kaigou: this is what I do, darling (1 Sebastian smile)
[personal profile] kaigou
First, for context: read [personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist's The Second of our Reign at AO3 (Ciel/Sebastian, rated M for adult situations), or for gen, read Anorexia (the catfood overdub). For gen, read Phoebe's gleefully geek-law draft for The Phantomhive Cases: CERTIORARI TO THE HIGH COURT OF MINOS, or a bit of her comment!fic, both of which I really hope don't end there (and can see end up being intertwined, come to think of it).

And then, the discussion, gacked from PZ's post/replies, but repeated here in case anyone else can think of additional examples, counter-arguments, or other insights. It starts with Phoebe's reply to my review (posted on her journal, since AO3 doesn't give that option to non-members). Trimmed some where we regressed into flailing fandomness. (You can read the original on Phoebe's journal, if you want it unedited.)

Phoebe: They have so much fun being Ciel and Sebastian! Their official authors gave them multiple canons that are essentially curtain!fic, and these are characters who never get curtain!fic, not even from fans, let alone from canon. And so many glorious hints that can be extrapolated from, and what have to be deliberate inconsistencies to allow for getting around any bits of canon one doesn't find desirable! I still can barely believe the source even exists, it's such a match for all my private weirdnesses.

...is this actually a perfectly ordinary, stereotypical pair of characters in the broader anime/manga universe? I've seen and read just enough now to be used to some of the more common tropes: the beautiful villains with tragic pasts; the hot sociopath paired with, or obsessed with, the beautiful idealist who loves humanity; the nice, faintly ineffectual-on-the-surface guys who're brilliant and deadly in pursuit of their true agendas, but without ever losing their sweetness and awkwardness in any other situation. I haven't seen Ciel and Sebastian anywhere else, or at least, not in ways that are right upfront in the text, and don't need to be constructed from implications in canon; but that could be because I haven't seen or read very much. Have I missed dozens of instances of the same dynamic, do you think? Or is Kuroshitsuji genuinely doing something one doesn't see in every other work for this slice of the audience?

Kaigou: I don't [much] into shoujo and [never into] Clamptastic worlds, so there may be corners where you could find another Ciel or a Sebastian. But I can't think of too many where you'd find both (in fact, I'm drawing a complete blank). Sure, you can find one of them -- Ciel's trope has some parallels with Edward Elric's, or possibly with Sasuke's, in the whole "dead parent and now angry about it (revenging or just stopping any chance of repeating for someone else)" -- and there are certainly a plethora of demons and yokai running rampant through japanime. But both of them, together? Complete blank on any other instances.

For one, a character like Ciel rarely gets a foil as truly wicked or devious as himself -- I think most authors believe a foil should be an opposite, not a mentor. (Sebastian is a rival only in a rather oblique sense, I think.) So the foil is more often like Elizabeth, or Sakura, or Winry -- someone relatively innocent in the worst of the ways of the world. Or more like, experienced in some of the world's darkness but well-meaning enough that she (almost always a she) can continue to be a beacon of goodness, while the hero struggles with his inner darkness.

Which is one way that Ciel radically deviates from nearly everyone else in his trope-category: he doesn't seem to struggle at all with his inner darkness. He knows it's there, took its measure, and carries on, using it or ignoring it as he sees fit, but rarely -- if ever! -- angsting over ir. Any more than I'd angst over owning, knowing, and using a gun: it's a tool, even if I'm never ignorant of its ramifications, it doesn't weigh me down in some existential sense. Ciel is dramatically pragmatic in ways that I think I've only ever seen in what's-his-face, in Code Geass.

Sebastian, of course, could be nothing but cardboard -- the handsome (divinely so, one might say) and extraordinarily capable Marty Stu. He comes from a long line of multitasking butlers all the way back to the inevitable princess' butler in Gundam (aka whots-his-face who worked for Relena and could de-crypt secret govt missives, fly three types of planes, and knew seventeen languages). What makes Sebastian different isn't his premise or his presentation, it's his motivation -- not only that he has one, but that it's diametrically opposed to Ciel's. In that Ciel wants revenge, and Sebastian wants... dinner. Sebastian is an ally who is also a stated, known -- and yet unknown -- antagonist.

I think the reason Kuroshitsuji blazes a different path has little to do with the character designs or premises -- young orphaned lord, demonic butler, lots of loli -- but in what it allows its characters to be: Not Good.

Ciel is more shoujo than shonen, in that he's gray (and shonen seems to be okay with letting the protag look gray so long as he's not really gray), and that kind of ambiguity is strong in the shoujo force. But having the hero also totally isolated... that's shonen, not shoujo. If this were true shoujo*, Sebastian would be the trusted and loved retainer who sacrifices his all for his loved little lord, who's really just Misunderstood.

