Review: Black Butler (2008)

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Genre is a funny thing. On the one hand, it gives you a ballpark for your expectations. Science fiction? Space ships and aliens. Horror? Dark scary places and the liberal splashing about of blood. Gundam? Bloody big robots. But on the other hand, genre can also confine and confuse in the face of reality, and looking at genre definitions across cultures can make things even harder. Black Butler (known to the early uptakers as Kuroshitsuji) originally ran in a shounen (boys’) magazine, Square Enix’s Monthly GFantasy. Naturally, you would think it was a series designed to appeal to boys. One look at it however and it’s going to seem a lot like that’s not in fact the case at all.

It appears to be a strange contradiction, but it makes a lot more sense when you understand that genres in Japan often describe what something isn’t almost as much as they describe what it is. Black Butler definitely isn’t a romance. There’s no hearts and flowers, no kissing, no blushing and awkwardness and no declarations of devotion. All these things, let it be known, are for – ewww – girls. What there is, which establishes it as an acceptable entrant into the boys’ title category, is an epic amount of action and drama.

Twelve year old Ciel Phantomhive, in a fit of Faustian pique, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for revenge on the people who killed his parents, burned his estate and shamed his oh so noble family name. This is not some Nietzschian metaphor for hunting monsters; he sells his soul to an actual devil. This devil – one Sebastian Michaelis – takes the form of a particularly exemplar butler who manages six impossible things before breakfast without even breaking a sweat and is 100% dedicated to seeing Ciel’s desire for vengeance sated so that he can make good on their deal and chow down on the tormented tyke’s tasty, tasty soul.

Which sounds all well and good, doesn’t it? And it is. Black Butler is pretty dark and its emo is immensely engaging. Ciel’s family’s function is as an unofficial watchdog for the monarchy, dealing with what Her Royal Highness Queen Victoria can’t, so there’s a healthy dose of murder, mystery and supernatural mayhem to kick the show along, all of which are given weight and depth through Ciel’s tortured, slightly cracked personality as he struggles for resolution and yearns for normalcy. He’s the ultimate underdog, the wounded, determined hero, clearly in need of saving and redeeming but deliberately walking a path to his own destruction. With the cool as a cucumber-sandwich Sebastian at his side walking the talk and putting food on the table, what exactly is there that a boy wouldn’t like?

But this is where the confusion originates, possibly because of the fact that within Japan’s borders, being published in a particular serial has far less to do with the gender of the readership than it does with letting those readers know what kind of story they’re getting. Outside Japan, however, gender labels tend to be taken quite literally. Black Butler isn’t shoujo, so therefore it’s not a romance, but confusingly enough it is kind of romantic, aptly enough in a very Victorian kind of way. The Victorians, as it happens, were all about the upholding of a moral society through purity, where sex and anything to do with it was taboo. As a result, the concept of sex and sexual desire was repressed, subverted, hidden and coded. Victorian literature and art took to symbolism and metaphor. It’s no accident that hunger and desire can easily be considered as two sides of the same coin, even today. Think Dracula, infamous Victorian-era sexual deviant “deflowering” innocent and pure women at every turn. Or, if you’re of a more modern mindset, think Twilight, where good old Ed manfully fights with his natural inclination to take a bite out of Bella (or metaphorically, to have sex with her) because he, awww, loves her enough to not want to taint her, or something like that.

Black Butler is heavy with this metaphor. Sebastian is as suave and seductive as any romantic hero and as dangerous as any ravenous beast, and Ciel is his pure and innocent victim. Sebastian even confesses as much, although he’s referring to the purity of Ciel’s desire for vengeance, but it amounts to the same thing in terms of subtext. Add to that the fetishized power dynamic of master and servant, and this anime (and one only has to assume the original manga by Yana Toboso) is perhaps a little too heavy on the Victorian metaphor to sit comfortably in its apparent genre. In fact, to western eyes, the subtext in this show is so obvious that it’s left most boys scratching their heads going “huh? But wasn’t this for us?”.

Not that I’m suggesting fan-boys out there aren’t comfortable enough with their masculinity (or even their sexuality) to be alienated by something as tame (not to mention common) as subtext in their anime. After all, if they’ve watched enough I’d be surprised if they weren’t somewhat immune to it by now. Nor am I suggesting they can’t and shouldn’t appreciate this show for what it is. But the relationship between Ciel and Sebastian is loaded with so much metaphor that it makes Black Butler seem like it was never intended for anyone but girls. Now, if only they’d just said so right from the start.

8 cups of tea out of 10.
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