Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a little while ago, I sat him down to watch the first six episodes of Kuroshitsuji.
This is actually the second part in a planned series of articles – the first, Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh, can be found here. As with last time around, Watson knew next to nothing about the anime before watching; I didn’t give him any information beyond the title prior to his viewing of it, and nor did he look up anything online. The following questions were given to him afterwards.
While you know comparatively little about Japanese culture, you’re considerably more knowledgeable about British history. What do you think of the portrayal of Victorian England in Kuroshitsuji?
Since you ask, the answer is “not much”. In one of the first episodes we see a view of Tower Bridge being constructed, which gives us quite a specific timeframe for the setting (somewhere between 1886 and 1894). A little later we learn that Jack the Ripper is active, and this narrows it down even further to 1888. Of course, I don’t believe the creators had that in mind – I suspect all they were thinking was “this is England before the Modern era”. But whether they meant to or not, they gave the audience a very precise indication of the world the anime was set in… which they then proceeded to ignore utterly. This is a subject I’ll return to later, but for the moment let me leave you to think about the general technology level of England in 1888, and what implications this might have for society.
Here’s a hint: manpower.
Based purely on what you’ve seen of the anime, do you think the creators did any specific research for it, or do you think the world depicted in Kuroshitsuji was more likely based on stereotypes?
Is this a serious question? In the very first episode, just about the first thing we see is a cup of tea being poured, and if that doesn’t scream “English stereotype” then I don’t know what would.
Oh, alright. I think they might have done some research into details like clothing, or how a picture of Queen Victoria would have looked. And these types of details are potentially important; they can be the difference between something feeling real or artificial. But they can’t carry the entire burden of suspension of disbelief, and the show suffers badly in that respect. If I felt like being charitable, I might speculate that the creators felt forced to use stereotypes in order to present something that their audience would understand. I think it’s more likely, however, that they were just lazy.
Now, anachronisms aren’t too much of a problem for me. I’m not a chap who insists on absolute historical accuracy in my entertainment. I understand that telling a good story and making it fun for the audience sometimes means taking liberties with reality. Small details are fine – maybe a gramophone is shown instead of a phonograph; no big deal. If you need to, you can get away with more: a country mansion having a telephone line (and connection to an exchange) would have been unusual even in the Edwardian era, but I can swallow this without too much difficulty if it’s necessary.
Unfortunately it’s not, and the lack of attention to detail isn’t even the biggest problem I have with Kuroshitsuji. Once again this is a topic I’ll be saying more about later, but I think it’s pretty clear that the creators weren’t really trying in this regard at all.
Still thinking about English society in 1888? Good, here’s another hint: communications.
As of this writing, the Kuroshitsuji manga is still ongoing, and the anime has had two seasons with a third being green-lit for later on this year. There are also two drama CDs, two musical adaptations, a Nintendo DS video game, and a spin-off live action movie. What do you think are the main reasons behind Kuroshitsuji’s popularity?
The level of enthusiasm for the series implied by that list is astonishing. But if I had to guess, I’d say there are three main reasons for its popularity.
First, the setting. The Victorian period is known for its fascination with death and the occult and the rise of gothic romanticism as a genre, and we’re still paying a heavy penance for that in the form of stories about vampires, demons, werewolves, and heroines who alternately swoon over or are terrified by one or more of the above. If you’re going to write a story featuring heavy use of the supernatural but you also want fantastic clothes and a highly stratified society, you really can’t go past the general stereotypes of that era. It’s not so far from the modern world that it’s unrecognisable, but it’s distant enough to appear mysterious and romantic.
Second, the butler. If ever there was a character designed to cater to fantasies, this would be it. Tall, slim, and attractive? Check. Cultured, courteous, and well-mannered? Check. Possesses terrifying secrets and power, unafraid to use them on a whim, yet obviously has a passionate and tender side? Check, check, and check. Best of all, he’s bound. His ‘contract’ binds him to serve faithfully and fully until his master’s death… and perhaps beyond.
Third, the relationship dynamic between the butler and his master. It’s clearly a very close one, but despite his physical weakness, Ciel is in a position of power over a dangerous supernatural entity. I think there are probably a lot of people who could mentally insert themselves into that position and feel a delightful thrill at the idea. Moreover, the way Sebastian and Ciel feel about each other is handled with a good deal of subtlety. Having the chance to find out more about that and what it might make them do could be very enticing for an audience that enjoys relationship drama.
Kuroshitsuji seems to have a fairly enormous female-based fandom in particular, and many of these fans like to ship characters. Perhaps the most popular of the ships is the Sebastian/Ciel pairing. Does this surprise you? Based on what you’ve seen of the anime, do you think this is a realistic pairing – or to put it another way, do you think this type of relationship was intentionally hinted at by its creators?
