Ooku (The Lady Shogun and Her Men): Gender Roles in a Reversed Society

Ooku is a Japanese term comprised of the characters meaning “big” and “inside”, which together refer to the women who lived within Edo palace, now known as Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This large group of women was kept at the male shogun’s discretion, and was comprised mostly of concubines, maids, and servants, though it also included the reigning shogun’s wife and mother. These women were rarely let out of the castle, while no adult males were allowed in to see them without the shogun himself attending. They were essentially an island in the middle of Tokyo, a group of several thousand women who, in essence, built their own society around the life of isolation they led.

In the movie Ooku (English: The Lady Shogun and Her Men), a strange sort of reversal has taken place: a disfiguring, fatal plague has gripped the country, reducing the ratio of men to women to around 1:10. As a result, women have been forced to take on traditionally male roles and responsibilities, including shogun, in order to keep society functioning. Men, on the other hand, have been relegated into the position of commodities, kept primarily for their use as studs. They are bought and sold as husbands and sex objects, and kept as signs of status and wealth, a traditionally female burden.

As such, in the beginning we see the protagonist, Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya) in a meeting with his parents and sister. They discuss selling him to a rich family to become a powerful woman’s husband, and what kind of groom price they might be able to sell him for — though it is a decision that pains them greatly. He is still the male, still expected to provide for his family, but in a society where the men have all but disappeared, groom price is one of only a scant few ways he can do so.

After a fair amount of consideration, he decides instead to join the Ooku, the group of kept men that the female shogun keeps as a sort of status symbol; they represent an excess at a time when men are rare commodities, things of beauty and symbols of power. When Mizuno initially joins the Ooku, the shogun is just a girl of nine years old, so the Ooku’s function is purely for show. They work to keep up the castle, and a select few of them train in weaponry, but overall they have no real purpose, a problem that bothers Mizuno who has spent much of his life doing his best to contribute to his faltering society. The higher level men spend the majority of their time preening and designing ever more fanciful costumes, a luxury of the very rich, while men lower down in the hierarchy mostly perform castle duties to serve those higher up, including cooking, cleaning, and serving. Mizuno is at first placed into the lowest of levels, but his pretty face and his refusal to submit to the dominance of the men above him soon gains him notice within the castle, and he is promoted to the upper Ooku, those men regarded highly enough as to be able to actually be in the presence of the shogun.

Just a short time into Mizuno’s tenure, however, the young shogun dies of illness and is replaced by the shogun of a neighboring districs. The new shogun, Yoshimune, played by Kou Shibasaki, is older and takes a very practical, utilitarian approach to running the district. She has little interest in visiting the Ooku and the excesses it represents while her country is gripped in crisis, until she is persuaded to by her advisors as part of her shogun duties. On the appointed day, the men gather in their finery to pay proper respects to her. By chance, and because his understated finery so closely resembles her own tastes, she notices Mizuno and asks for his name. He has just unknowingly securing his position as “The Secret Swain” – the man chosen to be her first lover and, subsequently, be put to death for it (for harming the shogun as perpetrator of this act). He performs said duty with the knowledge that his parents will be told he has died of illness and be well-compensated. When he wakes in the morning, he is taken outside to be ritually killed, but is saved by Yoshimune at the last possible moment, and released from the castle to marry his childhood sweetheart. In the final scenes of the movie, Shogun Yoshimune collects all the most handsome men from the Ooku and releases them, telling them to find wives and lovers, and to repopulate Japan.

What’s most interesting to see in Ooku is how gender roles both change and remain the same with a complete reversal of situations. In intergender relations, the roles are still somewhat the same as before the switch. The men still are the designated protectors of their female shogun, the samurai practicing for war in case of attack. In addition, while the protagonist has taken on a traditionally female job (the role of a sex worker) before his enrollment into the Ooku, he still maintains his power as a man in the dealings. The first time we see him at this work, the older woman he is with is not in the position of demanding customer. In fact, she tries to pay him in return for his services (she is hoping to get pregnant), but he refuses to accept her money, considering it his duty to Japan to repopulate. He is the one with the power to accept or deny her, very unlike traditional female prostitutes who are always in the submissive position of being at their customer’s whims. So even though he has taken on a job normally associated with a submissive loss of power, he maintains his role as the man in the interactions.

Between themselves, however, the men take on both traditional female and traditional male roles. Homosexuality runs rampant, but it is a very dominant-submissive relationship, reminiscent of male-female relationships in traditional Japanese culture, where lower men cater to the needs of their higher ups, and provide pleasure and entertainment to them. The only instances of forced (or attempted forcing of) sex during the movie are between men, within the Ooku or within red light districts outside of the castle, where men force other men to go into the business. Sex becomes a commodity used by men to raise or lower status, traded for favor, or as a means of control and profit. Men are traded and bought and sold, but it is still mostly men who benefit from this industry.

So while the women are responsible for running the country, for cooking and cleaning, for running businesses and making life go on, still the men retain their power. The only exception is the lady shogun, Yoshimune, who inevitably has the power to overrule the men in her jurisdiction. She has the ultimate power within her district, the right to decide life or death, to keep men or dispose of them as she will. It is ultimately her will that shapes the future of the castle, her disdain for showy nonsense that so summarily dismisses and overrules the men in her Ooku.

The only power women have in this alternate world is the power they are elected to. It takes all the formality and pomp of a title to give a woman power. Even when Mizuno’s family is considering whether or not to sell him for groom price, it is truly his decision, and his right to refuse, which he does. As a man, he maintains his power throughout. It is men who hold their power throughout the movie.

In contrast, the few women in the movie are still weak-willed, even as they take on stronger roles. The older woman who solicits Mizuno’s service is apologetic and submissive. Mizuno’s childhood friend who makes occasional appearances throughout is dressed in inhibitive finery, and is seen to cry and fall and bring snacks to the (very few) male workers she encounters. Even the first shogun’s women are acquiescent and genteel, even as they attempt to run a district.

Ooku is an interesting take on traditional Japanese gender relations. Those relations have a history of being regarded as strange to westerners in that women, even now, are regarded as the submissive gender, but this movie provides an unusual take on the perspective. In the west, we often see gender differences as constructed by society. Differences between genders result from social constructs which each is persuaded to take on. In Ooku, however, the relationship is fully opposite. Men have power, and despite all of society’s changes and attempts to flip around their roles, men remain dominant. It is only when society creates a role imbued with power for a woman does she gain power. It is society that gives her power.

Ooku is an interesting movie for the way it treats and addresses gender relations in a country where gender relations still seem mystifying to many westerners. If the perspectives put forth in this movie are indeed commonly held beliefs in Japan about the way the genders are, then perhaps the way it has come to approach gender relations in recent years is less mystifying. If women are by their very nature submissive and, conversely, men dominant, then it is society’s job to protect women as best it can, and allow men to flourish as they will. Such as it is, Japan has women-only cars on trains to protect women, rather than introducing more police officers to go after the perpetrators. It has tube hotels for businessmen stranded near work after working too many hours, but very few that allow women, who are not expected to work like men do. It also has gendered speech, different ways that men and women speak built into the language to portray women as soft and men as strong, but while women generally do not use male speech, men will use most of both, often choosing feminine speech for formal situations to seem more gentle. In recent years, some of these differences in society have begun to evolve, but on the whole society has not changed as radically as has its western counterparts. As a whole society, Japan still seems heavily built toward gender differences, differences which are highlighted clearly and unusually in Ooku.