Sunday, November 21, 2010

大奥: The Lady Shogun and Her Men

One of my books when I was a kid was Stan Lee’s 1977 tome, The Superhero Women - which included a short tale of his, illustrated by John Romita, that previously appeared in Savage Tales #1 (1971).

‘The Fury of the Femizons’ featured a gynecocentric warrior society.

Yep, you read right: gynecocentric. Ahhh, the el cheapo thrills of an online thesaurus; for those without one, "gynocentrism" roughly acquaints to matriarchal and it's my new vocab discovery of the day - possibly good for use bamboozling posh and/or pretentious people at glad-bag dinner parties. Or not.

Anyway, in this particular society women call the shots while the men-folk are there merely to sit pretty and display a peck or two.

A similar theme was used in the 1977 second season of Space: 1999 in the episode ‘Devil’s Planet’, in which Commander Koenig crashes his Eagle on a planetary penal colony, where he finds himself the prisoner of the voluptuous Elizia and her equally S&M-inclined female prison guards.

The notion even shaped up an ongoing skit (‘The Worm That Turned’, 1980) in the British comedy The Two Ronnies... in which Mars Bars were hilariously rebranded Pa’s Bars.

Of course, Women’s Lib in the 1970s helped to shake up the conventional male/female wisdom personified in the ‘50s and Mad Men, and these days women do happen to run huge corporations and direct Oscar-winning films.

In Japan, however, things can be a little different.

Women’s Lib never actually took root here and at times the traditional Japanese family image resembles something like Leave It To Beaver – dad out earning a buck (as well as often drinking and carousing at yakitori bars at night) while mum's stuck in the kitchen and raising the kids; alternatively you can see many of them treating themselves at cake shops in Jiyugaoka with their erstwhile maternal mates.

While there have been matriarchal societies in the past in which women held sway over the men folk – even in fiercely patriarchal Japan – the last attempt here was probably the Empress Jingu in the 3rd century, though the historical veracity of her reign is these days contested anyway.

Not so surprising, really, when the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that “aided by a pair of divine jewels that allowed her to control the tides, she is said to have begun her bloodless conquest of Korea in 200, the year in which her husband died.” The divine jewels sound like fun.

More recently succession to emperor has been regulated by the Japanese Diet (Parliament) and the current law excludes women from the the process.

Which brings us to the new Japanese movie The Lady Shogun and Her Men, titled more simply Ōoku (大奥) over here and released in cinemas last month.

If you look up Ōoku on Wikipedia you get this explanation: "The Ōoku refers to the harem of Edo Castle, the section where the women connected to the reigning Shōgun resided."

Directed by TV veteran Fuminori Kaneko, the film stars Kou Shibasaki (Battle Royale) as an alternate-reality 18th century shogun, and Arashi member Kazunari Ninomiya (Letters From Iwo Jima) as one of her gigolo-concubines, in a world decimated by an imagined disease that’s killed off most of the male population.

Think something a bit left-of-centre in shock/schlock value for local audiences.

It’s based on a more feminist, punchy manga by Yoshinaga Fumi (Ooku: The Inner Chambers) which had the smarts enough to win the 2009 James Tiptree Jr. Award for science fiction which expands or explores one's understanding of gender.

Yet this celluloid romp borders visually on an over-the-top J-Pop videoclip and while the script has all the hallmarks of a Japanese TV soapie (director Kaneko’s usual stomping ground), there are moments of fun and Shibasaki’s presence adds a deeper flavour.

For some of us, however, it feels like we’ve been here before – and honestly I think Ronnies Barker and Corbett did it better.

© 2010 The Lady Shogun and Her Men Film Partners

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