This review is for the theatrical release of the live action Black Butler movie.
It used to be the case that UK fans could only dream of being able to watch the live action adaptations of their favourite manga titles in the cinema outside of specialist film festivals. Lately, however, it feels as though we’ve been spoilt rotten by Warner Bros. UK’s laudable efforts to bring a slice of their Japanese catalogue to our local audience. The latest offering to grace our shores is the 2014 Black Butler movie, which is about to open in Cineworld cinemas across the UK.
If you’ve never had the chance to look into the world of Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji in Japan) before now, you couldn’t have chosen a better time for it. Yana Toboso’s original manga is being published in English by Yen Press in both digital and print editions, the 2008 anime adaptation is available in the UK from Manga Entertainment, and last season’s Black Butler: Book of Circus can be streamed for free on Daisuki and Crunchyroll. Newcomers who find their interest piqued by the film will find it very easy to dig deeper and learn why this series has become so beloved to fans the world over.
Ever since the announcement that its live action adaptation would be making some major changes to the established formula, the series’ fan base has been anxiously speculating about how faithfully it will reproduce the atmosphere of the manga. This is no small feat – Yana Toboso’s story deftly juggles elements of drama, horror, action and mystery and sets it all against a decadent backdrop of Victorian finery. The series is also known for its willingness to poke fun at itself, juxtaposing gruesome scenes of murder with black humour when the reader least suspects it.
While the Black Butler manga runs in a shounen magazine ostensibly aimed at a male audience in Japan, it’s found lasting success by appealing to readers from a variety of demographics. Everyone in the cast is breathtakingly beautiful whether they’re male or female, old or young, human or demon. The creator has clearly hit upon a winning formula as the manga has sold 18 million copies worldwide to date, spawning anime adaptations, games, a series of musical plays, parody comics, audio dramas and several radio shows along the way.
With so much Black Butler material already out there, the decision was made to create something a little different with the live action movie rather than retreading the the same story from the beginning again. Perhaps the most controversial change is that the scene has been shifted from Victorian England to a near-future fantasy metropolis. This is briefly explained in the first few seconds of the film; the world has been divided into the West and the East, with the West side of the globe being ruled over by an unnamed queen and the East being relatively lawless. The queen has a network of spies stationed across the East, and among their ranks is a dour young heir named Kiyoharu.
From here, fans can easily fill in most of the gaps themselves. Before the story begins, Kiyoharu makes a pact with a demon in order to find and punish the people who slaughtered his family. His new ally takes the form of an exceptionally capable butler named Sebastian Michaelis, and the pair of them investigate supernatural crimes on behalf of the queen in the hope of uncovering information about the murder of Kiyoharu’s parents.
The movie’s version of Sebastian is exactly as he is in the source material, and while they have different names and exist in different time periods, Kiyoharu shares many traits with the young earl Ciel from Yana Toboso’s manga. They’re both frail, strong-willed, noble and wise beyond their years – and they’re both using Sebastian for their own personal quests of revenge.
There’s one difference that can’t be avoided, though: Kiyoharu is actually a girl. It turns out that the incident which cost him his parents also forced Kiyoharu to abandon his true identity and live permanently disguised as a boy. It’s worth pointing out that the crossdressing theme fits with the spirit of the original work and its famously relaxed view of gender roles. Ciel is voiced by an adult woman in the anime series and even appears dressed in a pink gown on the latest DVD packaging, so it’s not as though changing him from being a pretty guy to a boyish girl has a great effect on the series’ plot.
The simple scenario allows the manga’s storyline to come through the transition reasonably unscathed. To a fan of the original, which goes to great lengths to reference actual Victorian history wherever possible, the vagueness of this new setting might seem grating. Producer Shinzo Matsuhashi has explained that this change was made to work around having Japanese actors playing the parts of British aristocrats from the Victorian era, which makes a great deal of sense. It also avoids the characters having to spend much time explaining the setting to the audience. The English-language adaptation from Yen Press includes detailed liner notes at the back of each volume to help readers navigate through the obscure references Toboso makes, something that works much better in book form than in a quick-paced live action movie.
The decision to break away from the established storyline also frees the writers from the burden of having to contradict the ongoing manga by bringing the plot to a close prematurely. While I won’t reveal anything about what happens, the uncertainty in not knowing what Kiyoharu’s fate will be makes for a much more exciting film. Another advantage of this approach is that regular cinemagoers can use the movie as an introduction to the Black Butler universe without having their enjoyment of the other adaptations spoilt too much in future.
