In an alternate history of Japan’s feudal period, a disease known as the red-faced pox has killed three quarters of the male population. This matriarchal society is ruled over by a seven-year old female Shogun. Yunoshin Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya) leaves his poor family, and childhood friend Onobu (Maki Horikita), to become a member of the Shogun’s Inner Chamber, a harem of men who see to the ruler’s every need. As Mizuno becomes accustomed to this strange new world, guided by the higher ranked Matsushima (Hiroshi Tamaki) and Fujinami (Kuranosuke Sasaki), he also faces a rival in the shape of Tsuruoka (Tadayoshi Okura). When the child Shogun dies and is replaced by the older Yoshimune Ko Shibasaki), Mizuno also sees a chance to become her bedfellow, unaware of the danger that this entails.
With a screenplay by Natsuko Takahashi, based on Fumi Yoshinaga’s manga, and directed by Fuminori Kaneko,”The Lady Shogun and her Men” is a fun, ahistorical, drama that turns on its head the patriarchal structures of the period. Unfortunately, the film seems little interested in the satirical potential of this set-up, or examining the socio-political repercussions of the red-faced pox that has killed off a large percentage of men. Ironically for a film whose set-up suggests a role-reversal, with women being Shoguns, advisors, and filling all the major professions, the story remains remarkably andro-centric. Perhaps this is the point, with the casting of Ninomiya perhaps targetting a young female audience who might be interested in the mild homoerotic overtones of these male concubines. However, it seems that the premise really doesn’t change anything about the world. Where we might have expeceted a female led Shogunate to be very different, it appears identical with only the sexes switched. One of the major failings is the lack of a story, or at least one with any sense of development or achievement for the characters. The rivalry between Mizuno and Tsuruoka appears around the half way point and is resolved almost immediately. There are several story ideas here, none of which are fully developed: the death of the child Shogun and her replacement; the sudden reveal of the fate of the Shogun’s first sexual partner; all of these things are introduced with little foreshadowing. The pop-orchestral score makes an admirable attempt to prop up the lacklustre drama, but often seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting for scenes in which the script has not really established any sense of threat. On the plus side, there are some good action sequences, and the sets, costumes, and large cast, do a good job with the period setting.
The premise has a lot of potential, with the idea of what a matriarchal society might have looked like, and the change in roles of men and women in this period. However, some of the story choices, and the mix of comedy, drama, and romance, make this female-dominated society merely window-dressing with little effect on what happens to the protagonists. The decision to focus the story on the male characters, seems strange, confining us to the Inner Chambers and thereby almost completley removing the women from the narrative. Perhaps this is the point, that Mizuno’s story is exactly the same as if he had been female and the Shogun male, but again it makes little sense to not contrast it with the real history. An interesting concept that is sadly wasted in this film.