Ooku ~Tanjou~ (大奥 ~誕生~ – Inner Palace ~Birth~) is the prequel that explains how an alternative reality where gender roles in the Tokugawa shogunate were swapped came about. In this story, the shogun is a woman, and young men populate the inner palace/harem of Edo Castle. However, in this prologue the situation is not yet normalized, and the Japanese public has no idea that Tokugawa Iemitsu has died, leaving only a daughter as heir. To reveal the death of the Tokugawa shogun at this point would plunge the entire country into another age of chaos and warfare like the one they had just exited a generation before.

In the first episode, the monk Arikoto (Sakai Masato) was coerced by Lady Kasuga (Aso Yumi) into returning to secular life, along with the noble lineage he had once abandoned. He does so after the horror of seeing one of the young monks under his care killed by Kasuga’s guards, and to avoid the slaughter of a second – Gyokuei (Tanaka Koki). At the end of the episode, Arikoto finally learns the secret of the shogun, and finds out not only that the shogun is a teenaged girl, but also that she has a remarkably bad attitude (though possibly being a violent sadist is considered beneficial for the chief warlord).

Arikoto’s job is apparently to produce an heir with the Shogun. Talk about an unpleasant turn in this life – he’d definitely rather be back tending to victims of the scarlet smallpox at this point.

Inaba Masakatsu (Hirayama Hiroyuki) handles official duties, pretending to be Tokugawa Iemitsu while wearing a hood. He explains the situation to Arikoto, including the fact that the secret is known only to a handful of people. Now that Arikoto knows, he cannot leave the inner palace for the rest of his life.

And what about Arikoto’s closest confidant, Gyokuei? Telling him would condemn him to the same fate, but there seems to be little choice – it’s unlikely that Gyokuei would be allowed to leave now, and not telling him would leave the young man extremely frustrated by his fate.

A councilor, Murase Masasuke, is appointed to Arikoto by Lady Kasuga. Is he really here to help, or is he a spy meant to keep Arikoto in line? Well, Gyokuei doesn’t like it, objecting that he’s Arikoto’s councilor.

For now, though, Arikoto keeps things cordial and accepts Murase’s help in navigating the Ooku. Unfortunately, Murase rejects Arikoto’s first request – to send a message to his family and monastery. No surprise there – the government has already come up with its own story for Arikoto – that he’s a page working under the Shogun.

Murase has his own request for Arikoto – that he get rid of his Kyoto dialect and speak with a proper Edo tongue. This was evidently done, as we later saw Lady Kasuga saying, to take noble Arikoto down a notch. It didn’t work at all, though, because Arikoto laughed and agreed.

Kasuga seems miffed at this news at first, but then smiles. That smile is perfect – it could be an evil smile, but you’re not totally sure.

Arikoto explains the situation to Gyokuei. At least that means he has a firm ally in the Ooku.

Gyokuei thanks Arikoto for saving him – since he would definitely have been murdered by Kasuga – and they discuss all the others Kasuga has killed. Arikoto speculates that the women who used to populate the Ooku probably suffered the same fate.

In the middle of the night, Arikoto gets a visit from the Shogun herself, and she tosses him a kitten (literally).

And that’s it – she tosses the kitten to him, says she gave it and he received it, then left. How odd. What could it mean?

The next morning, the focus moves briefly to the Shogun, who is getting prepped by Kasuga.

Kasuga is clearly worried that the young Shogun will reject Arikoto summarily, but the Shogun shows willingness to see Arikoto again. How many other young men have been brought to the Ooku as potential mates for her, only to be rejected and then executed?

Kasuga expresses her relief to Inaba. Inaba points out that the Shogun might favor Arikoto because of his gentleness. Apparently, there was an incident three years ago that might explain the Shogun’s psychology, but we only get a hint of it for now.

Looks like the rejected guys might not have been killed, after all – Arikoto gets to meet them:

They’re referred collectively to as “Ochuro” and they are pretty blatantly jealous of him.

They tell the story of what happened three years ago – the first man introduced to the Shogun as a concubine was killed by her. The Ochuro try their best to frighten Arikoto with stories of her violent nature, but why do we get the feeling that they were tossed out of the Shogun’s chamber because of their bad attitude?

They certainly do their best to insult Arikoto, but he turns their attitude against them, then surprises them by defending the Shogun against their words, taking the high road.

Looks like he’s made three enemies. Of course, that’s what court intrigue is all about. If we don’t get a huge host of characters each with their own motives all scheming against each other and making tenuous alliances, this isn’t going to be much of a show.

Arikoto might have won the respect of Murase through that display, though.

Speaking of the other characters, we get a little glimpse of the lifestyle of Inaba next, as he ends his daily stint pretending to be the Shogun, and goes back into his secret room. He thinks about the wife and child he had to abandon to take on this duty, and the regret shows plainly on his face.

That night, Arikoto rises to a noise outside his door, and finds another surprise waiting for him:

Gyokuei quickly concludes it was the Ochuro’s revenge, and Arikoto compares the situation to the Tale of Genji.

In that theme, Arikoto decides to name the cat “Wakamurasaki” – after the character Genji marries, who is also probably Lady Murasaki, the writer of story.

The Ochuro delight in their mischief, and one of them brings up the cat Arikoto received from the Shogun. I don’t like where this is going . . . .

A writer doesn’t put a little kitten into a story, and make it such a focus, without planning to use the emotional significance associated with it.

And the travesties continue, as Arikoto discovers a dead rat has been provided as his meal. Gyokuei storms into the kitchen demanding answers, but the kitchen staff has a laugh about it. Looks like the animosity towards Arikoto runs deep here, as the Ochuro already have the staff under their influence.

Around this point, I was asking myself: is the kitten going to survive the episode? Also, will Arikoto be able to strike back against the Ochuro, or will we have to wait for a future episode to see that retribution?

Suddenly, we have even more to worry about – what happened to Gyokuei? In the next scene, we see Arikoto asking a guard if he’s seen Gyokuei around, indicating that the young man did not return. The guard is not only unhelpful, but also calls Arikoto a homosexual selling his body to gain position in court.

But the important thing now is finding out what happened to Gyokuei, and I think I’ll leave that, and the answers to the other two questions, to your enjoyment.

I think this episode continued to move at an excellent pace given the subject matter. The Ochuro turn out to be vicious enemies,  focused on topping their last atrocity. Arikoto is surrounded by greater and lesser enemies, and that certainly keeps the tension up. Oh, and there’s some swordsmanship later in the show, too, and I think Arikoto’s character developed a bit there.

The one aspect that I’m not sure of yet is Tabe Mikako-san’s portrayal of the Shogun. I need a longer scene between her and Arikoto before I can be sure of how she’ll do in the role.

Thanks again to Heiwa Fansubs for the subtitles.