Based on Fumi Yoshinaga’s best-selling manga about a feudal-era Japan ruled by a fictional matriarchy, 2010’s “Ooku (The Lady Shogun and Her Men)” was a typical Japanese costume film with gorgeous kimonos and a story of drama in high places.
The film’s female shogun, played by Kou Shibasaki, swaggered through the bowing ranks of male concubines — who occupy the o￣ku (inner chamber) of the Japanese title — with a mix of mild erotic interest and barely disguised contempt. While finding the eye-candy on display tempting, she wanted to justly govern a country plagued by poverty and a man-killing disease (thus the rise of female rulers) — and had little use for a small army of male drones.
The sequel “Ooku: Eien — Emonnosuke ・ Tsunayoshi-hen (The Castle of Crossed Destinies)” has an entirely new cast, if the same director, Fuminori Kaneko, and looks back to the 17th century when the fifth Shogun and third woman to hold that exalted post, Tsunayoshi (Miho Kanno), was in charge.
More than just the cast and era are different, though. There is less gender-role-reversal comedy and more tempestuous drama about love in its various permutations, from the romantic and maternal to that greatest love of all: power.
Also, in contrast to Shibasaki’s just, if hard-headed, ruler, Kanno’s Tsunayoshi is capricious and cruel, as well as vain, superstitious and flirty with the concubines of her own o￣ku. (Her motto might be that of Mae West: “So many men, so little time.”) That is, she embodies all the negative stereotypes of female rulers. (Though to be fair, the character is loosely based on a real male shogun of the same name and proclivities who ruled from 1680 to 1709.)
Into this court comes Emonnosuke (Masato Sakai), an impoverished, ambitious Kyoto court official dispatched to serve in the o￣ku. Instead of scheming to share the shogun’s futon, however, he quickly realizes that the road to the top lies through her insecurities. Used to servility, Tsunayoshi is privately intrigued, if publicly upset, when Emonnosuke challenges her, but always with the aim of serving her, as she is intelligent enough to realize. Soon he is elevated to general supervisor of the Inner Chamber, angering those who have long influenced the shogun, including her beloved, feather-brained father (Toshiyuki Nishida).
From this promising opening, with its hot sex and sly cynicism, the film descends into porny melodrama as Tsunayoshi, unable to conceive following the tragic death of her only child, dutifully takes man after man to bed, initially supplied by Emonnosuke from among his similarly ambitious Kyoto acquaintances. Instead of the old erotic charge, Tsunayoshi begins to feel slutty and, as the barren, unproductive years pass, useless as both a shogun and a woman. Who or what can rescue her from this whorish hell? Yet another new lover — or an easeful death?
The answer, when it finally arrives, feels forced, if not completely unexpected.
One problem is that Tsunayoshi and Emonnosuke begin as unsympathetic types, if good matches in their self-centeredness. As the story progresses, they accumulate years and gray hairs, but their obsessions and weaknesses are slower to change, as are those of their assorted allies and enemies. There is a bitter irony in this stasis — but also boredom.
Kanno as Tsunayoshi and Sakai as Emonnosuke are both well cast (or in the case of Sakai, playing his umpteenth role as the repressed, intense hero, typecast), but they keep recycling the same schtick, from Kanno’s lop-sided, lascivious grin to Sakai’s squint-eyed, purse-mouthed grimace of stoicism. Tempted to blame the actors, I realized that they were simply being true to their characters, stuck in repeating plot loops for decades.
Yet the ending rises to pathos, if not tragedy, as time runs out for the principals. Waiting for it, I accumulated a few gray hairs of my own.