(*Although this does show up in shonen, in a few cases, but it's definitely more common that by mid-point in the story, our hero/ine has collected a group of like-minded or at least somewhat supporting friends, whose own motivations remain murky -- if they're even acknowledged -- and usually somewhat subsumed under the author's wish to not bother with secondary characters, so they end up just becoming "something that exists to help the hero/ine achieve goal A or goal B". While those exist somewhat in Kuroshitsuji, the secondary cast is mostly dominated by characters with known, or implied, anti-motivations. The opium-using uncle/friend/whatever he is, who definitely has his own agenda... same as, well, nearly all the other adult characters. If anything, Kuroshitsuji also inverts this path, in that the staff -- who appear to be fully loyal and no-other-motivation-than-to-help, if badly -- are eventually revealed to have their own backstories and thus their own motivations for what they get out of Ciel and/or Sebastian. In other words, the staff are also, really, working on a basis of enlightened self-interest. They don't exist solely to help the hero/ine out of some vague sense that protags exist to be helped.)

What they've done, and what intrigued me so much in the manga (and that for all its other flaws, I do think the insanely brilliant retconning second season did get right, as far as spirit of the story) is twist things around in terms of bad and good. They've put the usual villains in the hero role, but they're not villainous in the sense of the usual maniacal laughter and reveling in villainy, or anything so crude as that. We can sympathize with their goals -- to avenge, to be fed -- and definitely not empathize with their means.

There are tons upon tons of "uncertain allies" stories -- where it's two rivals unwillingly pairing up together. The usual "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". What's different here is that Sebastian has no irons in the fire. He doesn't -- even makes it patently obvious -- particularly care about the outcome, except insofar as it impacts him directly -- if his outcome is reliant on Ciel's outcome, then that the extent of his concern. I think you hit it on the head when you defined them both (in the story) as acting in enlightened self-interest. Two rivals are supposed to, by genre definitions, become true allies by the end. Ciel and Sebastian are too enlightened, and too self-interested, to ever reach that level of trusting comfort -- which is why they aren't rivals, either. Neither is truly competitive enough, in their own right (I think) to be bothered unless it were something of great import driving it all.

What gets me about the internal flip going on here is that normally, the protag (especially in shonen) is driven by a passionate, almost excessive (and almost always incredibly unrealistic -- cf Edward Elric, Alan Walker, Naruto Uzumaki, etc) passion. They care so damn much that they're driven towards impossible heights, and we spend their series holding our breaths, waiting for them to fall from such heights.

Compared to them, Ciel is the experienced tight-rope walker, strolling along a thin cord a hundred feet above the ground without a rope, and what thrills us is that he doesn't seem to even care, let alone even notice, the dangers. He never misteps; when he comes dangerously close, Sebastian is his only safety net... and Sebastian is a safety net who may, or may not, come, given Sebastian's own disinclination to act beyond his own interests.

Any other shonen (or even shoujo) story I can think of, the safety-net character (like the multi-capable butler, or the magical frog mentor, or the all-powerful if snarky teacher) may be doubted by the hero/ine, but s/he is never doubted by the audience. The audience is always certain that the mentor/teacher has genuine affection, if some irritation, for the hero/ine. In this case, I don't think it'd be too much to say that Ciel is possibly the only one with utter faith in Sebastian's binding to the contract. Too many times it's seemed like Sebastian will pull back, only to (seemingly) change his mind and be there in the nick of time -- and we see those moments only as the audience; Ciel isn't privy to those.

Phoebe: ...to hit one point of many, more or less at random, I hadn't realized until you said it that this -- Any other shonen (or even shoujo) story I can think of, the safety-net character (like the multi-capable butler, or the magical frog mentor, or the all-powerful if snarky teacher) may be doubted by the hero/ine, but s/he is never doubted by the audience -- is a species of a trope that's as common to American media as anywhere else, and has always made me froth at the mouth no matter where or how it appears. That business where a protagonist has angst over the motivations and loyalty of someone whom he or she has no real reason to doubt, and every reason to trust, and worse, where he or she refuses to discuss the issue with the friend or lover or colleague or follower our protagonist suddenly is suspicious of, has always made me want to jump through the screen, or through the pages of a book, and throttle the idiot doing it. Nothing makes me lose any sense of connection with a character faster.

And you're right: it's something that's striking by its complete absence here. Whatever his reasons for it, and whether or not he's right to do so, Ciel never has any serious doubt about Sebastian's loyalties or capabilities -- except, in the first anime series, during the period in the final arc where they have their big temporary breakup. And even that's mild as these things go. It's one of many things about the series that makes me happy and comfortable with these characters, but it's a big one: if Ciel went around having angst about oh-no-demon-can-I-trust-him I'd probably have bailed three episodes in. And like pain that isn't there, I didn't even notice until you mentioned it, and thereby reminded me of the pain so constantly there in so many other sources.

...They're not allies, and it's important that they're not allies. ...I think this ties into the way they spend the entire first series, and much of the second and of the manga as well, looking at each other. Allies stand side by side, metaphorically, and look mostly to their shared objectives and only secondarily to each other. When the primary focus is each other, whatever the relationship is, it is not that of allies.

