (2007)