I sat down to write this review, and all I really want to do is gush.
Last night I decided to soak in the tub for a bit, and as is my wont I grabbed a book to read while I was there-- Ooku volume 2.
Oh, man. I liked volume 1 of the manga, to be sure; it had strong characters and an interesting premise. But volume two just about broke my heart. Leave it to Yoshinaga to be able to create a manga so completely beautiful and yet so completely "real" at the same time. Granted, I'm no Japanese history buff, but for the time I was reading this manga her version of the shogunate was decidedly more real to me than the actually history I'm familiar with.
The characters and story really resonated-- and not because I feel any particular relation to an alternate-history Japan in which females have taken on the shogunate in response to a severe shortage of men, but because her writing makes every single character she touches human. Even a character with a relatively minor role-- a rapist, among other not-so-good things --is made human by a single line of dialogue and facial expression.
Suffice to say, after finishing the book I sat in the tub an extra 5-10 minutes just absorbing what had happened. It is, in short, a romantic tragedy-- but not a fluffy, sparkly affair. It's a sad joining of lonely people trapped in situations they did not want and have even attempted to escape from. Which is not to say that the manga is depressing overall; in fact, true to Yoshinaga form, there's quite a lot of humor and wit in the dialogue and characters, even a few moments towards the end of the volume.
I can't think of a better way to say that it simply feels "real." The story is not presented as a grandiose period epic, though with the beautiful art and attention to detail it could easily pass for one. In the end the story is about the characters themselves, who are grounded in reality and are complex and conflicted as the real humans I interact with day in and day out. The way they act, what they are motivated by: it's all there for the taking.
I don't think I can recommend this book highly enough-- and thanks to a trick of Yoshinaga's plotting, you can pick it up before reading volume one if you need to. I really hope that you'll do so.