Kaigou: I can forgive the "distrusting the teacher" plot device in cases where, in the character's shoes, I could see believing the same -- only if it's a failing on the character's part, not the teacher's. That is, Edward has justifiable fear (for a bit) of his teacher's anger given how he's messed up -- so although it's pretty obvious shortly after Izumi's introduced that she wouldn't ditch him, even when angry... it's believable that he, given his own frustration and inner darkness and self-disappointment, would project the same onto her. In other cases, though, it's just a freaking plot device to keep the protagonist in the dark (isolated from a source of information). Curiously, Naruto rarely slips down that road, which is one thing Kishimoto gets right; Naruto is just too bull-headed to even recognize when he's being dissed. I mean, look at him and Sasuke, after all.

CP and I discussed this for a bit the other night, and we came up with a few that come close (but not quite a cigar). There's Shinji and the two main/secondary characters in Evangelion, but Shinji for the majority of the series borders on useless. Even I know Shinji was emo before emo was cool, and I haven't even seen Eva. (CP has, hence the suggestion.) There's also Natsume and Nyanko-sensei (from Natsume Yuujinchou), except that by halfway through the first season, they've really become good -- if irascibe and constantly-arguing -- friends. By the third season, they're not even bothering to hide their mutual trust and alliance; the issue of the Book of Friends is merely a pretext, now.

Another suggestion was Renton and Holland, from Eureka Seven. Those two remain somewhat at odds through almost the entire series. The standing between them is never quite certain; it shifts unexpectedly for reasons that are opaque until you get more backstory. And, as CP pointed out, each stands to gain from the other, so there's enlightened self-interest. But I say it's still not a true analogue, since although Renton wants something from Holland, he's ignorant until almost the end that he has anything that Holland wants, in return. Between that lack of knowledge, and their relative positions/experience in their world/situation, Renton is considerably lower in power than Holland. If Renton were aware of his power over Holland, in equal amounts to Holland's power over him, then we might have an analogue.

Which I think is part of the crux, between Ciel and Sebastian, that although their powers are rooted in different things/areas, their dance is very much of two equally powerful entities. One scene from the anime that really draws this out beautifully is when (3rd ep, I think) Ciel is kidnapped, and his inner narration explains that the contract allows him to call Sebastian to him at any time, any place. Cut to Sebastian, whose inner narration expands on this, explaining that the contract allows the demon to find the human, because it's preventing the human from getting away. Both see the same thing -- the contract's geo-location action -- in light of their own benefit. Ciel for Sebastian to rescue him (be his safety net), and Sebastian for knowing that Ciel can never escape his final outcome. Twist it one way, one is the powerful one. Twist the other way, and the table's turned in re power. Put both side-by-side, and it's a perfect balancing act.

The aspect of enlightened self-interest also makes for ambiguity, which is another thing I can't recall much of -- only Eureka Seven (with its opaque character histories) and the first season of Natsume Yuujinchou really play on this, though political subplots like in Twelve Kingdoms do somewhat well with dubious alliances, which is a cousin to this. That is, when Sebastian expresses care for Ciel during an asthma attack, is there genuine/growing kindness there, or is it only the care you'd show for a precious possession that you don't want ruined before its time?

In the anime, that ambiguity is set up for misinterpretation, intentionally, such that it's manipulating the audience (and very well, I think): by letting actions -- normally associated with affection/caring -- play out without comment, Sebastian becomes a character whose perspective matters. After all, he's showing (at least his actions could appear to be showing) some affection for Ciel, and I find we tend to empathize most with characters who care for that which we also care for (the protagonist). When Ciel finally kicks his own ass out of his two-episode angst-fest and orders his staff to kill the manor's devil dog, Sebastian rewards Ciel by returning to his side. I use "reward" quite specifically, because I think we're meant to see it as a reward.

(Note: oddly, the story doesn't seem to necessarily valorize Ciel's actions, although it clearly empathizes with Ciel's motivations. When he gives an order as cold as the one for murder, frex, his staff doesn't react as though he's Doing the Right Thing and they're impressed (or glad to be enlightened or throwing themselves headlong into following along) -- they're taken aback, a little upset, emotional, and not-so-subtly unhappy with the action. The usual "we do this because it's for the hero" is twisted against itself, to become doing evil because that's the hero's path. Which me, I think is freaking genius, but that could just be me.)

Regardless, it's still a messed-up reward, in that it's a cold-blooded order for murder (whatever extenuating circumstances there may be, it's still Ciel ordering someone's death sentence). Ciel isn't rewarded for showing human kindness, or extending a magnanimous hand; he's rewarded when he becomes more ruthless, more dispassionate, maybe even more cruel: he gets Sebastian back, and we're very much meant to see Sebastian's return as a good thing. Even if that means Ciel moves farther away from his own humanity -- it moves him closer to the character who (from the perspective of neutral show-not-tell) appears to care for him the most. Or, shall I say, who wants the most from him, which in Kuroshitsuji may be the same thing, anyway.

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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
锴 angry fishtrap 狗

to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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