Watson Watches: Kuroshitsuji

41. picture1Watson 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.

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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?

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Ciel is a 12/13 year old boy. Does it disturb you that so many people seem intent on fantasizing about him as being in a sexual relationship with Sebastian (or any other character)?

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.

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Finally, as with last time. You’ve now seen six episodes of Kuroshitsuji – would you voluntarily watch more?

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.

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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.)

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26 thoughts on “Watson Watches: Kuroshitsuji

  1. Watson, (and blogger), I enjoyed this critique a lot. Though it won’t sway you, I want to let you know that the anime is nowhere near as good as the manga it’s based on (and the characters are portrayed juuust differently enough to impact your audience experience. While still being Superbutler, Sebastian has more inherent weaknesses that you see later on, and you’ll be pleased to find out he gets stabbed quite a bit). BUT, shame to say it contains even more anachronisms. I’d be interested to see how he’d react though, since the manga goes more into detail about the setting, giving exposition and relevance to things like the summer Season habits of aristocrats, Britain’s relationship with India and the Victorian obsession with death and darkness and the occult that you mentioned.

    Case in point, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it because it does have some great characters and interesting themes at play, but I can totally understand why you didn’t :L

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    • I haven’t read the manga either, although from the talk I’ve seen among the fandom, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the manga is better than the anime. I was a little sad that the anime didn’t adapt the manga more faithfully in fact (although personally speaking, I did still actually like much of the anime). It’ll be very interesting to see what season 3 has in store.

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      • I’m hoping that season 3 might do what FMA did and go back and keep adapting the manga, as opposed to continuing whatever madness season two was. Because that would be awesome. We shall have to lie in wait, though!

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        • If season 3 did that, I would be incredibly happy. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see though – there’s not so much as a release season yet, let alone anything more specific.

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    • I’m glad to hear that the characters get a bit more rounded out in the manga, and it would be interesting to see more made of those details of the setting which the anime barely mentioned before going on to more important matters (like which blend of tea Sebastian was presenting).

      The anachronisms aren’t the biggest problem I had with the anime. I think it would have been possible to tell the story without them, at least as well and probably better. Sometimes working within limits is good from a creative point of view. I also think that the creators should have done so, but they’re not completely ruining the show. The real problem is the inconsistency with which they’re introduced and then never seen again. It makes me think that the creators simply don’t care about making a setting that is engaging and continuous, and if the manga does the same thing then I can’t see it making much of a better impression sadly.

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      • They manage to make some things work, some with the excuse of magic and some with sheer Rule of Cool. As the series progresses they meet Grim Reapers, who are being terribly modern and upgrading their traditional scythes to garden equipment, including but not limited to a chainsaw and a lawn mower. This pretty much tips things over into the realm of the sheer ridiculous, but you have the supernatural beings to contend with so you may as well accept a motorised chainsaw…

        That being said, the manga generally pays more attention to its setting and actually has a pretty tight-knit continuity. And looks nicer too, if nothing else

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  2. Oh man. Oh man. It’s going to take me a minute to marshal up my thoughts here. Not in a ‘rain hellfire’ sort of way, but in a ‘I like Kursohitsuji a lot, and yet it is a franchise that seems to actively fight my desire to like it (from being extremely creeped out by the shota baiting to rage-y at the queerphobic treatment of Grell)’ kind of way. Though for the record, I’ve never cottoned to the ‘but the manga is so much better!’ argument. What I’ve read is altogether less engaging than the anime at least in regards to Ciel, who in manga verse is sort of a hideously unlikeable villain protagonist facing no consequences of particular merit (I actually rather enjoy the end-game bit of anime s1, where they take his power away and force him to develop as a character).

    Questions for the good Mr. Watson: seeing as you watched six episodes, what were your opinions of Grell and Madame Red as characters? I suppose I should know the answer already given the summation, but I’ve found in Kuroshitsuji that the best elements are everything but the two main characters.
    Second: would it interest you to know one of those musicals Artemis mentioned actually features Sebastian and Ciel as side characters more than anything, instead focusing its emotional core on two characters from the universe’s Grim Reaper celestial bureaucracy (thus also mostly avoiding the time period problems by taking place in abstract or fantastical settings). I’ve found it my favorite of all the adaptations, so perhaps this is a wholly selfish question.

    And Artemis, what’s this about a third season? The second ended up being so atrocious (not in the new material but the absolutely painful shoehorning in of the first season characters sans their character development when literally ANYONE could’ve filled Ciel’s position) that I’m not sure my heart can take a third. Not that I won’t watch it.

    …oh God that is some wall of text. My apologies.

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    • Interesting you should ask about Grell, as my thoughts on him/her were one of the things that didn’t survive the editing process. His introduction as an incompetent butler sneaked past me at first (although I was surprised by how well he handled that ball gown).
      As for what I think of him… well, I think two things.
      If transgender individuals are going to be on an equal footing in society, that will mean filling the same roles in stories that others do. Inevitably some of those roles will be for villains, and that’s just the way it goes: sometimes you’re on the side of good, and sometimes you’re the bad guy. Or girl. Whatever. So in that general sense, I don’t think casting a transgender woman as a villain is a problem.
      That being said, I don’t think the depiction in Kuroshitsuji is doing anyone any favours. We should be grateful I suppose that Grell’s transgendered nature isn’t being treated as the character’s sole defining feature, but I think it’s still pretty clear that it was added in order to make Grell seem more unbalanced and eerie. In that respect being transgender is still treated as a disturbing aberration in the anime, and it’s hard to see how that really benefits anyone.

