The year is 1716. A mysterious plague that infects only men has decimated the male population of Japan. In a society now ruled by women, Yunoshin Mizuno, a young samurai, continues to pursue a life of chivalry. In order to save his destitute family and to help himself forget his forbidden love for the daughter of a wealthy merchant, he decides to enter into service in O-oku, the inner chambers of Edo Castle where a harem of 3,000 beautiful men have been assembled to ensure the propagation of the Tokugawa lineage. No woman—other than the Lady Shogun—is admitted into these chambers. Here, talented and gorgeous men spend their days engaged in a cutthroat competition to win the affections of the Shogun.

2.5
Gender-reversal melodrama in feudal Japan lacks passion and conviction.

JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: Based on Yoshinaga Fumi's popular manga series and set in the early 18th Century of a highly fanciful Japan, The Lady Shogun and Her Men is a turgid melodrama which deals with familiar themes of thwarted love, honour, sacrifice and revenge.

The pacing is glacial, most of the key characters are superficial, the lead actor is inept, young gay men are portrayed as effete and the narrative is woefully lacking in drama and intrigue save for a third act twist.

The prologue postulates that a plague known as 'red pox’ has devastated the male population in the early 1700s so males are outnumbered four-to-one by females. Wars no longer exist, Japan is a matriarchal society and Tokugawa’s female Shogun is just seven years old.

The protagonist is Yunoshin Mizuno (Ninomiya Kazunari), 19-year-old son of an impoverished samurai family. As men are scarce, Mizuno generously offers to impregnate willing women for no fee. He’s smitten with O-Nubu (Horikita Maki), a wealthy merchant's daughter who calmly tolerates his studly role but they accept that coming from different ends of the class spectrum is a barrier.

To avoid being married off by his mother to a rich girl and to ease the family’s financial burden, Mizuno opts to leave them and O-Nubu to work as a page in the Inner Chambers of the Shogun’s court in Edo Castle, staffed by young, frivolous gay males, knowing that, once admitted, he can never leave.

He resists their overtures and later proves his sword fighting skills in a match against Tsuruoka (Okura Tadayoshi), the lover of powerful Chamber Groom Matsushima (Tamaki Hiroshi). Tsuruoka challenges Mizuno to a rematch which, without giving too much away, doesn’t end well for Tsuruoka. Both fight sequences are poorly choreographed.

The young Shogun dies and is succeeded by the haughty, headstrong, unmarried Yoshimune (Kô Shibasaki). Mizuno is promoted to the rank of Chamber Groom, which gives him the chance to be her first bed mate – an honour that comes with a very big catch.

Some may regard the ending as a clever twist: to me it’s cheating, taking dramatic license way too far.

A member of Japanese boy band Arashi, Kazunari is best known to Western audiences for his portrayal as Private Saigo in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. Here he simply lacks presence and charisma, mechanically registering expressions ranging from earnest, indignant and angry to dewy-eyed; sometimes he just looks blank. Shibasaki is impressive but given relatively little screen time.

Director Kaneko Fuminoro is a TV veteran and it shows in a film that is decidedly small screen in tone and texture. The dialogue is often clunky as cast members chew on lines such as, 'His slight build belies a body sculpted by daily training," 'What matters most in O-Oko is a pretty face and social skills" and 'I believe I have dutifully heeded your wishes for modesty."

Maybe all that sounds more graceful in Japanese. There are a few comic touches, as when the Shogun sweeps past her fawning courtiers observing they resemble
a 'silly bunch of peacocks".

The use of jaunty pop tunes in the soundtrack, interspersed among lush orchestrals, is jarringly inappropriate. But very little about this soap opera movie strikes me as redolent of feudal Japan except, perhaps, for the colourful costumes.