Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 14th 2011
Aristocrat Ciel Phantomhive may be just a young boy, but don't be fooled—he's the heir to the Phantomhive family fortune and a shadow operative for the British Empire. In Ciel's service is the impeccable Sebastian Michaelis, a "devil of a butler" whose abilities often seem superhuman. However, Sebastian's domestic skills are about to be tested in an entirely new way: he must win a curry cooking contest in order to protect the Phantomhive company's business interests, and also help troubled visitor Prince Soma of India. But can an English butler succeed at making curry when his opponent is the Prince's disgruntled ex-servant Agni, whose cooking is as authentically Indian as they come?
The appeal of Black Butler is clear to see. It's got a dashing, too-good-to-be-true bishounen in the lead role, and when he's not graciously attending to the needs of his master, he's protecting the honor of Jolly Olde England by solving crimes and fighting villains in the cobbled streets of London.
Except none of that actually happens in Volume 5.
In a bizarre turn of events, this installment of Black Butler is closer to competitive cooking manga like Yakitate!! Japan than any Victorian period thriller, with Sebastian sleuthing his way through the exotic spices of the Subcontinent and doing battle in the kitchen. And while this might disappoint fans who have certain expectations about the type of butt-kicking to be found in the series, the overall result is surely more entertaining than the standard "find a bad guy and beat him up" storyline. It's culturally enlightening on multiple levels, teaching us not only the ingredients that go into curry, but also the distinct qualities that make a curry genuinely Indian versus an imitation from elsewhere around the world. (Hint: if you think you can make curry from cubes in a box, that's not curry.)
At the same time, this story arc still carries the action-packed stylishness of the series—Sebastian working against the clock to develop his recipe, a man-to-man countertop showdown with Agni, an ingenious culinary twist from the hero, and finally a tense (if predictable) decision to end the contest. Clearly, the suspense and exhilaration are still there, if only in a different context from Ciel and Sebastian's usual errands.
The actual curry battle only brings this book up to the halfway point, however, and that's where things start to backslide. The entire third chapter (out of four) is dedicated to tying up various loose ends involving Prince Soma, the Phantomhive house, and almost every single character who was dragged into the dispute. (Recall from Volume 4 that the contest was part of a head-spinning scheme involving the Phantomhive company, various Indian and British entrepreneurs, and the Queen of England.) Speaking of the Queen, her cameo appearance in this volume is poorly done, making her out to be little more than a joke character despite her key role as one of Ciel's benefactors. The final chapter is even more inconsequential, with its repetitive slapstick antics as Soma and Agni cause as much of a nuisance as possible while Ciel is entertaining guests. What should have been a single scene to wrap up the plot becomes, in effect, 40 pages of fluff.
Despite the downturn in story quality, the series' artwork remains solid throughout—yes, even Agni's dumbest pratfalls (and Sebastian's graceful saves) are drawn with clean, flowing strokes. Some imperfections do remain, though: Yana Toboso cuts corners during the curry-tasting reaction scenes, with fantastical visions that look more like incomplete sketches instead of full visual metaphors for flavor, and the delicate lines and tones might not appeal to readers who prefer a bolder look. Toboso's eye for attractive character design is faultless, however, with a smorgasbord of perfectly-proportioned males to look at and lavish period costumes for them to wear. The various illustrations of food also show careful research, and Sebastian's moves in the kitchen prove that slick action scenes don't just have to apply to crime-fighting. The carefully arranged panels and sense of motion add flair to something as simple as adding spice to a bubbling saucepan.
While stylish artwork is something that transcends all cultures, the distinct setting of Black Butler poses a unique challenge in translation. Instead of just going from Japanese to English, it must be adapted into British English. Victorian British English. The well-written script includes the proper spellings of "flavour" and "colour," and the tone of the dialogue, while still clear enough for modern folk to read, has some tweaks in sentence structure and vocabulary that evoke older styles of writing. Ultimately, it's not just the story and visuals that immerse the reader in the time period, but the very text itself—quite a clever feat. In fact, the only real flaw in the writing is Toboso's fault, with ambiguous speech bubbles that make it hard to follow which character is speaking. The translation's attention to detail can also be seen in the sound effects, which feature both transliterations and English equivalents next to even the smallest Japanese characters.
Volume 5 of Black Butler ends up being quite the surprise, both in a good way and a bad way: good because the curry contest is an entertaining depature from the norm, but bad because of how much the plot drags its feet in the book's second half. The adrenaline of Sebastian and Agni's cook-off wears off too quickly, forcing the story arc to end on a long, drawn-out coda that's barely even funny. Adding it all up, though, the thrill of the contest ultimately overshadows the other flaws. It's hard to forget the sheer enjoyment of learning what curry is made of, seeing how truly serious chefs do it, and witnessing Sebastian's creative (if anachronistic) solution to beating the Indians at their own game. And of course, some readers will simply get a kick out of how dashing and handsome the lead character is. Not bad for a Victorian action manga that suddenly turned into a multicultural cooking manga.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ An unexpected change of genre results in a entertaining, action-packed culinary battle with plenty of attractive visuals.
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