Ooku ~Tanjou~ (大奥 ~誕生~ – Inner Palace ~Birth~) is the prequel to a famous alternative reality story where the Tokugawa shogun is a woman and gender roles are swapped. This series tackles the explanation of how that alternate reality comes into being. This is a court intrigue story – a genre I happen to love, even though events tend to move very slowly. How will this series shape up?

The divergence from history begins in the reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun. An epidemic, the scarlet smallpox, afflicts only the young men of the country . . .

. . . and ultimately infects even the young shogun.

We move ahead two years, where we see the initiation of a Buddhist monk – our main character, Madenokouji Arikoto (Sakai Masato) – wherein he loses his hair.

And he chose to become a monk out of conviction rather than necessity. He could have been a court noble, but decided that doing so would not help the suffering of the people, and chose to dedicate himself to service instead.

Of course, in a world where so many young men have died, losing a promising son is a blow to his family, but his father accepts Arikoto’s decision.

We again move forward, this time by three years. The scarlet smallpox continues to plague the land, and we see Arikoto trying his best to comfort some of the unfortunate (risking his own well-being).

On an elevated road, a noble entourage has stopped in its tracks, and the personage at its heart takes an interest in Arikoto.

After that, Arikoto becomes the Keikoin temple chief, and heads to the capital city of Edo in that capacity.

His assistant on this journey is Gyokuei (Tanaka Koki), who shouts excitedly as Edo castle comes into view.

Gyokuei and Myoukei argue about the shogunate, and in the process give the viewer some background about shogun-emperor relations at this time. Nothing a person with the least sense of Japanese history wouldn’t know, though.

Gyokuei comes off as a political pragmatist (a good thing to be, if you’re in a story about court intrigue), and Arikoto points out that he’s thinking more like a warlord than a monk.

Continuing on their way, they see a father and daughter carrying a son/brother dead from the smallpox, and Arikoto offers to say sutras for the deceased. From the very start of the episode, we’ve had the idea that Arikoto is gentle and kind pounded into us. Seems to be setting us up for a situation in which he’s going to have to be the opposite.

When talking to the father, Arikoto discovers that samurai have been slashing off the hair of young girls they come across. What’s that all about?

Arikoto is received at the court of the shogun to give thanks for his appointment at temple chief . . .

. . . but why are the other members of the court looking at him like that?

The Shogun, behind a curtain, asks Arikoto to stay in Edo for a while longer, but Arikoto tries to plead that he has a great deal to do on his return to his temple, and doesn’t dare delay his departure.

This does not make the Shogun happy. He calls for the supervisor of the Ooku (the inner palace/harem), Lady Kasuga (Aso Yumi), and orders her to prepare accommodations for Arikoto. Clearly, the Shogun will not take no for an answer (and why should he?).

In private with Myoukei, Arikoto mentions that the Shogun was wearing a hood over his face, likely to hide wounds from the epidemic. But we know that the Shogun had the disease five years ago – surely he couldn’t have survived all this time?

Myoukei is no fan of the Tokugawas, though, and only has insults to hurl when he hears that Lady Kasuga would be arriving. He sure has a lot of information/rumors about the inner workings of the court, though. That could come in handy.

The real Kasuga, as opposed to the Kasuga from all the stories Myoukei has heard, seems to catch him by surprise.

Kasuga reveals that Arikoto’s impudence in court, in refusing the Shogun bluntly, was considered refreshing. In the end, she begs him to stay in Edo, and he can’t possibly refuse.

Myoukei becomes amenable to the idea thanks to the snacks Kasuga brought as a gift. His view of Kasuga has turned around complete. She’s quite a charmer, isn’t she?

A messenger (Sawamura Denemon played by Naitou Takashi) arrives with another, more impressive, gift:

The next day, they find out that Sawamura has also been tasked to prevent them from leaving – not just leaving Edo, but leaving their current residence.

While his assistants panic, Arikoto doesn’t seem surprised at all, and remains calm.

That night, Gyokuei mentions a rumor he’s heard – that the Ooku/imperial harem doesn’t have women at all, but only has men.

With that, I think we’ve got the layout of the situation clear, with a little more than half the episode left. Why is the Shogun keeping Arikoto in Edo? Do they seriously think they can force a monk to enter a harem?

Before we find out, the monks have to try to escape:

And on the way to getting what she wants, Kasuga is not above playing nasty tricks, including sending over prostitutes to break the monks.

What follows is way spoilerish and extremely dramatic, so I’m going to leave the rest for your enjoyment.

While what had to happen in this episode was clear from the premise, the way they handled the events came as a mild surprise. I wonder what other viewers think about it. It’s tough to score it in terms of realism. I suppose, if the main character was a woman, and the harem in question was the kind the shogun really had, the real events would have been even more brutal than the ones this episode portrayed. The main issue for me was the assumption that a sexual encounter necessarily meant Arikoto had to turn away from being a monk and lead a secular life (yes, there are vows, but there’s also compassion – especially given these circumstances). There was something about the transition that didn’t work right.

The acting helped to sell it. In this, Aso-san’s portrayal of Kasuga was key, and while it toed the line quite closely, I think she pulled it off. The character is absolutely ruthless, and Aso-san has the right smile for it. The story required a gentle Arikoto, and no one could have done it better than Sakai-san. We did not get to see much of Tabe Mikako-san yet, and what we did see of her wasn’t easy to judge. Tanaka Koki-kun is working out well in the role of Gyokuei, but I’ll need to see more.

The pacing was pretty good. I don’t get the feeling that this series will leave me bored. Even better, it left me intensely curious about what happens next, since we’ve gotten through all the things that absolutely needed to happen, given the premise of the story. In the only scene with Tabe-san, close to the end, it’s pretty clear that Arikoto’s going to have a tough time dealing with the shogun.

Whether this series is any good will depend on what they do from here on, now that the groundwork has been laid.

Thanks to Heiwa Fansubs for the excellent subtitles.