There are interesting feminist undertones to Oooku at the end of ep 4 (well not just there, but I want to focus on this ep in particular), with Arikoto’s position as breeding stud and the shogun lady’s outrage at being kept for her womb, with no control over her fate.
As important as this commentary is, it is more modern- not a bad thing, just interesting to note. It wasn’t until the 20th century Japan that society really pushed for women’s primary role to be a mother/baby-maker. In the Edo through the Meiji periods, while producing children was important (especially when it comes to the nobility/shogunal line), women’s role was viewed primarily not as a mother, but as a good daughter in law who sacrificed everything to work for her parents-in-law and as an able wife, working in the fields, the shops, doing whatever work needed to be done to provide for the family. Obviously there were still very sexist restrictions on women’s life, but chains looked a little different than what it became later when motherhood became the prime directive- not something I realized until I did a little historical digging recently.
The conflict between the men really centers around Edo vs. Kyoto. The gentle refinement of Arikoto poses such a stark contrast to the roughness of the Edo men. The men blame it on Arikoto being a fancy steed, but what it boils down to is not where they come from, but how they conduct themselves. As Arikoto pointed out, they don’t respect the shogun and she won’t respect them for that. Rather than their “she doesn’t know what’s good for her” line of defense, they would do better to see what Arikoto is getting right (read: attitude and common human decency) and copy that themselves- then maybe they’d see a change in circumstances.
Arikoto embodies enlightenment in his calm responses to almost everything thrown his way. Yet, even he isn’t totally unflappable or devoid of any sort of human feeling- at the end of the brutal dojo session (my arms hurt just thinking about 1000 swings), his admission that he pushed for extra swings so he didn’t have to think anymore marks the second breaking point for him. Even he is fed up with this shit (and who wouldn’t, for that matter?).
Arikoto’s been dealt a really shitty hand and even after breaking down, he still retains his compassion for the people around him, reaching out to the shogun as a person, as a grieving mother. This signals a change in their relationship and she starts hanging around him and his cat Waka Murasaki a whole lot. I think they’re both balm for each other. That moment where they both laughed over Lady Kasuga’s “variety is the spice of life” method stripped away their positions and just showed them for who they are- two young people essentially courting each other and having fun in one another’s presence.
Then, we have the whole murky deal with Gyokuei. (As a side note, the shogun renamed him O-Tama as a word play because the kanji character for Tama (玉) can also be read or pronounced as Gyoku.) Gyokuei’s treatment at the hands of the other men was absolutely horrible. Yet, it was downright devious of Gyokuei to kill the innocent cat and frame one of his rapists for it- that drags Gyokuei down to their level.
Things start to look up for Arikoto and Gyokuei following the murder of the cat and man, but I have a feeling that things would have started to change even if Gyokuei hadn’t done that. It’s clear that Arikoto’s putting in the extra mile at sword practice made a big impression on the swordmaster and that that is the true turning point.
Arikoto has the true measure of things- killing or revenge doesn’t change anything. Killing can’t bring the cat back, hacking off pony tails can’t bring one’s life back, violating others can’t change your popularity with the shogun, and framing evil people can’t undo what has already been done. The satisfaction may last for a short while but it eventually fades away while starting a new cycle of bloodshed and sorrow, and no amount of satisfaction can justify harming another living being. I hope Arikoto doesn’t find out the truth behind this chain of events- it would crush him, both knowing what was done to Gyokuei and how he retaliated. His mission in life was to save others and he couldn’t save Gyokuei from abuse and nor could he save his soul from murder.
The take away from this is that everyone in the Oooku is full of themselves and stuck in tantrum mode, except for Arikoto. The hair-cutting incident mentioned in ep 1 comes full circle with the revelation that the shogun is behind it, taking out her frustration at being forced to live as a womb in man’s clothing on the townswomen. Arikoto’s admonishment that she’s not the only one in chains seemed to open a floodgate between them. We’ve already seen signs that Iemitsu has a softer side, in her treatment of the cat and raw grief for her daughter. Arikoto with his deep compassion might be the person to break the crust surrounding that part of her heart.