A Boy and His Demon: A Review of Kuroshitsuji
Title: Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler)
Author: Yana Toboso
Media Type: Manga (Japanese comic)
Warning: Potential spoiler. Proceed at own risk.
Imagine being a ten-year-old boy who just lost his family in a murder. You are the only one left alive but is kidnapped and sold to a group of Satan worshipers who treat you like a toy. Then after a month of being driven to the verge of insanity, they drag you to an altar, cut you open and offer you as a sacrifice to a demon. Would you just crumble there in your own pool of blood and wait for an agonizing death, or offer your soul to the demon in exchange of another chance to live?
That is the kind of decision a ten-year-old Ciel Phantomhives had made. Two years later, he owns a giant toy and confectionery company, inherits the title from his father as Earl Phantomhives and prospers as an aristocrat in the royal court of nineteenth century Britain. That is the Ciel Phantomhives we are introduced to at the beginning of Kuroshitsuji also known as Black Butler, a young Earl surrounded by courtesy and responsibility who is moody and childish at times. Right by his side is a butler capable of executing every command and duty to perfection. Together they carry out secret services for the Queen of England as the ‘Watchdog’ of British underground, the duty given to the Phantomhives generations after generations.
Their bond is subtle, and yet it keeps me waiting months after months for the new chapter despite the storyline sometimes falls short of expectation. There are a whole lot of better mystery stories in both literature and comics to indulge with if anyone would feel the need to sharpen their intellect. For Kuroshitsuji, it is not the mystery plots that sharpen the senses and keep us wanting for more, but the minor details that Yana Toboso secretly gives hints. In fact, Kuroshitsuji was not a mystery comics at all when it started out. There was nothing to solve in the first volume and it seems a bit wishy-washy without a certain style or theme. But one can say that the first volume is merely an introduction to the relationship between the lord and his butler, and the boy and his demon. It is the second volume that Yana seems to settle with Kuroshitsuji being a mystery comics and the background being the nineteenth century Britain as she introduces her version of Jack the Ripper. It is in this particular arc that her talent in producing cunning scripts, and developing noticeably deep characters become obvious – things that many mystery comics lack.
That also includes Ciel’s development as a character, or to be more precise the development of our knowledge of Ciel’s character. In Yana’s style of storytelling, nothing is explicitly told in one go. There is always something left to be pondered over, and it always depends on whose perspective we are being told. This perspective-oriented storytelling reminds me very much of the style used by Hideaki Anno in his classic animation Neon Genesis Evengelion where no one in particular knows the absolute truth. It is only when the information from various perspectives are put together that the audiences finally have a glimpse of what it is actually all about. Yana does not use it so extensively and as complicatedly as Hideaki did in NGE. And she uses it not on the storyline but on the characters which is the exact opposite of Hideaki’s use of the technique. This allows elements of surprises and creates the depth for her twelve-year-old protagonist.
For the butler, she leaves his intention and motivation even more obscure to us. Sebastien, despite being superior to Ciel in more than one way, chooses to oblige the child and become his ‘sword and right arm’. Nevertheless, he loves to challenge Ciel into showing his superiority and proving that he is worthy of the service. This ongoing tug-of-war become something I personally look forward to. As amusing as it is, it always provokes one significant question: why would Ciel keep Sebastien so close?
The butler is responsible for everything in the house including Ciel’s education, schedules, meals, and small private details. In a sense, Sebastien is the center of everything in Ciel’s life even if Ciel would like to think otherwise. But it does not have to be Sebastien. Ciel also has Tanaka, the former butler who miraculously survive the fateful night and who has always been with him since his early childhood. Even though the old man seems senile, he has demonstrated that he is still capable of handling the duties in the house. And even though Sebastien saved Ciel’s life, there is no reason for Ciel to trust the man so wholeheartedly. On the contrary, Sebastien is someone Ciel should have trusted least since he, as you might now have guessed, is the devil himself.
There are many use for a demon servant actually, as one might come across in the tale of the famous Dr. Faustus who summoned a devil to obtain fame, glory, knowledge, and even to oppose the norm by playing pranks on the pope. Ciel is completely different in this matter. Although he has Sebastien’s knowledge and power at his disposal, he is still willing to work his way through be it for knowledge, fame, glory, or revenge. He is not using that power to oppose the norms as he is allowed to break the rules if needs be. There is nothing in the material world that the boy’s intellect and network cannot get, and him giving away his soul without a second thought seems to suggest that he does not care about the spiritual world either. Life is a game to this once broken boy and there is nothing that seems to make him anxious enough to the extent of asking for a demon’s help.
But there is obviously one thing lost forever after that terrible month. He never again trust human whom he now deems as deceiving, weak, and are too capable of betrayal. He cannot form bonds with others, like he can never again open his heart to his lifelong friend and fiancée, Elizabeth. The only companion he would trust is then a creature that is strong and incapable of any lies, although sly and cunning. Their code and honor in which they follow strictly is one thing that set Yana’s demons apart and portrays them as the barometer for human behaviors. Sometimes it is hard to tell which creature is the worst as cruelty, selfishness, and ignorance of a human are exaggerated, displayed, and questioned along the way. And there are always reasons behind every perverted act as we would have for every ordinary demeanor. It leaves me ponder over how our reasons might as well be more twisted than we thought. Ciel also ponders over his own doing in pretty much the same way, now and then showing his disdain of his own kind. On the other hand, the honesty to his thirst and the inability to lie makes Sebastien Ciel’s perfect companion and the boy relies more heavily on the butler both physically and emotionally than he might come to admit. As for the demon, he seems to be there mainly for amusement and maybe fostering Ciel into a perfect meal he could enjoy when the time comes for him the reap the prize. Despite saying that, I am not entirely sure myself as Sebastien at times seems to care about the boy and looks at him in adoration. Only Yana has the answer to this mystery. There is still a possibility that it might be completely outside our speculation.
There is still a long way to go for this series as Yana is still content at going from one case to the next rather than addressing the mystery of the Phantomhives’s bloody night and Sebastien’s true intention. She is still developing as a writer by experimenting different style and atmosphere in each arc. Some readers may not like it, but to me it keeps the comics rather lively and interesting. There is no doubt that Kuroshitsuji will not be a masterpiece, but it is worthy on its own right as Yana’s signature. I would really like to see if this story will fall into some obvious possible cliché of the demonic-servant plot or not. I am willing, at this point, to believe that although it may end up a cliché, Yana could make it interesting enough for us to not care. Someone who loves a mystery story with well-developed, logically-firm plot like Death Note may find this story lacking. But I invite you to take another angle to this series and view it as an exploration of the human element. I will definitely keep close eyes on Yana Toboso and on how, when all is unfolded, would things turn out to be for Kuroshitsuji and for the boy and his demonic butler.