Ōoku: The Inner Chambers depicts a world where the male population has declined considerably. With a female shogun in power, chosen men stay within the walls of Ōoku and serve her as concubines. The series is now streaming on Netflix.
Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers
When a boy dies while collecting mushrooms in the wilderness, the men of his family suffer from a disease that covers their bodies in red pustules. The disease kills them but does not harm women. The boy’s mother believes that he is being punished by the god of the mountain with a plague.
The plague soon spreads from one village to another and comes to be known as red-face smallpox. The male population declines substantially, and 80 years later, it stabilizes at one-fourth of the women’s population.
With a skewed sex ratio, the institution of marriage collapses; only privileged women can get a husband. The traditional roles of men and women are inverted.
Even the shogun is a woman now, who alone has the luxury of having around 3,000 young and fit men at her disposal in the Inner Chambers, also known as the Ōoku, of the Edo Castle.
A man named Mizuno Yunoshin decides to serve at the Ōoku, as his parents will receive compensation for his work there. Mizuno is told that he cannot talk to anyone about what happens in the Ōoku, which is not a good place by any means.
When the seventh shogun passes away, a woman named Yoshimune becomes the eighth shogun. Meanwhile, Mizuno’s popularity rises, and he is promoted from being a page at Ōoku to a Groom of the Bedchamber, which means he will now be one of the shogun’s personal attendants.
He is also chosen as the shogun’s concubine. He is to sleep with the shogun, but an old tradition dictates that the first concubine to sleep with the shogun is secretly killed. The shogun decides not to kill him and gives him a new identity instead, which allows him to marry the woman he loves.
The eighth shogun becomes curious about women taking male names when they become the head of the family, so she visits the chief scribe, Master Murase, who gives her a book called “The Chronicle of the Dying Day”. The book will help her understand how things changed.
It is known that the Honored Kasuga created the Ōoku, but what is not known is that Honored Kasuga was a woman. “The Chronicle of the Dying Day” takes us to the past. Lady Kasuga was the wet nurse of the third shogun, who, along with several men, was killed by red-face smallpox.
Lady Kasuga tries to hide the truth about the shogun’s death by uprooting his illegitimate daughter, Iemitsu, and making her pose as the shogun because if the news of the shogun’s death gets out, Edo will be in danger of getting attacked. Lady Kasuga aims to keep the truth hidden until Iemitsu gives birth to an heir.
When the new Abbot of Keiko-in, a beautiful man named Arikoto, comes to report his succession and pay respect to the shogun, Lady Kasuga holds him captive and threatens to kill his companions if he does not give up his monkhood.
After one of his companions is killed, Arikoto is forced to break his vows to save his second companion, Gyokuei. He is then made the shogun’s concubine and told that the men at the Ōoku are supposed to be the shogun’s final line of defense in case of an attack.
When Iemitsu first meets Arikoto, he ends up displeasing her. One day, she randomly gifts him a cat, and Arikoto takes care of it. She grows fond of the cat. While playing with it, she ends up telling Arikoto about having a daughter at the age of 15 and losing her.
From that day, the two of them grow close, and Iemitsu keeps meeting him. Initially, Arikoto is not liked by the others at Ōoku. A few of those men rape Gyokuei, who then kills the cat to frame one of them.
The cat’s death upsets Iemitsu, and she gets into an argument with Arikoto, who questions her about being cruel to her subjects. Arikoto points out that she thinks she is the only one who is in pain, but that is not the truth.
Iemitsu decides to punish him by having him, along with other men, dress as a woman. Arikoto hears her sad laughter and realizes that she is hurting inside. It turns out that she was separated from her mother, who was killed by Lady Kasuga, at a young age to take her father’s place.
She was then raped by a man at the palace. She killed the man but never told anyone that he raped her. She got pregnant with his child, but even her daughter did not survive. She is not treated like a shogun but a walking womb whose only responsibility is to continue the bloodline.
Arikoto regrets being harsh to her and realizes that he has the ability to save her. He decides to be there for her, and the two of them fall in love. However, their happiness does not last long, as despite being together for a year, they fail to produce an heir.
Lady Kasuga brings a new concubine named Sutezo for Iemitsu. Arikoto has to talk to Iemitsu and ask her to sleep with Sutezo when he realizes that her failure to produce an heir might threaten the peace of the country.
Iemitsu gets pregnant with Sutezo’s child and gives birth to a daughter. Sutezo soon gets paralyzed, and new concubines have to be brought for Iemitsu to produce a male heir. On Arikoto’s insistence, Gyokuei also becomes one of Iemitsu’s concubines.
Meanwhile, Lady Kasuga falls ill, and another wave of the epidemic kills several men, including Sutezo. Despite everything that has happened, Arikoto dedicates himself to taking care of Lady Kasuga.
Lady Kasuga had asked Masasuke to maintain a journal and record everything that has been happening at the Ōoku. She names this journal “The Chronicle of the Dying Day”. She asks him to continue recording everything, as they are witnessing what might turn out to be the doom of their country.
Before she dies, she leaves the responsibility of taking care of the shogun as well as the Ōoku to Arikoto, who then assigns new roles to everyone who serves at the Ōoku.
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers ending explained in detail:
How do women take over the roles traditionally inherited by men?
With changing times, women start taking charge and performing the duties that were once solely performed by men. Iemitsu proves herself to be a capable and intelligent shogun. She finally reveals herself to the public, and everyone finds out that the shogun is a woman.
Feudal lords had been making their daughters pose as men after the death of their sons because they feared losing their titles. With a female shogun leading the country, they can now pass their titles to their daughters.
Women inheriting these titles was supposed to be a temporary measure until the male population increased again. However, things never go back to what they were.
As Iemitsu had taken her father’s name and title and the daughters of the feudal lords had taken their brothers’ names when they were pretending to be men, they end up keeping those names. It then becomes a practice for women to take up male names once they inherit a title.
What is the role of men in this society?
Iemitsu dismisses 100 healthy men from the Ōoku and sends them to Yoshiwara, a government-licensed pleasure district, where these men are forced to sell their bodies. Women can now use these men to get pregnant at a cheap rate.
Men are no longer required to do anything other than father children. They must now sleep with different women to prevent the population from declining. Families start renting out their sons for money to women who want to have children.
Fortunately, the male population rose at that time and became one-fourth to that of the female population. Additionally, the harvest of rice is good after a famine that had been a huge problem.
What happens to Iemitsu and Arikoto?
Arikoto pleads with Iemitsu to be released from the duty of being her concubine, as he cannot bear to see her sleep with other men in order to bear children. Iemitsu agrees, and Arikoto is made the Senior Chamberlain, a position that allows him to stand above and govern all men who serve at the Ōoku.
His name is not recorded anywhere because all concubines are mentioned by female names in the official records. This is because Iemitsu regarded being the female shogun as nothing more than a shadow of what once was.
Iemitsu goes on to give birth to two more daughters, and it becomes clear that the fourth shogun will be a woman; no one questions this.
Due to repeatedly giving birth and having miscarriages, Iemitsu dies at the age of 27, but not before telling Arikoto that he was the only one she ever loved and that he was her special one.
Even when Gyokuei takes Buddhist vows and becomes a monk again, Arikoto does not join him, as before her death, Iemitsu had asked Arikoto to guide her daughter as a father when she becomes the shogun.
Arikoto fulfills her wishes and stands by her daughter, the fourth Shogun of the Tokugawa clan, Ietsuna.