[My thoughts on Black Butler/ Kurohitsuji.]
By now, most avid fans of anime and manga would be familiar with the title Black Butler or Kuroshitsuji. Even if one hasn’t watched or read it, I think it’s almost common knowledge that it’s about a demon posing as butler. And that’s pretty much the gist of it. Our young protagonist, the Earl Ciel Phantomhive, has employed a demon to work as his butler. The price, naturally, is his soul but Sebastian the Smooth has to earn it by carrying out the Earl’s every bidding and helping him exact his revenge on his parents’ murderers.
Kuroshitsuji exists on two levels for me. One is the anime, which I think is decent at best and the other is the manga, which I think is categorically brilliant.
I started reading the manga because of my general dissatisfaction with the first two seasons of the anime. Unlike the later additions that remained true to the manga (Book of Circus, Murder and the Atlantic), these earlier seasons had a choppy plot, strangled by the ending of the first season and further mutilated by the second season.
I wanted to see more and know more so the manga was the perfect opportunity. It was slightly disconcerting at first, seeing characters that were supposedly dead in the anime still alive and kicking and I had to let go of pretty much everything I had seen before the story started making sense. It was all worth it at the end because the manga has been telling a thoroughly riveting a story so far.
The manga has more of the elements that initially appealed to me in the anime – there are mysterious cases to be solved and the truth about the Phantomhive tragedy has to be pieced together. Most of the arcs focus on Ciel and Sebastian working out the cases dumped on them by the cunning Queen Victoria. Once in a while some vital clues about Ciel’s childhood and his enigmatic predecessor are slipped in as well. While these revelations shed some light on the tragedy that struck the Phamtomhives, they also add to the questions left unanswered, making the mystery even greater. Every time this happens, I find myself squinting at the panels to find the tiny half-concealed clues, while the gears in my head start spinning and churning out a dozen or so theories. It’s not easy to guess what happened; the devil is in the details and the closer we get to the truth, the harder one has to look.
This only works because Yana Toboso is a very talented and very clever artist, who hides things in plain sight. She draws beautiful things, drops all the right hints and steadily builds up a storyline that far exceeds anything I had expected when I finished the anime. I also love her art and it makes Kuroshitsuji a pleasure to read.
But it’s not just the clues and theories that make Kuroshitsuji intensely fun. Kuroshitsuji has a pretty strong cast of characters that make the story exciting as well. With Kuroshitsuji, it’s not so much about character development as it is about ensuring that the characters have roles to fulfil. Also, each main character is distinct and brings his or her well-defined personality to the story. Nonetheless, they do have some common traits – they have their own agendas and none of them are entirely good or evil (except the demon, who by default is evil, but let’s not go there).
One fantastic example of this sort of grey character is the protagonist himself. Thirteen years old and in command of a demon, Ciel can be ruthless, manipulative and cunning. It takes someone with a certain temperament to make a deal with the devil and he is no angel. He isn’t overly concerned with the tender emotions of the pawns in his chessboard. He did command Sebastian to burn down a mansion with living children inside (although that depends on how one defines ‘living’) and he did blatantly lie to a potential assassin to turn him into an ally. At the same time, there’re people that Ciel cares about, that he doesn’t view as pawns – his fiancée, Elizabeth, for one. His relationship with her is a bit complicated but it’s obvious that she’s important to him, and not as an asset.
Victoria is another good example of a grey character. In simple terms, she’s Ciel’s boss and a lot worse than he is but when one considers her circumstances, it seems like she’s merely protecting the interests of her own country. An exceedingly kind monarch may not be a strong ruler, and it’s clear that she intends to be a strong ruler.
The grey characters are essential because otherwise, this story would have no suspense and it wouldn’t work. There’s a straightforward reason for this: Ciel has a trump card – Sebastian – that he should be able to use to escape any situation. If the people around him were black and white, it would be far too easy for him to win the game. Instead, we have a story where the characters, each with their own objectives, are intricately knotted together. To add to the uncertainty, not all the cards are on the table and some of the players have yet to be unveiled.
I don’t follow a whole lot of manga but Kuroshitsuji is one of the few that I do keep up with. It’s got exciting story arcs and a very entertaining and suspenseful overarching storyline, filled with ambiguous characters and gripping cliff-hangers. I have no idea at this point, how this story is going to end – if Ciel will somehow win the game, and find the answers he’s looking for, or if he’ll end up as Sebastian’s gourmet meal. I do know, however, that this has been one hell of a story and I sincerely hope that it continues that way.
If you have watched or read Kuroshitsuji, feel free to share what you think about it here. Also, if you liked the anime but haven’t tried the manga, I strongly recommend that you do.