I’m going to assume from the context of that question that the verb ‘ship’ has some kind of romantic connotations here. And the answer is that it would not surprise me in the slightest. Even in the few episodes I watched, it seemed obvious that the audience was meant to be thinking along those lines. Sebastian several times acts in ways that seem more intimate than I would expect of a butler, and Ciel for his part seems quite content to let him do so. As for hints, go back and watch the scene where Ciel is being laced into his corset by Sebastian. Is there any way that this could be viewed as not having erotic overtones?
Seriously, what is it with anime and pedophilia? That’s two for two now where intimate desires are at least heavily implied towards underage ‘recipients’. I can’t decide what’s more unsettling; the creators who keep on producing this stuff or the fans who keep eagerly lapping it up (and maybe creating it themselves). Possibly the thing that disturbs me most about this is the amount of approval it seems to be getting from the audience. Do people really not see anything worrying about how common these portrayals are?
I suppose there are a few reasons why it might be seen as less of a problem in this context than it otherwise might. First, people seem to be less sensitive about sexual abuse when it’s happening to males. Second, Ciel acts as though he’s older than 12 – perhaps this makes it easier to engage in a bit of good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance on the subject. And third, credit where it’s due: from what I saw, the relationship shown onscreen is based much more on compassion and caring than lust. From that perspective, it’s possible a sexual aspect to the relationship could be viewed as a natural development of what’s already there. Although without having seen what people are saying about the pairing, this is all purely theoretical.
Nope. There’s not a single character I find engaging, the setting is poorly portrayed, and the story basically revolves around finding a new way for the omnicompetent Sebastian to show off how great he is (no, I don’t like him either – characters without weaknesses irritate the hell out of me). But there’s a bigger problem behind all of that… this is the bit where I come back to all those topics I only touched on earlier, so you might want to settle in with the beverage of your choice.
Any story has to allow its audience to suspend their disbelief. How much effort this takes is different from person to person – some people skim the plot, or don’t pay too much attention to the details of the setting. And as long as we’re having fun with the story, we can forgive and forget a lot of anomalies. But once you do notice a problem, you lose confidence in the story and your willingness to just let things slide goes down. So you’re more likely to notice the next time a plot hole shows up, and so on. As these aberrations accumulate, you eventually come to a sort of cliff and your ability to tolerate more drops off it.
That tipping point varies on an individual basis, so some people will accept things that others reject, and that’s fine – there’s nothing wrong with other people not feeling the same way you do about something. But for me, I saw several things very early on in Kuroshitsuji which had me screaming “What?!?” at my screen, and by the time the second episode was over, I had stopped taking the show even remotely seriously.
“So Watson, what bothered you so much?” I’m glad you asked, imaginary interlocutor! Let me explain.
I mentioned earlier that I didn’t think much of how the setting of Kuroshitsuji was handled. As I said, although I appreciate historical accuracy, it’s not essential, and I can accept that sometimes it needs to be departed from. However, I do expect stories to at least be internally self-consistent, and at that Kuroshitsuji fails in a big way.
If you followed along with those cryptic hints I dropped earlier then you’ll know what’s coming, but in case you skipped them I’ll spell it out: the setting not only doesn’t work as Victorian England, it doesn’t work at all. Here are a few examples: There’s no sign of the people or horses that did most of the work back then. The streets of London are empty, yet clean and well lit without any signs of the soot or smog that characterized the latter part of the industrial revolution. The first motor car arrived in England in 1889 – a year after the show is set – yet in the second episode, they’re apparently common enough to give to a couple of low-level goons as transport for a job. Those same goons mentioned above also had a fucking cellphone, which served no purpose other than to give Sebastian something to be menacing with.
Maybe I could even have swallowed all that – we’re already accepting a demon butler, so a few more impossibilities might not be a show-breaking problem. What is a show-breaking problem is the way they didn’t impact the world in the slightest. Kuroshitsuji introduces late-20th century technology into a late-19th century setting, but there’s not a single passing remark to indicate that anyone sees anything remotely unusual about it. Worse still, these things never show up again – these literally world-changing devices are used in one episode only and then vanish without explanation. Either these things exist in the setting or they don’t. If they do, be prepared to deal with the implications of a world where that’s the case. Using them once and then ignoring them isn’t just lazy, it shows that the creators don’t respect either their show or their audience enough to acknowledge the consequences of their (stupid, stupid) decisions.
So that’s why I won’t be watching any more of Kuroshitsuji. The show was off to a bad start with its characters to begin with. It also suffered major setting-related structural failure early on, and then collapsed completely under the weight of a frankly baffling refusal to even consider the implications of the devices the creators introduced. This indicates a lack of care on the part of those responsible for it. If they can’t respect their own design, why should I?
Question of the post: What do you think of Watson’s reactions? Do you have any other questions for him? (Though not a regular reader of Otaku Lounge, Watson will be replying here to anything aimed specifically at him.)