Recently, my fourteen-year-old self knocked on my window in the dead of night and asked me to reconsider demon butlers. Or, rather, I went to watch Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic (a movie adaptation of one of the later arcs of the manga) in the cinema with a friend, where we were both promptly reminded why we’d loved this series so much as teenagers. The Black Butler manga is more than ten years old and still going strong, and the movie reeled me back into this world of supernatural action and Victorian Era finery with enough force and finesse that I was compelled to revisit the first few volumes of the manga—the “Jack the Ripper” arc, the storyline I remember being my favorite and starring my favorite pair of villains—and dive back into this story to see if it held up. Is it still good? Certainly. Is it also riddled with problems I’m much more wary of and attuned to now that I’m older and wiser? Absolutely. Spoilers for the arc ahead!
If you haven’t heard of Black Butler (aka Kuroshitsuji), first of all, you should check it out. While it definitely comes with some heavy trigger warnings, it’s a dark and awesome story about the shenanigans of a young noble and his demon butler in the heyday of the Victorian era, and the manga art is basically just gloriously pretty. It also has multiple characters of color as well as queer and trans characters—laying waste to the assumption that non-cishet non-white people only just started existing recently. (If you are interested in checking it out, actually, I’d skip this post, as it does play fast and loose with spoilers for the first two seasons.)
[tw: discussions of transphobia in anime]
Also known as Trans Equals Gay, Anime Edition. Let TVTropes explain it for you better than I can:
In Real Life, being gay and being transgender are entirely separate, as they relate to two different things. Being gay relates to sexual attraction, and means being attracted to others of the same gender. Being trans relates to gender identity, and means identifying as a different gender from one’s assigned physical sex. This can be expressed (in a heavily oversimplified way) as being “a woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice versa. However, this distinction is all too often overlooked by straight cisgender writers wanting to insert a little LGBT-ness into their stories.
The root of this confusion is probably the heteronormative cultural attitude that “boys like girls and girls like boys” as a rule, and anything else is an “unnatural” aberration. Faced with the existence of gay people, using this assumption some might think the two are linked: “Well, the only reason these boys like other boys is because they want to be girls”. Similarly, in trying to understand transgender people, they might think “The only reason these boys want to be girls is because they like other boys.”
Japanese culture has a complicated relationship with queer characters in anime and manga to begin with. This is something I’ve touched on before. QUILTBAG anime characters tend to be smushed into a one-size-fits-all stereotype, where trans* and gay and genderfluid and bi and every other kind of character, especially if they present male, will act the same flamboyant way. Perhaps this is an attempt to force traditional gender roles on non-hetero characters and relationships; perhaps the writers just don’t know the difference. Either way, it’s the opposite of good, and has lead me to assume that like 90% of the queer male-assigned characters in anime are just gay guys written by writers who think gay equals trans. (For examples of this outside the characters in this post, see Leeron, Nuriko, Charlotte Coolhorne, that one gay character in InuYasha who they dubbed with a female voice…)
To add to that, fandom doesn’t help—the characters who do seem to be trans* are constantly misgendered by fandom in discussion, meta, fanfic, etc. Let’s look at these two characters from very popular shows. Continue reading
Selling your soul in exchange for something is a plot trope older than the story of Johann Faust. In pop culture it’s primarily conceived of in Christian terms—sell your soul to the devil, and you’ll never get to heaven but you’ll have something you want on earth, whether that’s fame, talent, love, money, or some other fifth option.
People’s motivations in selling their souls are tremendously varied. Although we usually conceive of the sellers in these transactions as selfish and impatient (why wait for a potential eternal reward when you can get what you want now), but in reality a lot of the stories about these demonic bargains have their roots in tales as varied as revenge, romance, filial love, and desperation.
So let’s look at some of these situations, starting with Supernatural. Although I know we consistently beat this poor show to death nearly weekly in OMPCJ, it’s really the show’s own fault for being such a wealth of religious themes. Anyway, in Supernatural souls are hot currency. These exchanges are usually made at a crossroads, but any demon can make a deal, and the Winchesters are really, really bad at avoiding them. Over the course of the show John’s sold his soul to bring back Dean, Dean’s sold his soul to bring back Sam, Sam tried and failed to get a refund for that, Bobby ‘pawned’ his soul to find Death and get his legs back, Mary unknowingly sold off Sam to bring back John… A big antagonist/sometime ally in the show is Crowley, a demon who is King of the Crossroads, and a masterful dealer when it comes to getting what he wants in the fine print. Supernatural soul-selling is a value-neutral transaction—people from all walks of life can and do sell their souls for any and all reasons, but when the main characters knowingly do so, it tends to be last-act-of-a-desperate-man stuff, seized upon when there are no other viable options left. And collecting on these deals is unpleasant: once whatever terms you and your demon financier agreed upon have been fulfilled, if your soul’s in the balance, you’re dragged to hell for eternity by hellhounds. Fun.
