voice cast: J. Michael Tatum, and Brina Palencia
director: Toshiya Shinohara
264 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 16:9
Manga DVD Region 2
review by Jonathan McCalmont Black Butler – collection one
Ciel Phantomhive (Brina Palencia) was little more than a child when a mysterious fire destroyed his home and claimed the lives of his beloved parents. Consumed by the desire for vengeance, Ciel forged a pact with a demon by promising his immortal soul in return for the demon’s assistance in tracking down his parents’ murderers. Two years later, and Ciel is raising eyebrows as master of the Phantomhive household; not only has he built his father’s old toy company into a promising business and taken on the responsibility of serving as Queen Victoria’s underworld enforcer, he also has one hell of a butler named Sebastian.
Like many youth-oriented anime (Yana Toboso’s original manga was first serialised in the same magazine as Dragon Ball and Yu-Gi-Oh!), Black Butler (aka: Kuroshitsuji) takes a little while to find its feet. Early episodes struggle under the twin burdens of exposition and genre expectation resulting in a hideous collision of unfunny slapstick and po-faced exposition. However, while the first three or four episodes are almost universally awful, they do serve to introduce the characters and lay the groundwork for the series that eventually emerges when Ciel and Sebastian run off to capture Jack the Ripper.
Black Butler – series one, part one, is ostensibly an undemanding action/ adventure story that borrows elements from gothic romance, steampunk, and urban fantasy, to produce a world in which rogue grim reapers battle demonic butlers with the aid of magical chainsaws. Though never actively bad, Black Butler‘s action-adventure does suffer from over-familiarity and a general lack of imagination. For example, with an entire realm of fantasy Victoriana at its feet, did the series really need to revisit Jack the Ripper and the Hound of the Baskervilles? Did the fight scenes really need all of those blurry action lines and images of people leaping dozens of feet into the air? I understand that these are genre conventions but when your series looks exactly like every other series out there then you have a serious creativity problem on your hands.
Black Butler also features some genuinely clunky storytelling such as a tendency to introduce characters as irritating comic creations and then burst into completely undeserved melodrama when something bad happens to them. Again, I understand that the angst is not so much about the dead character as about revealing the depth of humanity that lurks behind Ciel’s intense public persona, but to move from limb-flailing slapstick to hand-wringing melodrama without a jot of character development really does smack of laziness and dishonesty. If taken entirely at face value, Black Butler is both derivative and dull. However, look beneath the surface and the series reveals some interesting ideas.
Hidden amidst all of the generic questing and fighting lurks the story of the relationship between an intense young nobleman and the demonic entity that serves as his butler, parent and personal assassin. Initially, Ciel comes across as spoiled and psychopathically detached from the people around him, while Sebastian comes across as an irritatingly smug and altogether too-cool-for-school underling. However, as the series develops, we begin to realise that there is more to this relationship than mere contractual obligation. In fact, there is real erotic tension underlying the master-servant dynamic.
Part of what makes Black Butler‘s central relationship so compelling is the subtle and subversive manner in which it is drawn. Though the series never explicitly states that Sebastian might love Ciel or that Ciel might yearn for Sebastian, the series makes it abundantly clear that this possibility is very much on the table. For example, Sebastian is so cool and competent that many characters instantly fall in love with him. However, as the series progresses, these characters reappear and are quite open about their homosexuality suggesting that these early declarations of love were not so much jokes as moments in which the series gently introduced the idea that its world does contain gay characters and that these characters do indeed fall in love. Similarly, the series features a hell hound that takes human form when it is ‘particularly excited’ and the human form that the hell hound takes is a beautiful naked man who is weirdly devoted to Sebastian. There is also a lovely moment where Ciel decides to dress up as a prostitute in order to lure a potential murderer and the series happily shows us Sebastian lacing Ciel into a sexy corset.
All of these elements (including the weird top-bottom, master-slave relationship) will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever encountered the Yaoi or Bishonen genres of manga but the fact that these elements are present in an ostensibly mainstream and youth-oriented series lends them a fresh and subversive feel that is undeniably attractive and engaging. However, as compelling as Black Butler‘s gay elements may be, there is no denying that they are only really present in the series’ background as the foreground is completely dominated by a dull action/ adventure story. Had Black Butler been an actual Yaoi title that focused on the soap-operatic elements of Ciel’s relationship with Sebastian then I suspect I would have enjoyed the series a lot more. Sadly, as it is I feel that the engaging aspects of the series are almost completely overshadowed by the dull adventure stories that dominate the foreground.
Storytelling issues aside, Black Butler is a very well made series. Although derivative and at times somewhat garish, the artwork is easy on the eyes and the animation is pretty damn fine without ever scaling the heights of such prestige productions as Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The English-language voice acting is also pretty good as long as you do your best to ignore the awful ‘hilarious’ cock-er-ney accents forced on some of the supporting cast. Think Dick Van Dyke with a head injury and you won’t be too far off.
Based on the US release of the series, Black Butler – collection one comes on two DVDs with a few unimpressive extras including a bewildering in-character summary of the plot and a written piece on the woman who provided the spectacularly bland music that plays over the end credits. Though far from a generous package, this does at least show that Manga Entertainment have moved beyond their old business model or releasing three episodes on a single disc. Reasonably priced and available in one cohesive narrative unit (which I have seen described as either the first series or the first half of the first series), this DVD is definitely worth picking up if you are a fan of the original manga or if your love of subversive homoerotic undertones allow you to muddle through hours of tedious and derivative action/ adventure hi-jinks.