Welcome and good evening again, ladies and gentlemen! Our series this time Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler), originally released as a manga in Square Enix’s Monthly G Fantasy in 2006 by Toboso Yana. It has since proven popular enough to warrant a two-season anime adaptation, a spin-off video game, two well-scored stage musicals, and an impressive doujin community. For this review, however, I’d prefer to focus on the manga and anime.
Although the two differ in execution, the basic premise remains the same between them: In manor house outside of London, the demon Sebastian Michaelis serves as Earl Ciel Phantomhive’s loyal butler. The two have a contract: In exchange for Ciel’s soul, Sebastian serves as his retainer until the Young Master kills those who slew his parents and sold him on the black market. The Earl, though only twelve when the series opens, is already a captain of industry and a favored subject of Queen Victoria. He lives a double life: By day, he works as the head of the Funtom Toy Company; by night, he serves the Queen as her agent in the London underworld, assisted at all times by Sebastian, who performs his duties with impeccable skill.
What’s the overall result? Well, for me that’s a bit of a tricky question. As of this writing, Black Butler is my “fanboy” series; it’s the kind of thing I like for far fewer reasons than I should because the series happens to hit enough of my favorite story and character elements (Ciel, for example) it its execution. So, bear in mind that my view on things is likely more forgiving of Black Butler than I would normally be. That said…
Both versions start off the same (see above), but after the Jack the Ripper case, go off in two different directions. The manga is a nicely coordinated and written piece of work. The beginning is slow and often tedious, but the paces picks up once the Jack the Ripper case gets underway after about 4 chapters. Afterwards, it remains an entertaining Gothic fantasy, relying mostly on the interplay between Ciel and Sebastian as they go about the Earl’s duties. This largely focused effort on how the master and servant (who often switch roles thematically, I might add) play off each other in Toboso’s world of darkness brings out what is likely the most enjoyable element of Black Butler: an unusual but ultimately satisfying combination of black comedy, melodramatic action sequences (often quite impressive in execution), and even some tragedy along the way as Ciel begins to lose even more of his already eroded humanity. If all this sounds more than a little pretentious, don’t worry; Black Butler is far from a treatise on human nature or a morality play. For me, it’s just one of the most welcome manga diversions I’ve found in the last year or so. It’s not terribly deep and it doesn’t try to be. It’s not terribly base and only attracts the lowest common denominator of fangirl as a consequence of its aesthetics. It’s often flawed but also very, very charming as far as its art and writing go. Despite more than its fair share of stereotypes in terms of its characters, Black Butler is great fun for fans of shoujo manga with a shounen spice to it.
The anime’s first season decides to delve into an excess of tame and largely mediocre time-wasting before returning to the far more interesting mysteries of Ciel’s past. When it’s focusing on its main plot, the anime adaptation of Black Butler manages to pull off the same atmospheric and intriguing Victorian nightmare as its source. (The Jack the Rpper arc, for example, is where the series displays some of its best material.) The second season picks up where the first’s cliffhanger ending left off and introduces a new master-and-butler duo who appears to replace Ciel and Sebastian as the main characters. In fact, prior to the first episode’s airdate, the entire fanbase (myself included) believed that Ciel and Sebastian would not be returning as neither had been confirmed to return in the second season. In a rare example of positively trolling a fanbase, Ciel and Sebastian both reappear in the first episode after all. (!) The fanbase rejoiced, and the second season ended up a nice little diversion with a more tightly contained narrative than the first, a decent amount of action, and less time-wasting and focus on unimportant characters than Season 1.
The first season suffers from serious pacing and mood issues. Some episodes are quite chilling indeed (Any time “London Bridge is Falling Down” starts playing in this series is a good time to draw the folds of the comfort blanket a bit closer.) and others are just stupidly executed (That damn curry competition arc was handled better in the manga…) with plot holes, mood whiplash, and Sebastian taking a back seat to less-interesting members of the household staff common in any episode that lacks plot. It’s still a decent anime, but it exhibits weak writing, offering instead a sharp sense of aesthetics as compensation. Patient fangirls (and fanboys) are rewarded with an excellent mystery arc for Ciel and oddly heart-wrenching ending. The second season tries to fix most of the inconsistent writing but is still plagued by a slow first third (episodes 2-4, for those of you playing along at home).
Technically speaking, the series has consistent, fluid animation with a dark and muted color palette to emphasize the dreariness of its London setting. Few corners are cut with background and setting design, the characters are thankfully on-model, and are consistently well dressed. The show has sparked a renewed interest in Gothic and Victorian fashions in Japan, stemming from the costumes Ciel, Sebastian, Grell, and Elizabeth wear.
A quirky musical score underscores the Victorian setting with period instruments and orchestration. The soundtrack is quite good, if a bit forgettable at points. Both openings and two of the three endings are well-worth a spot on the MP3 player if you ask me, the former two being catchy J-rock tunes and better two endings being performed by Kalafina. (!) The seiyuu (at least the ones for major roles) perform admirably, with Daisuke Ono as Sebastian, Maaya Sakamoto as Ciel, and Jun Fukuyama as Grell being the most outstanding of the bunch.
Um, well I guess that’s everyth-
Oh. Right. The elephant in the room. Yes, thanks for reminding me, snark-text. Yes, Black Butler has a BL component to it, but nothing actually happens between Sebastian and Ciel and the writer(s) ship-tease them mercilessly for humor anyway. And yes, in case you can’t tell, Ciel is a shota and the subject of a little fanservice in this series. If you find either of these things disgusting, then you will object to this series on principle. If you find that neither of these things matter to you, then you might still enjoy what it has to offer. And if it happens to pique your interest (like it did mine), then enjoy the bonus.
Ultimately, I find that Black Butler won’t win any awards for its efforts, but it’s definitely one of the more fun outings you can find nowadays for those of us looking for something along the lines of Kaori Yuki’s work. Though plagued by more than its fair share of flawed writing and an unfortunately rabid yaoi-fangirl-base, Black Butler is worth a look for anyone who likes their manga bittersweet and with an excellent sense of aesthetics. Try it; you might be pleasantly surprised.