The live action movie version of the popular manga series Black Butler takes place in 2020 in an Asian city where Western and Eastern cultures blend together. Several years earlier, a young woman named Shiori Genpou (a descendant of the Phantomhive family) witnesses the murder of her parents and vows revenge on the killers. Since males cannot inherit the family line, she disguises herself as a boy by the name of Kiyoharu and takes over the business whilst being the Queen’s Guard Dog. She is ordered by the Queen to stop a string of ‘Devil’ killings that are happening in the city, and eventually discovers that perhaps those behind these killings are maybe behind her parent’s murders too.
Making a live action film based upon a popular manga series that actually takes place many years after the original story is a risky move. But considering that the franchise also includes a second season of an anime that completely rewrites the clean ending of the first season and gives a new, controversial ending, the live action movie is hardly the most shocking or money-grabbing property to come out of the beloved manga. The time jump, to be frank, only serves as a way of allowing the production team to create a mystery with more modern tools such as guns, drugs and high-end cars without the historic backdrop to get in the way. Saying that, though, the movie does seem to struggle with how it wants to look. The clothes of the characters, the look of the manor and the family politics all seem to be stuck in the Victoria era, creating a very stylish ambiance and calling back lovingly to the manga. But then it all clashes with the slick modern-looking streets, cars and the fancy club the mystery evolves in. The convoluted back-story it creates to warrant the change in surname seems just that and rather pointless, raising more questions than it should have done, but I suppose it was done to help keep the (not even written yet) ending to the manga left ambiguous. Despite the film’s attempts at making it plausible, taking an ‘underground agency’ angle, it’s still far-fetched to believe that a Queen’s Guard Dog scenerio would be plausible outside of England and in the future even more so. The backstory and change in scenery does more harm than good overall.
Apart from the time jump and change in location, a lot of the story elements and developments come from the original source material. The opening scene where Sebastian makes his grand entrance is a live action replica of Chapter 4 of the original manga, a lot of the butler’s line are ripped from the manga as well as a certain relationship between the main character and the Aunt that remains the same. So those who have read the manga or watched the anime will see the big plot twist coming from miles away. Despite that knowledge working against you, the film does try to keep the secrecy going, with lots of Sherlock inspired ‘aha’ moments and sneaky deductions that try to keep the audience on their toes. It’s all backed up with good actors who are clearly having fun in their roles. Despite the dark tones it takes in the mystery, you can’t deny it is silly and nonsensical in many places, but at the end of its 119 minutes run-time it all adds up to a flawed but a fun film, especially for fans of the original story.
If you’ve just come to see your favourite Black Butler characters in live action though, they’re bountiful here. Hiro Mikushima, as Sebastian, ‘one hell of a butler’, plays the part marvellously from the devilish smile to the cheeky little glint in his eye. He wears the costume well, but my only nitpick is the hair; the original manga character has long hair but it’s straight and well kemt, whereas Sebastian’s hair in the live action movie looks like it needs a good comb. Having the main character a female version of Ciel is a nice little twist as the original manga/anime has a mission in which Ciel has to dress up as a girl to get closer to the enemy. However Shiori/Kiyoharu (portrayed by Ayame Goriki) for the most part seems interchangeable with Ciel, the fact that she hides her gender does little for the plot and seems to not affect her character in any major way. It’s only during the finale when Ms. Genpou comes into her own, performing an unselfish act to save others, something that Ciel would be unlikely to do. But for the majority of the time the gender switch seems unnecessary; you could just have a modern Ciel in her place with very little re-writes. The presence of Tanaka also seems completely redundant; he looks like the character but does absolutely nothing, not even provide a laugh as the original does. Then there’s Wakatsuki Hanae, the live action counterpart to Madame Red (played by Yuka) who goes through the most character changes in this adaptation but with greater success. Her tragic back-story is greatly expanded to build a satisfying pay-off and finale to the mystery. Yuka’s acting was the most fun to watch too, her innocent and frail self in the opening is very convincing but when she hams it up towards the end, she’s a lot of fun to watch.
The live action Black Butler is a flawed film; the time jump and attempts to play with the Phantomhive backstory are shoddily executed, but watching the actors having a ball with the characters and our favourite butler in action saves this film for fans and creates a fun, campy experience. If you’re a fan of the franchise by all means check it out. Those who are not, though, will not be as invested here and will just likely see the script errors, so best not to bother.