A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Black Butler; or how to dress Victorian

One of my favourite manga series is Yana Toboso's Kuroshitsuji, or Black Butler, as it's been translated to English. I'm reading it it English and am currently in vol. 11, with three more books on their way in the mail already. After those I need to wait for a while for the next volume to be published in English, so I thought this might be a good time to write about the series in this blog. I've also watched the first series of the Black Butler anime, which was done quite soon after the manga started. The story goes completely in a different direction, but as the costumes in the anime (and, apparently, there's a video game as well) have all been designed by Toboso, there's plenty of eye-candy for a Victorian Britain -buff like me, even if one doesn't find the storyline too appealing. (That's not the case with me though, as I thought the storyline in the anime was an excellent one - could have been a bit longer though. There's a second series as well, but I haven't had to time to watch that yet - it seems to have different main characters, if I'm not mistaken.) So far, there have been three bigger story archs in the manga, with a fourth one just starting where I'm at, and plenty of filler episodes and daily life occurrences in the characters' lives.

The main characters in Black Butler are Earl Ciel Phantomhive, a twelve-year-old child, who through tragic events has become the head of his household and acquired an immaculate butler, Sebastian Michaelis, to manage his household. The stories are jam-packed with descriptions on how a Victorian-era manor house of a nobleman and its other servants are supervised by Sebastian, whose work includes waking his master up, preparing and serving his meals, organizing dinner parties and evening celebrations, tutoring his master and the other servants in various subjects and tasks as well as maintaining order, cleanliness and general appearance of the vast manor and its grounds (not to mention the townhouse in London!). 

The other servants are either a) useless or b) cause Sebastian more work, but they also have their own hidden talents, which unravel through the course of the books. For Earl Phantomhive, apart from managing a company of children's toys and confectionary, also has another occupation - he is in direct service of Her Majesty the Queen Victoria, whose worries and nuisances he takes care of with the help of his trusty butler, Sebastian. These nuisances include entertaining a German businessman, finding out about drug smuggling ring, investigating a case of missing children and catching a serial killer going after prostitutes in Whitechapel, London, among some others. Apart from these, Earl Phantomhive's unobtrusive life is sometimes interrupted by surprise visits from friends and family, who are both a source of diversion and help to the young Earl and his household.

While taking some liberties with the actual history, most of the events and people described in the manga are quite accurate and especial care has been accorded to the way people dress and behave in both the "polite society" as well as the "underworld". It's no wonder this manga has become hugely popular among cosplayers - Ciel alone will be shown wearing around a dozen different kinds of clothes during one storyline; while Sebastian mostly wears his all-black butler uniform. Other popular cosplay characters are Ciel's betrothed, Elizabeth, and Grelle Sutcliffe, who appears in the Jack the Ripper -storyline.

While not having read a whole lot of manga, I appreciate the Black Butler especially because of its subtleties and the way the stories are structured similar to a novel - most often all aspects of the events are not disclosed to the reader until at an end of a "case", where often will follow a more detailed explanation of how or why Ciel and Sebastian came to the conclusions they did and performed the actions they did. In this way it reminds me a lot of the detective story, which has always been a big favourite of mine.

The themes are always invariably dark, which I think represents quite well the idea we modern people have of the Victorian era - a time when the gothic art and literature began to become increasingly popular and horror and supernatural started to be treated as entertainment for the masses. Naturally, other things are covered as well - the role and status of the British Empire and its colonies in the world, the domestic politics, the currents of economy and the discussion on monarchy, aristocracy and servitude; all during the reign of Britain's most popular monarch ever. All this is also done alongside to all the clichés one finds in manga: all the jokes, references, boobs and explosions one would anticipate to appear, are all there for your enjoyment.

One of the curious things I've discovered while reading Black Butler is that I like both Ciel and Sebastian very much as characters, even though they are both portrayed as impeccable, perfect and always in control of the situation. Ciel, although only twelve, is a child genius, a master of games and of reading his opponents, while Sebastian is the embodiment of flawlessness. So in a sense, the manga lacks the usual "growth through mistakes" kind of setup, for all mistakes (or the likes of thereof) are later explained by the characters to having been nothing of the sort. In a novel, I would hate a character like this - I don't believe in a perfect person, but want to believe in their goodness, so I'd rather have them make a few mistakes and be a little bit stupid, but still have a golden heart. In Black Butler though, the whole image seems to be inverted - they are perfect beings, who hide a dark intent with all their detail-rich, beautiful clothing. But then again, the grumpy characters have always been my favourites when it comes to manga and anime.

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