      Madame Red is a slightly different case. I think she’s one of the characters who really needed more attention paid to them as a character, rather than just being a piece of furniture until it was time for her short career as villainess. I was initially quite excited to learn she was a doctor – female doctors were rare in 1889, but not unheard-of, and I thought we might be finally going to see a bit more of the society the show was set in. And from an interesting perspective at that! Sadly it was not to be. So I suppose I regard her as a bit of a missed opportunity… which is a comment that could probably apply to the show as a whole, now that I think about it.

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    • Whoops, forgot your second question.
      Yes, that does sound like an interesting approach for the musical to take. It might even work better, if the setting is an abstract ‘celestial bureaucracy’ rather than a putatively Victorian England it would be much easier to tolerate the errors. And shifting the character focus seems like a good idea as well.
      Frankly I’m amazed anyone could watch the anime and think “You know what this needs? Everyone to be singing their lines!”, but it worked for Andrew Lloyd-Webber so I suppose it could work here as well. I don’t think I’d be booking tickets for opening night, though.

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      • You’d never think the musical could work (and indeed it didn’t, the first time round – so what we have is a spinoff sequel acting as the most emotionally mature work in the franchise, with two truly great performances from the show’s two original characters – thankfully filmed from its limited engagement and floating round the youtubes. It sleeps right next to the unicorn stables. Dammit I love “The Most Beautiful Death in the World”).

        Re: Grell, it would seem in the space of two paragraphs I managed to forget where in the show you’d actually watched to. Could be my bitterness infecting the early episodes – I actually rather like Jack the Ripper Grell, despite the problematic aspects you mentioned totally being there. She was still engaging and the show’s first credible villain, and I even liked her angle for falling for Madame Red (“we’re both women unable to have children, kindred spirits”). But boooooooooy does it get bad later on, when they say ‘hey, this Grell character is popular. But she doesn’t (or didn’t at that point) have any more appearances in the manga. Since we’re branching the plot off anyway, let’s bring her back as a comic relief sidekick! Every appearance will consist of Sebastian tricking her into helping on a mission for the promise of sexual favors, and then beating the crap out of her. And we should all laugh because obviously it’s creepy that she’s hitting on him.’ Again, and again, and again, ad nauseum. And she didn’t even get to keep the chainsaw.

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    • As far as I know, there’s not yet been any news at all of what the third season will contain – whether it’ll be another spin-off like the second season (which incidentally I thought was interesting in parts but mostly inferior in every way to season one), or whether it’ll be some kind of re-make, remains to be seen. At the moment, I’m just really curious more than anything.

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      • I certainly found Alois and Hannah quite intriguing characters, and Claude fascinating in a ‘villainous bastard’ kind of way. I think I’d be most intrigued if the 3rd season showed some form of self awareness – if you’re going to shoehorn demon!Ciel in, then make him the out and out villain of the piece.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more with a lot you mentioned Watson. The popularity of this show kinda flabbergasts me. Although books such as the Twilight series, and many other supernatural stories very similar in tone (just with werewolves or somesuch instead of vampires), are popular choices as well so I really shouldn’t be too shocked. Supernatural themed series seem to still be all the rage. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’d like to think that the few good contemporary Gothic writers/works out there could finally get recognized as a result, but that might be overly optimistic….

    Anyway, this made me a bit curious and so I double-checked this show’s official rating here in the US. I… this show was under TV14…. which is like a midway point in rating between PG and PG13 over here (I don’t get it, but that’s often how it works). So I had to make a Warning Zone post on this one as it should have been M rated. Goodness. Thank you for reminding me to check that and making such a thorough post. I linked right back here in mine as I try to keep WZ posts short and, let’s face it, you describe the era/setting crimes far better than I could. So, thank you again. ^^

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  5. Wonderful exegesis of the show Artemis and Watson. Was thoroughly enjoyable to read. I absolutely adored the anime as a teenager (not for the overtones of yaoi and pedophilia mind) but reading through your interview reminds me of why I do not go back in my later years to rewatch the show, and why I have not attempted to watch the second season. And yes, the manga is better. Has more of the Gravedigger, who is one character I wished to see more in the show.

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    • I also wish the anime was a bit more faithful to the manga, which I haven’t read but can see just from what people have been saying has a lot better characterisation. I did watch the second season of the anime, but didn’t think it was particularly good. However, I’m definitely curious about the upcoming third season – I’m hoping it’s a re-make rather than yet another spin-off.

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  11. This is the best review for Kuroshitsuji I’ve read so far and I pretty much agree with all you (Mr. Watson) have said. Only difference? I absolutely adore the show. Well, not so much the show as I do the manga but I’m pretty fond of it too. It really pains me sometimes to think that if most of these issues had been addressed in its creation, what we’d have today would have been so so so much better. I often think of it as a missed opportunity as well. However, even as it is now, it’s one of my favorite manga/anime, mostly because I’m used to the way most animes work and can thus ignore most of the dumb tropes and ridiculousness. But to be quite frank, I think I’m more in love with its lost potential than the actual finished product. Oh well. I’ll still shamelessly consume anything Kuroshitsuji throws at me because that’s just who I am. I can recognize how things can be flawed and problematic, and still enjoy them while not denying these facts. In fact, I think addressing the faults in the things we enjoy should be the responsibility of every fan! Anyway, again, fantastic review! Only disagreed with very few, minor things that I really won’t get into because they’re not that relevant and might be a tad bit biased on my part. But in general, yeah, you pretty much nailed it, Mr. Watson.

    P.S. Sorry for the english, it’s not my first language!

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    • I don’t know what Watson’s thoughts are on this, but personally speaking, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that fans can recognise the faults in something and love it anyway – perhaps even all the more so because of those very flaws. To me, that’s actually a big part of what being an anime fan is all about. 🙂

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