This Netflix Anime Uses Alt-History to Explore Gender Norms

Gender is a trap. The binary is a lie. And flexible sexual politics can lead to real change.

That’s some of the subtext in the fascinating Netflix anime series “Ōoku: The Inner Chambers,” which tells a complex love story in an alternate-reality Edo Japan in which an illness upends society’s gender norms and expectations.

The show’s story, adapted from a popular manga that also spawned several live-action series and movies in Japan, is framed as a historical record of how this alt-Japan and the shogunate came to be.

When the shogun, the last male heir to the Tokugawa clan, dies from an aggressive strain of smallpox that targets young men, he is secretly replaced by an illegitimate daughter, Iemitsu, who is taken to the palace and raised as a man. (Iemitsu is based on the real-life shogun of the Tokugawa clan with the same name; “Ōoku” cleverly builds up its world from select real historical characters and events.)

As the male population dwindles and the economy fails, Iemitsu lives a life secluded in the palace with the ōoku, or the “inner chambers,” where thousands of beautiful men live as concubines for her. Forced to present herself as a man, Iemitsu grows into a brutal, violent misogynist. And although Iemitsu wants to live her life as a woman, she also resents her body; a few years into her reign, she is a victim of sexual assault, and a subsequent miscarriage debilitates her with rage and grief. She struggles to find her place within the limitations of the gender binary. Her manhood and womanhood are never in service to her understanding of her own identity; whether she’s passing as a male ruler or having a child to secure the Tokugawa bloodline, her actions must always be in service to the shogunate.

Then a handsome monk, Arikoto, is abducted and forced to forsake his sacred vows so he can become the groom of Iemitsu’s bedchamber. Arikoto eventually becomes content with his lifetime sentence in the ōoku and falls in love with Iemitsu, who softens under Arikoto’s patient affections.

Abduction, coercion, abuse, assault: Arikoto and Iemitsu’s romance isn’t exactly a Hallmark love story. Arikoto is not the traditional gallant prince; he is deeply dedicated to his life of chastity and charity until that life is upended and his spirit is broken in the ōoku. Nor is Iemitsu the lovely damsel; she’s embittered by the ways her station has dictated how she must see and use her body.

But the most affecting moment in the love story between her and Arikoto is when they realize their love for each other while both in drag. Iemitsu doles out gendered punishments to the men around her: She gives the grooms of the ōoku women’s names and demands they dress up as women for her entertainment. But when she sees Arikoto, who isn’t shamed but instead embraces his femininity while dressed as a beautiful woman, she is dazzled by his fairness and grace. They hold each other, him as a woman and her as a man. The difference between their gender expression and biological identity is irrelevant; they are two people who have come to an understanding based not on gender but on love.

What could have easily been a more traditional love story is instead an intriguing look at how two people are forced to negotiate their ideals, their identity, their politics, their relationships — sexual and platonic — and their position in a government hierarchy as the expectations of them as man and woman, as consort and shogun, bear down on them.

The show also ventures beyond the ōoku to depict how different strata of society respond to the decreasing male population. Women adjust to being the workers and breadwinners. Lords who have lost their sons to the epidemic force their daughters to pass as their male heirs but then resent them for learning, perhaps even enjoying, stereotypically masculine activities like horseback riding and swordsmanship. The remaining young men, considered too valuable and fragile to work, are expected to stay home and lounge. For money they may prostitute themselves to women desperate to be impregnated.

At first the series seems to be leading us in the direction of a completely gender-swapped society, but in one episode the voice-over narration declares outright: “It wasn’t that the status of men and women was reversed. To be precise, men ceased to do anything besides father children. Including child-rearing and house chores, all the labor in the world was placed on women’s shoulders.”

So even though the shogun is a woman, she is still surrounded by advisers who are men. Though women keep the economy afloat with their labors and the realm going with their child-rearing, the men retain their titles and social superiority, reaping society’s rewards even as they are rendered impotent in every non-procreative sense of the word.

“Ōoku” isn’t so fantastical that it completely sloughs off the ways gender and sex dictate how individuals live in a society, often for bad. Antiquated notions of gender roles are so entrenched, the show suggests, that society is determined to preserve them even as they become less and less feasible.

So perhaps “Ōoku” can just serve as a thought exercise, particularly for Americans right now, as transgender rights and women’s rights are under threat: What might it look like when we decide our notions of gender no longer serve us? That may be the real love story waiting to happen.