Sebastian, the titular ‘Black Butler’, is played by actor Hiro Mizushima (BECK, Drop, Kamen Rider Kabuto). Even before the film’s Japanese release there was a great deal of media interest in Mizushima’s commitment to the project, from the strict dieting he undertook to achieve Sebastian’s impossibly elegant figure to his personal investment in the film’s development (he’s credited as co-producer and had input into the script, plot outline and costuming). I was skeptical at first, but Mizushima’s facial expressions and silken voice come closer to capturing Sebastian’s inscrutable nature than I thought possible. According to Matsuhashi, Mizushima even avoided blinking on camera unless closing his eyes was part of the choreography for a scene. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s a handsome man to begin with – those who appreciate such things will enjoy the way that the camera loves to linger on his demonic half-smile.
Opposite Mizushima is Ayame Goriki (Quartet!, Mirai Nikki -Another:World-, Watashi No Kirai Na Tantei) in the role of Kiyoharu, Sebastian’s new master. In spite of the pressure that Mizushima was under to capture Sebastian’s unworldly allure, it could be argued that Goriki’s job is even harder; after all, she replaces one of the most popular characters from the original story. She has her work cut out establishing Kiyoharu’s prickly personality while maintaining her masculine body language and speech patterns at all times. Having said that, they could have dropped the Shiori storyline entirely and Goriki would still have been able to convince as a male lead; there were several moments during the film where I became so carried away with her performance that the fact that she was female completely slipped my mind!
One of the biggest draws of the Black Butler series is the fascinating master-servant relationship between its two leads, something which still comes through beautifully in this live action adaptation. Both Kiyoharu and Sebastian are openly using one another to get what they want. Kiyoharu is utterly reliant on the powerful demon, forcing him to perform menial tasks and barking orders without a trace of kindness. In turn, Sebastian endures all kinds of indignities, spurred on by the thrill of knowing that he’ll be able to devour Kiyoharu’s soul once he’s fulfilled his side of their contract. That both of them hide so much darkness below the surface ironically makes them perfectly suited to working together.
I won’t say too much about the other members of the cast as part of the fun of watching the movie is looking out for how they draw from existing Black Butler characters, and I don’t want to spoil that. Although all of the main characters are now Japanese, an unusually generous number of foreign and multiracial supporting actors contributes to an international feel.
Another experimental approach was the decision to use two separate directors with specific roles. Kentaro Otani (NANA) was hired to direct the cast and story, while Keiichi Sato (Tiger & Bunny, Karas, Asura) took care of the film’s aesthetics. Using a seasoned anime director for the visuals is interesting; any action scenes involving Sebastian are so over-the-top by nature that adding a dash of anime-style flair really helps make them work.
The set and costume designers haven’t used the change in setting as an excuse to skimp on the series’ signature gothic trappings, either. Kiyoharu’s house is magnificent, and as he’s an aristocrat, there’s no need to remove all of the ruffs, ribbons, jewellery and chandeliers in the name of modernisation.
With Black Butler being a Japanese film, Warner Bros. have thankfully opted to present this theatrical release in its original language with English subtitles. The subtitles are an accurate translation of the dialogue, and they flow well. A handful of hardcore anime fans may mourn the loss of Sebastian’s signature “I’m one hell of a butler!” quip; the film opts for more literal alternatives which run closer to the style of the manga’s script, so this is a matter of personal preference. Where English dialogue is occasionally spoken, it’s clear and understandable with no need for extra subtitling. The soundtrack veers between unobtrusive, sweeping and (during one action scene in particular) a little peculiar, and the closing theme is Through the Ages from British singer Gabrielle Aplin.
As an existing fan of the series, my initial concerns were that the changes to the time period would spoil the atmosphere and that no human actor would be able to capture the ethereal grace of a character like Sebastian. Having now had the chance to watch the film in its entirety, I’m pleased to say that I consider it a fitting tribute to the Black Butler manga. The key to enjoying this adaptation is to go in with an open mind rather than fretting over the compromises that were made in order to squeeze Ciel Phantomhive’s epic quest for vengeance into the format of a two hour movie. If that doesn’t put you off and you’re in the mood for some unapologetically camp butler action, then I can’t imagine that you’ll regret making the time to see Black Butler. Whether you’re interested in Asian cinema or simply a fan of the Black Butler series, this is a rare chance to see a devilishly entertaining Japanese manga adaptation on the big screen. Splendid.
Black Butler opens in Cineworld cinemas across the UK on 17th October 2014.