Ōoku: the Shogun’s Harem

Speaking of popular subjects for Japanese historical dramas, another popular topic is the famous Ōoku (大奥) which was the inner sanctum of the harem of the Tokugawa Shoguns. I like to think of it as the “Women of the Tokugawa Shogunate”. :) It’s a popular subject of Japanese historical dramas because the lives of these women were greatly secluded, and of course there was a lot of cat-fighting, rivalries and all the other things that make for good drama.

As the Wikipedia article states, the Ōoku occupied a special floor at Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo) and men were generally forbidden to enter, except with the Shogun. But that didn’t stop women there from forming relationships with men on the outside, and of course with the Shoguns themselves, which led to rival heirs and other challenges within the group. The Shogun’s wife and mother both lived there too, adding to the political intrigue.

Anyway, suffice to say there have been many dramas and movies in Japan about the Ōoku. The first one I encountered was a few years ago, when my wife’s sister would send her episodes of the famous drama on Fuji TV, though back then I couldn’t understand much Japanese so I never watched. However, the closing theme of the show was really memorable because of the way the high-drama and tension were blended with a gritty rock song by Southern All-Stars.1 Somehow, the combination of the two was brilliant and really struck me, so that I could remember Ōoku without really understanding the show. You can imagine the factions and infighting that went on behind the beautiful clothes, sophistication, romance and such.

I was reminded of all this recently because another drama about the Ōoku has come out this year:

If you notice carefully, the main samurai actor is none other than Ninomiya Kazunari, of the band Arashi (and my wife’s favorite member). The song too, is theme song I mentioned in another post. :) I happened to buy the manga for the drama a while back (partly because “Nino” was in it), but also because I actually wanted to delve into the story behind the Ōoku.

The story behind the latest version of Ōoku has an interesting twist though: a fictitious plague has killed off ¾ of the male population in the Edo Period, so women take over all functions of government including the Shogunate. The remaining men switch roles and become prized possessions by women, including a harem called Ōoku at Edo Castle.

I’ve read some of the manga already, and it’s difficult because it has a lot of archaic words or words not used in a modern context. My wife wasn’t too interested in the story, but maybe because I am a guy, it’s more interesting to me. I’ll write more about it later if I can.

But anyway, the point is that while The Shinsengumi mentioned in an older post appeal the masculine sense of honor even in the face of certain demise, the Ōoku appeals to the sense of femininity (both positive and negative), and the harsh life behind the beauty there. It’s no surprise that both occupy a popular place in Japanese popular media.

1 Southern All-Stars, or sazan ōrusutāzu (サザンオールスターズ) is kind of a bad-boy rock band in Japan, but a very venerable one. Kuwata Keisuke’s voice is very cool, and my wife loves to hear him sing. But they do have a lot of naughty words in their music too, so we don’t listen to it when my daughter is around. For example in the theme linked above are the words kawaii onna ni yareru meaning “can do a cute girl”, if you understand my meaning. ;p The original video for this song is also kinad racy too, but interesting to watch.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Ōoku: the Shogun’s Harem

  1. 私もサザン好きです。でも、たしかにちょっと品がない歌詞も多いです。うちの子供たちはまだ知りません。。:smile:

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