I’ve been reading a manga called Kuroshitsuji this week. It is a manga written and illustrated by Yana Toboso. In English, it will be called The Black Butler. It’s a great deal of fun. The story is about Ciel Phantomhive, the 12 year old Earl of the Phantomhive family, and his butler, Sebastian. Ciel is also the President of Phantomhive Toys — the most successful toy company in England (think Willy Wonka). We find out fairly quickly that Sebastian is no ordinary butler. He is, in fact, a demon who is under a contract to do any and everything that Ciel asks. Exactly what Ciel must do for his end of the deal (or even why he made the deal in the first place) is unclear, but we all know what deals with the devil usually entail.
The Black Butler is set in Victorian England, which is a crucial part of the fun. The illustrations are packed with detail, the clothing is unbelievably lush and complicated, Queen Victoria even shows up and Toboso is always careful to include the menu for the high tea and dinners that Sebastian prepares for Ciel (demons are evidently master chefs and pastry cooks. Or maybe that’s just Sebastian). It has such a delightful gothic sensibility that reading the manga is really a delicious visual treat. Plus, the author makes use of historical events from the 19th-century as part of the story. For example, Ciel and Sebastian work to solve the case of Jack the Ripper and another story arc deals with colonial and racial conflict in India.
There is a running pun throughout the series that works in the original Japanese but doesn’t translate so well. After this or that incredible display of talent, some character will invariably ask Sebastian who he is or why he does what he does. Sebastian always answers “Because I am a demon and a butler.” In Japanese, Sebastian says aku made shitsuji desu. That means, “I am merely a butler.” However, the phrase is written <i, which means “I am a devil and a butler.” But there would be know why to tell just by listening to Sebastian whether he is saying aku made or akuma de. The irony, then, is that Sebastian always explains quite openly who he is and where the source of his power comes from. “I am a demon and a butler,” although a literal translation, doesn’t get the trick across in English. Another translator rendered the phrase as “I’m one hell of a butler.” I think that gets closer to the intent of the original.
I still can’t quite figure out whether or not Sebastian, the demon butler, actually cares for the young, orphaned Ciel. Ciel is prematurely grim and jaded due to tragedies in his past and it seems as if Sebastian has some pity for him. But the author leaves this pretty ambiguous. For example, in one panel, Sebastian walks down the hallway after hearing Ciel explain in a dull monotone that his life is shrouded in pain and death. Sebastian’s head is in his hands and it looks like he’s moved or is crying. Perhaps Sebastian is sad to see a young boy already so destroyed by life? However, the next panel reveals Sebastian is actually laughing. So Sebastian’s allegiances are impossible to untangle because he is a demon.
Kuroshitsuji is an ongoing manga in Japan. 7 volumes have been released. I am only half-way through volume 4. There is also a 24-episode amine version and a second season is currently in production. Black Butler has not yet been released in English but Yen Press will begin to run it as a serial this August and volume 1 will be released in English in January 2010.