Next let’s diverge from our usual pop-culture fare and look at a musical. A soul-based transaction is at the heart of the conflict in the show Once on this Island. A peasant girl named Ti Moune discovers a wounded nobleman who has crashed his car in a storm. She falls in love with him, and bargains her life against his to keep Papa Ge, the god of death, from claiming his soul. Ti Moune also dies at the end, but the force of her love so impresses Papa Ge and the other gods that they treat her kindly in death and let her legacy of love live on. This is an interesting take on the demon-deal trope, as it’s not set in a primarily Judeo-Christian mythos.
Finally, let’s look at the manga that inspired me to choose this topic: Black Butler. This story focuses on Earl Ciel Phantomhive, a sharp and proud young boy who was sold into slavery after his parents were mysteriously murdered. He makes a deal with the demon Sebastian Michaelis to gain the power to seek revenge on his parents’ murderer: Sebastian will serve him as a butler and help him achieve his vengeance, and then Sebastian gets to consume Ciel’s soul. This story is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, the way the story is told, we as an audience support Ciel’s decision to make the deal and root for him to fulfill his mission (which of course will end in his death and damnation). Secondly, the terms of the deal are interesting as well; in this story, the demon is totally willing to be subservient to Ciel for as long as it takes, and he is faultlessly loyal to his master, staying by his side for the duration of their agreement. There is no fine print or loopholes in their deal from out of which Sebastian tries to sneak.
What other soul-selling storylines exist in pop culture? A fiddle of gold against your soul you’ll tell me in the comments 😉
That’s all for this week’s Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus! Tune in next time and get some religion!
Hooooboy. I’ve been wanting to write about Black Butler (or as some people might know it, Kuroshitsuji) for so long. I want to do it justice, because it’s one of my favorite manga of all time and one of the few consistently good manga that I follow.
So let’s do this crazy thing.
If you are an anime fan or have ever been to an anime convention, you have probably seen something related to this manga’s anime counterpart. (It’s regained popularity recently because of a second season that premiered. Do not, I repeat, do not, watch the second season. It is bad for so many reasons. Read the manga instead. It is still ongoing, and it is awesome.)
The basic plot of Black Butler is this: someone killed a young boy’s parents and sold him into slavery. This boy sold his soul to a demon, payable upon his receiving revenge on said someone. The demon became his butler in the meantime.
Seems sort of bleak, I know, and there are certainly some harsh truths and brutal actions revealed over the course of the story. But 1) that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s nice to have an utilitarian antihero sometimes rather than a truth-and-justice-and-niceness-always typical manga-boy-lead. And 2) the story can actually be heartwarming and/or hilarious at times.
The supporting cast is really a large part of what makes this a fabulous series. You may have heard of TVTropes Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass concept? (If not, educate yourself.) Most of Ciel (our main boy)’s staff and friends are the epitome of this trope, and display it in the most mindblowing of ways. A bumbing housemaid becomes a sharpshooter, a cutesy girl is revealed as a killer swordswoman. (Trying not to give away too many spoilers is hard…)
And as far as this blog’s overarching concerns are, well, concerned, Black Butler is one of those rare manga where you can find badass females in scores AND even a badass transgender death god, who is my absolute favorite character and go-to Black Butler cosplay, Grell Sutcliffe.
The morality of the actual decision to sell his soul is never really dealt with in the series, nor is the overarching theology in which there are demons (evil) and death gods (neutral) with whom to barter and converse but no complementary ‘good’ supernatural force. And on the topic of morality, I mean, we as the audience are generally inclined to root for the Sebastian the amoral demon butler, who will maim, seduce, or kill anything that stands in the way of his master’s goals.
But it’s fun to read something that actually gives you food for thought once in a while. So go read Black Butler: check out the intense storyline, the baller characters, the wild philosophical dilemmas, and the insanely beautiful art. Oh yeah, did I mention that the art was insanely beautiful? Because if there is a manga out there that is more consistently pretty to look at than Black Butler (besides maybe Alichino) I will eat my fancy cardboard chainsaw/death scythe.