Indian Culture in Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji)

I will warn you now: this article has spoilers. What I have in mind would be impossible without them. So, that said, allons-y!

In the anime series Black Butler, episodes 13 – 15 introduce us to two new characters, Prince Soma and his assistant Agni. These two first meet Ciel and Sebastian during a street brawl in London’s East End, a neighborhood filled to the brim with Indian immigrants (not all of them voluntary). The pair are accosted in the street and quickly surrounded by a group that attempts to engage in a practice known as thuggee. Such groups, known at least as early as the 1350s, were targeted for eradication in the British Raj. It is thus unsurprising to find them in London, the heart of the Queen-Empress’ dominions. Soma and Agni come across the confrontation and initially support their fellow Indians but change sides when they realize Ciel was the actual victim. Agni surprises everyone by being just as proficient at fighting as Sebastian while still being a human being.

Now, these two characters are themselves interesting. Soma was a prince, born into the Kshatriya caste, the same as the Buddha. This is a guess on my part, as Soma’s caste is never made explicit, but membership in this group was generally a prerequisite for princely status, both within Indian culture and as understood by the Raj government. His name is also revealing: Soma is the name of a plant, a drink made from it, and a personified deity. The drink is used in a ritual and famed for its hallucinogenic properties and making one feel invincible or immortal. In the Rig Veda (8.48.3), it reads “We have drunk Soma and become immortal, we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” It was later copied in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a soporific and giving rise to the phrase “Better a gram than a damn” in its capacity as a social control. Thus, Soma, as having an unrealistic view of the world, is aptly named. He is completely incapable of understanding the emotional realities of Meena, the woman he is in London to find, or the social niceties of Ciel’s work as Lord Phantomhive or his status as a member of the British aristocracy.

Agni is similarly named. His birth name is never revealed, but he was born into the Brahmin caste. These are the religious and cultic leaders of traditional Indian society. Like the Buddha he rejected his position, but took a rather different path toward debauchery and murder. He is rescued from hanging at the last minute by Prince Soma, in an act of royal grace that turns out to be little more than a selfish whim well in line with his character, and renamed Agni. This name is appropriate for two reasons. First, the word agni on its own means “fire.” When discussing his past, Agni is first shown surrounded by flame. Further, his fighting style focuses on pressure points, often visualized as little spinning wheels of fire that, if blocked or doused, prevent using the affected limb. Such fiery associations can be seen in Western languages with the Latin ignis for “fire” and in the geological term igneous, meaning rock cooled from volcanic lava. Secondly, Agni’s main purpose is as Soma’s butler and in this capacity he often cooks curry, an Indian dish that can range from mildly invigorating to deadly levels of the compound capsaicin. In high concentrations, this is the stuff that makes pepper spray an unpleasant experience. Agni competes against Sebastian in a curry-cooking contest in the Crystal Palace, a fitting locale as it was intended to be a showcase of empire. The Queen herself makes an appearance, but never speaks directly; rather her butler Ashe is her mouthpiece. In the end, Sebastian wins the curry contest, but not with an Indian variant. Rather, he uses the Japanese form known as karē-pan. The irony, of course, is that Japan originally considered curry a Western dish because it was introduced by British merchants in a form that closely resembled the pot pie.

Lastly, it cannot be ignored that both Soma and Agni are worshippers of the goddess Kali. Most Westerners will be familiar with this deity only through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Mola Ram’s thuggee cult. The group traces its origins to Kali’s battle with the demon Raktabija. Unsurprisingly, the show gets this conflict and its resolution right when giving background information. Soma likely worships Kali because he does not understand her destructive power. Agni, however, has a long history of murder in the thuggee vein and continues this streak to eliminate competition leading up to the curry-cooking contest. The garrote was the group’s favored weapon and finds a neat parallel in the fact that the competitors were hanged, as was very nearly Agni’s end before meeting Soma.

In all, this brief, three-episode story arc provides a fascinating exposition of mid-nineteenth-century Indian culture as lived out within the British Empire. Many of the points are given as plot exposition but others must be guessed or researched independently. I find this to be a rather excellent method of storytelling. As one facet leads to another, it prompts the attentive viewer to learn more about the subject matter. Overall, Black Butler accurately represents the social milieu in which the characters operate even as it incorporates elements of the fantastic. So, as a historian, I cannot recommend this series highly enough, and this brief excursion is a particularly good example of everything it does right.

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J. Holder Bennett spends his time in the “real” world, whatever that means, as a history professor in North Texas. The rest of the time he focuses on his real love: fandom. For the past fifteen years he’s helped run A-Kon, an anime and manga convention in Dallas, and recently organized the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) association to bring together fans and academics for the better understanding of their mutual love. He has also done work on historical fiction and collaborated on analyses of science in cinema. Yes, he’s that guy.

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