To the commoners of Great Britain, Ciel looks like a normal noble boy with a smart looking butler by his side. To those in the know, however, not only is Ciel known as the Queen’s ‘hound dog’ for dealing with supernatural occurrences in England but he’s also seen his fair share of torment. Ciel suffered the loss of his family, home and himself one fateful day several years ago, when his home was suddenly burned to the ground. In order to avenge the deaths of his mother and father, he made a deal with the devil himself and gained a lifelong butler by the name of Sebastian, sworn to serve and protect him until the day he dies; at which point Sebastian shall swallow his soul. Thankfully, Sebastian is ‘one hell of a butler’, as Ciel needs all the help he can get being the head of the Phantomhive family, running a popular toy making company and tracking down supernatural threats stalking the streets of Victorian London – whilst making sure it’s all done in time for tea.
Although the Phantomhive family might be small, the cast and adventures they embark upon are certainly not. Ciel deals with various enemies from drug lords to Jack the Ripper himself, and with a demonic butler at his side, no mystery is too strange or paranormal to take on. Just like the filthy streets of Victorian London, the series has a dark side; complete with creepy porcelain dolls, demon hounds, human trafficking and grim reapers, and it’s up to Ciel to keep it all from becoming public knowledge to the English people. The horror aspect of the series draws inspiration from both the supernatural and actual history, making an appealing mix of diversity and mystery in the series.
On the opposite side of the coin however, an Earl needs to have his tea; how is he supposed to serve the Queen of England if he doesn’t get his scones in the morning? Besides Sebastian, Ciel also has four servants from a maid to a cook, but they pale in comparison to the butler in everything they do. Burning the dinner and tripping over themselves is common practice amongst the other members of staff, on top of them being completely oblivious to the dark connection between Sebastian and Ciel, providing the comical side of the anime. Other recurring characters such as Ciel’s fiancee Elizabeth and his hyperactive aunt, Madam Red, also tap into the lighter moments of the anime, often making hilarious commentary here and there (such as making fun of Ciel’s small size or admiring Sebastian’s good looks) or just performing antics to wrap up the story arcs on a lighter note. This is of course in between general banter over tea and close ups of the latest dessert Sebastian has prepared.
The polar opposites can clash here and there, creating moments where you’re building up to the revelation of a murder mystery only for the moment to be stolen by a character making an inappropriate joke. For most of the time though, the balance works for two reasons: firstly, the whole package is just fun, it’s great watching the characters, it’s enjoyable finding out who the next bad guy is, the jokes here and there do make you smile, and everything is put together charmingly well. The second reason is that the cast is mostly divided up across the two sides of Black Butler, allowing the balance to be delivered by the same characters and showing the audience what to expect from who. The side characters such as the servants are mostly reserved for the lighter side of the anime; they do become involved in some of the story arcs but they don’t suddenly switch personalities or become drowned in angst to make the story work.
The characters that carry off the darker side, as well as being the main attraction of the series, are the leading men: Ciel and Sebastian. Earl Ciel Phantomhive comes across as a typically arrogant and spoilt noble boy with lavish clothing and a stiff upper lip. He has no time for idiots and with the tragic past that comes with him, he never smiles or offers mercy to those who don’t deserve it. He’s also the only surviving member of the Phantomhive family with the Queen’s favour on his side, granted confidential information that even the Scotland Yard has no access to. And Ciel knows it. He’s never beneath reminding older men who is in charge and that he will get what he wants eventually. If that was all to Ciel’s character, he could come across as quite unlikable and un-relatable, but Ciel also serves as a very unconventional ‘damsel in distress’ as he’s usually the one caught in the middle of the latest evil scheme due to the numerous enemies he has. Watching him get his comeuppance every now and then to level out his big-headedness is quite satisfying to witness with some quirky results (including one episode where he must dress as a female to seduce a nobleman) and of course it all leads to being rescued by his butler.
Speaking of Sebastian, he is The Doctor, no, the MacGyver, no, the Chuck Norris of anime; the man is a walking embodiment of grandness itself. He does everything from the cooking to the cleaning, to the investigating of suspects to disposing of the culprit, to catching bullets milliseconds after they have been fired from a gun, and absolutely nothing fazes him. When Ciel gets kidnapped in the second episode by the Italian mafia, Sebastian is more concerned with the enemy’s penmanship than his master’s safety. Sebastian is an absolute joy to watch, just to see what stunt of awesomeness he’ll pull next and to hear his ‘I’m simply one hell of a butler’ line again and again with his gracious smile. Conversely, what makes him so fascinating is that at the back of your head you KNOW you’re not meant to be cheering for him, because at the end of the day he’s only there to gain the soul of the child once he’s fulfilled his end of the contract. It’s like watching Light in Death Note; you’re going on a journey with him, wanting to see what trick he’s got up his sleeve or how he’ll get out of his current predicament with each every passing episode, cheering him on to continue so you can see more even though what’s he’s technically doing is slaughter. The only reason Sebastian seems to get away with his demonic side is because Ciel’s reasons for dealing with the dark side and having Sebastian helping him with it are perfectly understandable (who wouldn’t want revenge after having their life destroyed?) and the fact that Sebastian has one killer smile. Seeing him show his devilish grin to Ciel and watching the dynamic between the two is both amusing and fascinating. They have great chemistry that is a mixture of necessity, teamwork, power and hatred; it’s a unique relationship to watch unfold on screen.
