The India Arc of Kuroshitsuji gives us a curious case in which the orientalism of the British Empire finds itself being played out by a non-Western storyteller.
While I have commented on occidentalism in Kuroshitsuji before, the recently aired India arc (episodes thirteen through fifteen) gives us an interesting translationalization of the oriental tropes of Imperial England. Here we find an originally Western frame of view being re-appropriated as part of another society’s pop culture, one which itself has been using occidentalism to frame its tale. Honestly, this all gets a bit confusing – we have a Japanese creator with a story that takes place in Victorian era England, and which has an arc involving Indians who are clearly conceived of at least in part via the Victorian British notion of what Indians were like. This isn’t the first time such a thing has occurred – anyone familiar with Victorian Romance Emma can tell you so – but the orientalism present here is much more obvious than that involving Hakim (yes, Hakim had an elephant and appeared to have a harem; however, Hakim was also clearly portrayed as an adult of equal standing with the British characters, something which differentiates him from Soma, Agni, and, to an extent, Mina – don’t worry, I’ll be getting to this).
The characters of Soma and Agni are very much colored by orientalism, particularly Soma – one of the allegations that British leveled at the aristocracy of India was that they were lazy, subsisting on the hard work of those beneath them and their inheritances from the station in life which they were born into. They were also often considered to be somehow less human than the British, the men childish in a manner which the British felt themselves above. Soma is very clearly depicted in this light – at the beginning of the arc, he is hopelessly incapable to doing anything himself, relying upon his servant, Agni, to do all the heavy lifting. And when Agni isn’t around, Soma cannot do anything himself.
Soma’s incapabilities also play into another aspect of orientalism, and of British colonialism in general, as we run up against the notion of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ – succinctly, the idea that the British are culturally, morally, and mentally superior to much of the rest of the world (specifically, the countries with the darker people), and as such are morally obligated to rule over these lesser races in order to improve their lives. At the close of the arc, Soma has grown more mature (although arguably could use some more), and both he himself and Agni thank Ciel and Sebastian (that Sebastian is inhuman is really here nor there, as he is thoroughly conflated with the British if only by association) for teaching them to be stronger people.
Thus, Kuroshitsuji gives us a more fully orientalist picture than does Victorian Romance Emma, although both do feature somewhat stereotyped Indian characters.
As an aside, this doesn’t quite bearing, but I thought it worth mentioning that Soma is most definitely a member of the ksatriya (pronounced ‘sha-tree-ah’), the warrior class of Indian society. That Agni, a brahmin, comes to work for him as a servant is intriguing since Agni would have outranked Soma had he not run around committing crimes constantly. Although you can bet your bottom dollar that Agni committed a lot more crimes than some poor dalit (more commonly known as ‘untouchables’ outside of India) would’ve gotten away with.
Speaking of Agni, we are given a glimpse of his father, whose behavior drove Agni to conclude that there was no god, which in turn drove him into criminal rage. Agni’s father is depicted as surrounded by women, a clear indication of deviant sexuality on his part, in this case having multiple sex partners (something that would’ve very much offended the sensibilities of the British). Orientalism carried with it a bizarre dichotomous view of Indian men – that, on the one hand, they were emasculated, but, on the other hand, they possessed dangerous sexual appetites which they did not appease through normal means (in current day India, Hindu nationalists have actually taken on this conception to paint Muslim males as unsavory). Agni’s brahmin father plays further into the orientalist perspective through this behavior.
However, even as the orientalist perspective runs strongly throughout, interestingly enough, the depiction of Hinduism is actually fairly accurate. The statue of Kali we see displayed on-screen is in fact modeled after real illustrations of Kali, both in statue and picture form (example here). And the story Soma relates about her is, while certainly simplified, an accurate version of one of the most widely told stories about Kali. The line about sticking one’s tongue out (Ciel says that Soma is displaying embarrassment when he does so) is also accurate, as one can see that Kali statues which show her stepping on Siva do in fact have her sticking her tongue out, which in Hindu tradition is a way of showing contrition for an ill act.
To be a bit nitpicky, though, it is very unlikely that Kali would be the primary deity worshipped by a ksatriya such as Soma, especially a male one. Kali is one of the forms of the goddess, and it is her other forms, such as Parvati, who would be much more likely to be worshipped by a ksatriya. Kali is and was much more popular amongst the lower classes in Hindu society, and in fact there was a murderous anti-British cult comprised mainly of peasants that revered her as their ultimate deity and inspiration (inspiration to kill British folks, that is). Kali just would not have appealed to an upper class audience because she, while certainly strong, was too violent a female figure to attract more devotion than gentler forms like the aforementioned Parvati.
To continue in the vein of Hinduism, and to continue to not be speaking of orientalism, Soma and Agni’s names come from Hinduism. Agni is the fire god, and it is Agni who carries messages and prayers from the people to the heavens where the deities dwell. Soma, on the other hand, was a ritual drink which proto and early Hindus drank as part of religious ceremonies, and was made from the soma plant, an as-yet-unidentified plant. Soma also was a god who pre-dated Hinduism, and then came to be a lunar deity within it. While one could point to the fact that, then, the two characters have names associated with ritual religious ceremonies, I am more inclined to think that Yana Toboso, the original manga-ka, just picked two Hindu deity names at random.
Anyway, to return to orientalism, what makes the orientalism here interesting isn’t the orientalism itself, but that we’re watching an internalization of a Western perspective of the East – this case may not connect directly to Japan, but the scholars of the British Empire certainly had their own orientalist framed opinions and beliefs about Japan. The process of internalization of orientalism isn’t something rare or new, as the case of sati in India demonstrates (sati = widow burning, which the Brits believed all Hindus did, when in fact only a very small segment of the population did… but then brahmins got mad at the British and insisted it was a holy Hindu tradition and started doing it themselves, even though they never had before, thus internalizing the incorrect idea the British had of the ritual) (full disclosure: my final research paper for the Hinduism class was on sati), but the third-person illustration of it is a fascinating look at what colonization and subsequent globalization has done to modern societies as a whole. Even if Kuroshitsuji is set in a somewhat distant time, it serves as a reminder that we can still feel the echoes of colonialism in our lives (especially for people living in formerly colonized lands).
Hope I didn’t wear anyone out 😉