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Kuroshitsuji

I finished up the anime version of Kuroshitsuji last night. No vampires here but gosh darn it if the Butler in question, Sebastian Michaelis, isn’t every bit as dark and seductive as you want him to be. As I explained in an earlier post on the manga, the brilliance of Kuroshitsuji lies in a pun. The back of vol. 1 of Black Butler, the translated version of Kuroshitsuji, provides the following helpful explanation: “In Japanese, Sebastian’s catchphrase—‘I am just a butler’— reads aku made shitsuji desu. Here, by substituting akuma de for aku made in the writing of the phrase, the literal meaning becomes, ‘I am a devil and a butler,’ or ‘I am a devil of a butler,’ even though it is pronounced exactly the same.”

The difference cannot be heard, it can only be seen in writing, a matter of shifting the spacing of two letters. So, every time Sebastian, the butler of 12-year old Ceil, the last Earl of Phatomhive, performs some miraculous feat, and he is asked “What are you?!?!!?,” Sebastian smiles and says “I’m just a butler.” But the joke is that there is no way for us to tell if Sebastian is saying he’s just a butler or, in fact, confessing that he is a demon. And both are true because Ceil has sold Sebastian his soul in exchange for preserving his life until he has had revenge on those who murdered his parents and sold him into slavery.

Of course, the joke is not as funny translated into English. The clumsiest translation I’ve seen is “I’m just a demon and a butler.” But that’s no fun at all. The manga translation goes with “I’m a devil of a butler.” Better, but not great. I was pleased to see that the translator for the subs used my favorite: “I’m just one hell of a butler.”

The anime version has the same dark charm as the manga—a Victorian setting, a wonderfully convoluted plot involving secret societies and people in masks, a Jack-the-Ripper sub-plot, etc. Really, any series that uses Shinigami (death gods – you know, with scythes?) as comic relief has got to be a bit grim. Alas, if I were to go into why the series as a whole was so satisfying, I’d have to give away the end and I don’t want to do it because the end really is worth it.

Kuroshitsuji does, however, give me an occasion to ponder a bit about another recent trope in supernatural/science fiction/ fantasy thrillers. I’ve written before about what seems to be a trend in secular narratives to portray Judas in a sympathetic light—this odd notion that he’s just gotten a bum wrap and is somehow more faithful than the faithful. Concomitant to that might be representations of angels as bitter/jealous to the point of insanity because they can’t figure out why God tolerates sinful humans or why God would create humans when he already has them. Legion would be a recent example. It doesn’t give much away to say that while Ceil has his demonic butler Sebastian, always dressed in black, another character has a maid called Angela, a vision in white. The minute she is introduced, it’s pretty clear that a) she is not all she seems, b) Sebastian doesn’t like her one bit and c) she must be an angel. These two are destined to tangle again. And indeed, in the final plot arc, Angela describes Sebastian and herself as extremes: dark-light, night-dawn, male-female, etc.

The question is, however, what exactly does Angela mean when she says that all things of the dark must come into the light? At first it would seem that she wishes to free Ciel from his fate—that somehow she can break the contract he holds with Sebastian so that he will not be able to consume his soul at the end of their bargain. When it is suggested at about midway through that Angela is associated with the same sinister cult that was involved with the murder of Ciel’s parents, it is no longer clear what her designs might be. Moreover, if Angela’s purification is actually a fire that purifies by destroying as opposed to refining, and if she is Sebastian’s opposite, what does that mean for Sebastian’s character? Is he actually better than we thought? Another “misunderstood” demon? Will he come to care for Ciel and cancel the contract on his own volition? The series does a great job at keeping these tensions in play.

What I really want to know, though, is how new a development is the trope of the disgruntled angel? Is this a recent development or are there older precedents for this? My memory of Paradise Lost isn’t good enough to remember how Milton portrays the angels. My hunch would be to say that it’s a twentieth-century notion. But I wonder if this might be a question grounded in the cultural differences between Japan and America too.

Alas, I have no answer for you here but watch Kuroshitsuji and see what you think of the series’ ending for youself.