Black Butler part 1 contains the first 12 episodes of the anime. The first half of those episodes follows the manga close enough up until the Jack the Ripper mystery, faithfully recreating the drama, mystery and comedy for most of it. They’re certainly the stronger episodes in regards to storytelling, character development and setting the scene for what the series has to offer. The latter half is formed of anime-only stories that vary in quality; the first two-parter involving a demon hound stalking in Houndsworth is predictable but the inclusion of the anime-exclusive demon dog ‘Pluto’ to the main cast makes the journey worthwhile. The following standalone episode involving a paranormal camera is enjoyable, being a more comedy based episode that leaves behind food for though. The last three episodes start off poorly, with episode 10 taking similar themes from the ‘curry arc’ found in the manga (which will be animated in part 2) but replicating them in a less effective manner. The following two episodes, however, allow the eccentric grim reader Grell to get more screen time whilst being involved in an eerie mystery with disappearing girls (prepare to not hear ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ the same way again!).
The story moves at a vigorous pace in the animated version, working to its advantage in speeding up some of the mundane moments where the characters take time out from serving the Queen to have tea and cake, segments that did at times weigh down the flow of manga. To its disadvantage however, the faster pace trims the scenes that are meant to pull at your heart strings so much that they fail to do so compared to the original material. Madam Red’s flashback is the perfect example; in the manga her back story takes up most of the third volume and details her trials through her life, pining for the man who ends up marrying her sister, and her love/hate relationship with the colour red is actually one of my favourite scenes from the series. In the anime however, only the bare bones are kept. A lot of the details are given the Cliff’s Notes treatment and the character is nowhere near as sympathetic in TV form.
The animation is the one aspect of Black Butler I cannot complain about on any level. The manga version has always had style, from the calligraphy to the elegant borders on the covers to the incredible depth in each panel; Yana Toboso’s original art really brought the Victorian age to life with stunning backgrounds and great character designs. Thankfully it’s beautifully replicated in anime form and looks even more stunning with colour and movement. Definitely one of the best looking anime in the past ten years.
Composer Taku Iwasaki has experience in providing a score for anime with a British flavour (Read Or Die, OVA and TV series) so he knows how to provide a fitting soundtrack. The music is all authentic with strings, brass and piano; switching between operatic, jazz and classical within the same episode. Sometimes it’s a little erratic but you have to admit it’s far from a boring soundtrack. The theme songs on the other hand are a different blend of tea: SID provides a Japanese rock number as the opening theme with ‘Kiss of Monochrome’, reflecting some of the darker supernatural elements of the series. American pop/rock singer BECCA sings the hyperactive (and completely in English) ‘I’m Alive!’ as the ending theme, which is clever and unexpected but a British artist, or at least a song with less modern influence to better compliment the music score, would have been preferable.
Any British anime fan will be rightly cautious of Black Butler’s English dub; America’s track records for providing interpretations of the English accent have varied from survivable to nine-inch-nails-directly-into-the-eyes awful. So watching a show full of British characters, set in Victorian London, is likely to have any viewer have guns out and ready to shoot the actor with the opening line. Black Butler’s English dub, however, I found absolutely delightful; sure, there are a few small blips on the radar where characters say ‘MAH’ster instead of ‘MAR’ster and the side characters are completed dominated by cockney accents, but aside from that the actors perform fantastically. J. Michael Tatum as Sebastian has the grace of the legendary Anthony Stewart Head with the cool factor of Daniel Craig. Brina Palencia provides the voice of Ciel, and although I knew straight away that the actor behind the character was female and I feared I’d grow to hate the performance, instead I fell in love with it. Brina is one of the few actors who doesn’t slip on the accent at all and perfectly balances the character of Ciel with serious and sinister voice tones with a tint of inner-tormented-child in his more vulnerable moments. The Japanese cast may not be as authentic with lack of accents but it’s still worth a listen; Maaya Sakamoto seemed like an odd choice for me as Ciel considering I know her best for providing cute theme songs for various Clamp works, but she fills the Head of the Phantomhive family role very elegantly. Daisuke Ono’s performance as Sebastian shows a different side of him; with less emphasis on the manners and grace but more on his authoritative and mysterious side; the character’s demonic roots show more strongly in the Japanese version.
The first disc provides the least amount of DVD extras with simple commentary for the first two episodes, however the second disc’s extras include the clean opening and closing, a profile for the ending theme musician, BECCA, and a bonus episode recapping the first half of the series in bite-sized form.
Black Butler is drenched in style, class, elegance, high production values and unique characters with an entertaining story to wrap it all up in a pretty bow. Black Butler sets out to entertain and in turn it creates one of the best anime series to make it to the UK market with a character that is sure to top ‘favourite characters’ list for several years to come.
The conflict between the comedy and dark mystery may be a bit jarring in places, and the dominating cockney accents do get old after a while, but with Sebastian pulling you up a chair, laying the table, providing the delicious dessert, brand new cutlery and Earl Grey tea to you with his devilish smile, how can you say no? Sebastian is one hell of a butler, and Black Butler is one hell of a series. Not to be missed.