A surprise hit in Japan, The Lady Shogun and Her Men (大奥 ) is a alternative history role reversal film is based on the manga Ōoku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga. Following the idea that a disease has struck down the majority of the male population, the manga itself is infused with gender politics and has won the Excellence Prize at the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival and a special prize at The Japanese Association of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy’s fifth annual Sense of Gender Awards in 2005. Unfortunately, none of that is present in this rather confused adaptation by television director Fuminori Kaneko (Keizoku 2: SPEC).
In 1716, a mysterious disease known as the red pox has decimated the ranks of men in Japan. Men are simply sought after for their ability to father children, and women are now the dominant force in society and the seats of power. Unoshin Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya, Gantz: Perfect Answer) is a bit of a lad about town, but when he is unable to marry his childhood sweetheart Onobu (Maki Horikita, Into the White Light) he joins the inner chambers at Ohoku in servitude of the young Shogun. Inside he finds a male harem, all vying for the attention of their superiors and a chance at some kind of power. When the young Shogun dies, she is replaced with Yoshimune Tokugawa (Kou Shibasaki, Rinco’s Restaurant), and the brinkmanship escalates.
The Lady Shogun and Her Men plays out like a soft-core yaoi film. Despite reportedly toning down much of the “Boys Love” genre elements of the source material, or anything overtly sexual for that matter, the film is filled with the kind of longing stares and soft focus shots that characterise this incredibly popular range of stories in Japan. Fumi Yoshinaga’s earlier work Antique Bakery was made into a live action film in Korea, where the openly gay characters were not as allegedly watered down as they are here. That said, it deals with homosexuality in a way that Japanese cinema rarely does, although in this case it is barely something that can be commended.
There is so much that could have been said about gender politics in Japan, as these kind of “What If?” historical films have always been the playground of writers with a satirical eye. Indeed, this is something that the manga is said to have in spades, but beyond the existence of a female shogun, very little is said about the implications of that power. In reality, it is highly likely that the existing structures would remain, but in the abbreviated language of film we are simply told that this is the way things are, and nothing more is added to that. Instead, this reality would have us believe that the male population is one disease away from becoming giggling schoolgirls. The central conceit may have opened the door to an examination of sex in Japan, but the same contrivance also firmly closes off any chance of going deeper.
The Lady Shogun and Her Men is a mixed bag to say the least. The costumes and the sets are gorgeous, and Ninomiya and Shibasaki are perfectly cast in their respective roles. Yet while it seems inevitable in Japanese cinema that some of this would be played for laughs, what is more troubling is how extremely prejudiced the movie is. While it may not have been the intention of the film, it could certainly be read as having its own politics against homosexuality, or even just making fun. However, by the time the films builds towards its “emotional” conclusion, and cop-out pay-off, there will few people still connected in any way to the paper-thin characters.
The Lady Shogun and Her Men is playing at the Japanese Film Festival on 20 November (Sydney) and 6 December (Melbourne) 2011 at the 15th Japanese Film Festival in Australia.