Movie Review: O-oku

I just watched a movie.  This movie was full of kimono.  The kimono were the only good thing about the movie.  Everything else was just bad.  The plot was bad.  The acting was bad.  The conflicts were bad.  The special effects were bad.  The twist ending was bad.  Yeah.  It was bad.  But I was still drooling over the kimono.  So without further adieu, I present to you O-oku, A.K.A The Lady Shogun And Her Men.

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This story takes place in 1700’s Japan.  A disease has decimated the male population to the point where there are 4 women to every man.  Gender roles are completely flipped on their head in this world.  Mothers are the head of the household, men are sold in marriage (and in brothels) to women desperate to have children, and the shogun is now a 7-year-old girl with an entirely female advisory board.

In this world, we follow our hero Mizuno (played by Kazunari Ninomiya from the pop group ARASHI) the son of a lower-class samurai family.  He decides to pay back his family for their kindness (they refused to sell him to a new woman every night, apparently a common practice for the poor in this world) by joining o-oku, the harem of men kept at the palace for the pleasure of the lady shogun and to father the next in line.

I had a couple of issues with this concept, the first was that all of the servants in o-oku were men.  It just doesn’t make sense.  There is a shortage of men outside, these servants only job is to serve the men who will see the shogun (they never will themselves) so why are they there?  In traditional harems, the servants were all women or eunuchs to ensure any babies born belonged to the ruler.  The ruler is a woman here!!! Of course any kid she produces would be hers!  Get some women servants in and send those other men out into the world to start repopulating!!!!

The other issue I had with this concept was a lot creepier.  Why the *%#! do they have hundreds of sexually mature, 20-40 year old men, ready to serve a SEVEN YEAR OLD GIRL???????  It’s not like o-oku is just always there.  This fact is actually brought up after the girl dies and a new shogun inherits.  There is a threat that she will dissolve o-oku and replace all the existing men with new ones.  So this particular group of men were assembled for a CHILD.  Did nobody on the production team think this through when they were writing this?  It just creeps me out in so many ways!

Okay, okay, rant over.  This movie has issues.  Major issues.  But that’s not why you’re reading this review is it?  You want to see the kimono don’t you?  To me, the kimono don’t save this movie, but they are a nice consolation prize, so here we go!

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O-Oku tries to turn traditional gender roles on their head, so in this world, the men are peacocks, strutting around in brightly coloured kimono and hakama, painstakingly choosing fabrics and patterns, and excitingly ordering their formal clothes for the next visit from the shogun.  It truly is a sight to see men dressed in bright colors.  It’s also a treat to see men dressed in clothes that look like they could come out of the Heian era.

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The hakama are so long they drag on the floor.  The actors have to grip the side of each pant leg to lift it slightly, and they must kick the extra fabric out of the way when they change direction.

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It’s fun to watch, and it serves as a slightly funny (but predictable) joke when Mizuno first joins o-oku and steps on the trailing leg of one man’s hakama.

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In fact, our hero stands out from the crowd by insisting on not wearing bright colours, but instead choosing a modest, black set of robes.

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Good call (or bad call depending on how you look at it) because the new shogun (after the 7-year-old shogun passes) has a real disdain for finery and expense.  She chooses a more modest wardrobe and insists on it from her advisors as well.

On the very first day, the royal dressmaker introduces concept of an uchikake (a “lift-up robe” according to the subtitles).  The shogun likes the design, but hates the finery of the silk.  Her next uchikake is made from rough tsumugi silk.

Flipping gender roles continues outside of the palace too, with the courtesans and prostitutes in town being men with the women lined up to see them.

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Okay, have you drooled enough?  Overall, the movie is meh.  But the kimono are stunning.  The costume team deserves a round of applause for their work and I really appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the kimono in this film.

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