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  • Record of Dying Days:The Alternate History of Ōoku
  • Andrea Horbinski

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

—L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between

The question “How did things end up like this?” is a form of historical inquiry at its most elemental. One possible answer to this question may be afforded by the work of professional historians, who, in the course of investigating the events of the past and how things changed in a given period of time, adumbrate potential alternatives that were then, through the ratcheting process of the passage of time’s arrow, reduced from viable futures to might-have-beens. Another possible answer to this question, however, comes from the popular narratives of science fiction, and in particular the subgenre of science fiction called alternate history.1

Although often dismissed as “genre writing,” inherently of less artistic merit than so-called “literary fiction,” science fiction is a global mode of storytelling whose cultural significance and appeal are indisputable. Science fiction is arguably even more popular in Japan than in the United States: beyond science fiction including novels, short stories, and light novels, the narratives of the anime, manga, and video games that are part of the core of Japanese [End Page 63] popular culture are imbued with countless science fictional or fantastical tropes, plots, and storytelling devices, symbolized by the mobilesuit and the magical girl. Within science fiction globally and in Japan specifically, feminist science fiction has produced some of the genre’s most lauded narratives, and Yoshinaga Fumi’s feminist alternate history manga Ōoku (2005–present) has likewise proven an award-winning hit both in Japan and in English translation.2 Taking place in an alternate Edo period in which a disease known as the “red-faced pox” devastates three-quarters of the male population, leaving women to take up the reins of power in society, the manga follows the women of the ruling Tokugawa family and the men who serve them in the eponymous inner chambers of the shogunal palace in Edo, beginning with the accession of Yoshimune in 1720 CE before backtracking to the start of the epidemic in the 1630s under Iemitsu and moving forward.

Ōoku is an example of the alternate history subgenre of science fiction, which has a history dating back at least to science fiction’s Golden Age in the postwar years and which has recently become well known enough to garner critical attention from academic historians, whose responses have been mixed. In an influential article in 2002, Gavriel Rosenfeld surveys several alternate history texts, all written by men and centering around inflection points in U.S. history. Rosenfeld declares flatly that alternate history’s importance lies in the way it “sheds light upon the evolution of historical memory.”3 Rosenfeld further claims that alternate history’s utility for its writers and readers lies only in its commentary on the present, which inevitably expresses the author’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the same. To those familiar with science fiction as a genre, however, Rosenfeld’s claims about alternate history are reductive. In The Alternate History, literary scholar Karen Hellekson discusses some of the same historian-edited anthologies of alternate history that Rosenfeld cites, noting that they were attempts to discipline the wild invention of alternate history by excluding texts deemed too implausible or “frivolous.”4 That frivolity, however—making the past a playground for a writer’s imagination, as well as the future—is an essential part of what makes science fiction and alternate history narratives popular.

In contrast to Rosenfeld’s declaration that “alternate history is inherently presentist,” Hellekson presents a much more nuanced evaluation of alternate history’s affordances, meanings, and potentialities when she argues that “these texts change the present by transforming the past.”5 Hellekson’s interpretation of alternate history considers the subgenre as a mode not just for expressing dissatisfaction but for articulating productive critique of and dissent from prevailing views: a way of imagining alternatives in the past, [End Page 64] the present, and in the future. Indeed, examining alternate history narratives beyond Rosenfeld’s U.S.-centric, and entirely male-authored, examples reveal that the subgenre contains much...


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