Never having indulged in graphic novels I bought this out of curiosity as it was a joint winner of the 2009 Tiptree Award which is given for fiction relating to gender questions.
I'm not sure how much it would make sense to someone who didn't have some understanding of Japanese culture especially in the Edo period of the Shoguns as it is set in an alternate Japan and deals with the gradual breakdown of an entirely and extremely male dominated society in the wake of a disease which wipes out and then continues to kill four fifths of the male population. The social change though is gradual and seeks to retain as much as possible of the status quo as this is set near the start of the Shogunate and memories of the preceeding civil wars still hang heavy in the communal memory and no one wishes to see Japan return to the years of bloodshed. The loss of men is also used as the necessity for the closure of Japan to the outside world that was enforced at this time - here it is used to hide the weakness of a land unable to raise an army. Men become commodified as families that manage to retain sons regard them as a resource, protecting and cosseting them for rich marriages or selling their services as begetters of children.
All the books are set largely in the Ooku, the inner palace where the Shogun's male concubines and bodyguard are housed - forever shut away from the outside world as the Shogun's women were in our reality.
The first volume is set a couple of generations on from the initial catastrophe when the management of society by women has become an accepted norm and indeed most people seem unaware that things were ever any different. Volumes 2 and 3 look back toward the early upheaval and explore the difficulties of adaptation.
I wonder if some of the ideas for this tale might have come from the current predicament in some Asian countries where the obsession with sons and the social denigration of daughters coupled with the ease of pre-natal scanning has led, through female abortion, infanticide and simple neglect of girl babies, to an opposite gender imbalance where well over one million men (It was reckoned at 1 million in 2000) will never find a wife and this also in societies where a man's grounding in society is confirmed by marriage.
These manga only take a couple of hours to read once one has adapted to reading a book in the opposite direction, starting at what, in the west, is the back of the book and reading the page from right to left. It's such an intersting concept that I would very much have liked then to have been written as prose rather than graphic novels so that the inticacies of plot and social ramifications could have been explored more deeply. Even so I've got pre-orders in for Vols 4 and 5 scheduled for later this year.
Ooku: The Inner Chambers takes place in an alternate reality where men are plagued by a new disease and women have to rule the world. Due to this there's a gender role reversal - Ooku deals with this wonderfully, gripping the reader early on. Taking you through the inner workings of the Shogunate, Ooku tackles things that you rarely see in manga and does them well.