Sympathy for the Devil: Black Butler

Before I get back into my Romero Retrospective, I would like to take a moment to talk about something that’s been on my mind (and my television) for the past week or two: Black Butler.  Also known by its original Japanese title, Kuroshitsuji (黒執事), Black Butler first appeared in September 2006 as a manga penned by artist Yana Toboso.  While I never read the original manga, the 24-episode anime (directed by Toshiya Shinohara) caught my eye in October 2008 with its Victorian trappings and a particular sense of fashion that smacks heavily of Gothic & Lolita.  However, the general dearth of noteworthy titles being produced by the flagging anime industry served to discourage me from ever viewing this particular title, but recently a friend recommended it to me and so I determined that I would give it a proper viewing.

The first episode introduces us to Earl Ciel Phantomhive, 12-year-old toy and candy magnate in Victorian England, and his mysterious and handsome butler, Sebastian Michaelis (brought devilishly to life by award-winning voice actor Daisuke Ono).  Ciel inherited the Phantomhive empire after the unexplained deaths of his parents two years previously, and also assumed the family’s duties as the “Queen’s Guard Dog,” an office acting as the Crown’s unseen hand in Great Britain’s underworld.  Sebastian’s incredible talents inform us that he is, as he so often reminds us, “one hell of a butler” (actually, a Japanese pun that can also mean “a devil and a butler), and we learn that his preternatural abilities are not without a supernatural explanation.  He is, in fact, a demon who has been bound in a Faustian pact whereby he will serve Ciel until he has exacted revenge upon those who slayed his parents and sullied the Phantomhive name.   And, in true Mephistophelian fashion, when Ciel’s vengeance is complete the demon will be allowed to feast upon the young boy’s soul at leisure.  Along the way, various otherworldly beings are also introduced: an eccentric undertaker with a penchant for laughs, a flaming transvestite reaper, a devil dog that transforms into a beautiful young man when excited (while retaining the mind of a dog), and a maniacal angel bent on cleansing mankind of impurity.  Even the ostensibly human characters are often endowed with unusual abilities and personalities, and the chaos that ensues is at times bewildering even for someone as steeped in the vicissitudes of animated mayhem as I.

As may be inferred from the character descriptions above, this anime is not exactly a historically accurate portrayal of life in fin de siècle England or Victorian society.  While it takes great pains to introduce various aspects of the lives of nobility (such as pointing out specific teas and desserts enjoyed by the wealthy in those days), the audience learns quickly to take their disbelief, crumple it up, and dump it unceremoniously out the window.  That said, the animation quality (which ranges from merely adequate to rather impressive) allows for a significant amount of detail in the backgrounds, especially the Phantomhive mansion with its elegant carvings, intricate damasks, and gorgeous teaware.

However, what really kept me engrossed in the tale, and what leads me to give a predominantly positive appraisal of this work, is its portrayal of the classic revenge story.  After the opening credits, Ciel has already made his deal with the devil and is busy at the task of pursuing his parents’ murderers.  One might expect to see many episodes where Ciel is taught moral lessons about the meaningless of vengeance, and how his life is not worth throwing away for revenge.  His parents would have wanted him to live out the rest of his days in health and happiness, not dwelling on hatred and anger.  After all, as Confucius said, “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  One might expect such moralist platitudes, but one would be wrong, and this is exactly why I find this anime to be so absolutely refreshing!  SPOILER ALERT!  In fact, later in the series Ciel is confronted with the illusion of his dead parents, who encourage him to give up his feckless attempt to avenge them and live a happy life.  Ciel almost caves in to their persuasion, but ultimately realizes that he already died on that day two years ago, and if he were to give up his hatred and lust for vengeance, there would be nothing left!  His strength of will and desire for justice are the very forces that animate him, and he cannot let go of them lest he become little more than a walking corpse.

Ciel seems to live by the LaVeyan code that states, “if a man smite thee on one cheek, smash him on the other!”  When he temporarily gives in to despair toward the end of the series, Sebastian abandons him to suffer alone for a time (while still watching over him in feline form), so that he will renew his determination and, presumably, become an even more delicious soul for the demon to devour.  Sebastian is the perfect epicurean throughout each episode, acting as both sadist and masochist in a striking depiction of a true devil following the proud literary tradition of German portrayals of Old Nick.  Like Shaw’s Satan he is a perfect gentleman and paragon of etiquette.  While he does not show any particular care for individual lives, he echoes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in that he seems to have some pity for humans, and even displays compassion at times, although always in his own best interest.  As the series progresses we see him protecting Ciel from harm, but also allowing certain events to occur, always manipulating and controlling each situation in such a way as to mold and shape Ciel’s soul into the ultimate demonic delicacy.  This fascinating interplay is paradoxically both that of father and child and of predator and prey, a diabolical conundrum that only the Devil himself could summon up.

In the end, Black Butler is a dark and compelling story wrapped up innocuously in a whole lot of pseudo-Victorian fluff and frills and zany characters, with a few good laughs along the way.  If you can get past the inconsistencies and gaping plot holes, the memorable cast and fairly impressive production values might make you want to barter off your soul to Sebastian as well…I know I do.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with the Green Fairy, and I don’t want to be late…

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2 responses to “Sympathy for the Devil: Black Butler

  1. You should be the person that write the summary of new books. You ALWAYS write so well that it makes me want to watch what you’ve written about!

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