Produced by: Aniplex
Distributed by: Madman Entertainment
Genre: Action, Drama, Comedy
Runtime: 325 minutes, 2 DVD’s
Rating: MA15+, Strong animated violence
Available from: Madman – $59
Reviewed by: Grace Mitchell and Michael Marr
If Jane Austin Books and endless hours of studying classic English literature have taught us anything it’s that the lives and problems of upper class English socialites are Be-Oh-Are-Eye-En-Gee, BORING. For anyone that’s had to endure a class in the subject matter or be exposed to subject matter like Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”, the idea of sitting down to watch an anime based on a young socialite and his able bodied butler did not appeal at first. Typically, many people don’t care too greatly for notions of problems amongst affluent upper class society, because the average person thinks that money tends to eliminate most of the stresses in life. So in short, to begin with, I was not overly enthused by the idea of watching this anime. However, as one of our other writers Grace convinced me to sit down and give it a go. And admittedly I was surprised. Never judge a book by its cover, I believe the saying goes.
“ Ciel Phantomhive is the most powerful boy in all of England, but he bears the scars of unspeakable suffering. Forced to watch as his beloved parents were brutally murdered, Ciel was subsequently abducted and violently tortured. Desperate to end his suffering, the boy traded his own soul for a chance at vengeance, casting his lot with the one person on whom he could depend: Sebastian, a demon Butler summoned from the very pits of hell.
Together, they’ll prowl the darkest alleys of London on a mission to snuff out those who would do evil. They’re a rare sight, these two: the Butler who dismembers with dazzling cutlery and the Young Master who carries the devil’s marking. Rest assured that wherever they may be headed, it’ll be one hell of a ride.” – DVD blurb.
The premise of Black Butler is to tell the story of a young noble, named Ciel, and his collection of rather eccentric staff, the most particular of whom embodies the title of the series: Sebastian, the butler always garbed in black. The pair engage in numerous activities that one might associate with both the upper class lifestyle, and that of the seedy criminal underworld. Along the way, viewers will be introduced to a deep personal struggle that torments the young noble, as well as a mystery regarding the origins of Sebastian and his superhuman abilities. Thrown together with a mixture of both dark and light hearted moments, Black Butler is one very unique, and well put together anime. So why not give it a closer look? I mean, it IS the same group that produced Full Metal Alchemist… in a very similar style too. It’s certainly worth a go.
Black Butler’s plot can be seen as a very simple one with many twists. It begins with Ciel, the only heir to the aristocratic Phantomhive family, as a young boy, who has his parents murdered in front of him and then tortured horrendously by some kind of cult. He then signs a contract with a demon, to bring revenge on the people who had done this to him and his family. This is the simple story line, the more twisted story line features demons, shinigami, angels, hell hounds, resurrection, cults and the dark side of organized religion. Where most of the plot consists of Ciel doing the bidding of the Queen, by eliminating supernatural situations that hurt her country and ‘saddens’ her, we slowly learn little tid bits along the way about who is Ciel’s true enemy and who is orchestrating this whole situation behind the scenes. The plot also consists of the hilarity of the staff who constantly try to gain Ciel’s approval as worthy staff and his fiance’s desperate bids to make Ciel smile as he had when he was a true child.
From the very first scene in the first episode, we see a young person strung up in a dark void, being spoken to by a voice projected from a black raven. White feathers are being shed, which is likely to be an allusion to the fact that forming a contract with a demon will forever strip a person of their chance at angels or heaven. Black Butler most certainly knows how to make a visual entrance. What I like about the art and visual style about Black Butler is the colours blend together very well, and help sets the tone of the scenes to follow. This is most prominent when looking at the environments that the characters interact within. There are several iconic environments within the anime, the most significant of them being the mansion entrance, bedrooms, hallways, study, garden, and kitchen. Typically, Ciel’s bedroom is very dark, but even in light is burdened with dull colours, which often matches his mood. Other environments such as the garden and kitchen tend to be brighter and more lively, which is appropriately catered to the characters that we often see goofing around in them.
As for the characters themselves, the art style is often shifted between dark and realistic to highlight important or serious-toned scenes and a chibi anime style to highlight situations of humour. Since the two themes are consistently flip-flopping around one another, changing the style often assists the viewers in establishing if something is to be taken seriously or not, or if something is to be laughed at. This notion of art style swapping is actually personified by the character Tanaka, one of the manservants who is actually able to shift between serious and rigid faced “Real” Tanaka, and carefree, tea-drinking quiet “Chibi” Tanaka. In the anime itself, they seem like completely different characters, even though they are one and the same.
The special effects are also quite a spectacle to behold. Due to the dark themes and serious nature of the ongoing story, most special effects tend to be reserved for either the wacky anime style scenes or one of the more occult, magic oriented moments, where Ciel and Sebastian have the capacity to call upon ethereal strength to complete their goals. When that occurs, purple or red lighting tends to be used, which, although bright, tends to give off a sinister aura. Oh and the fact that Satan’s pentagram is usually present when it occurs.
The first thing that I have to mention from this anime is that the opening song kicks ass! Perhaps this is just me as an anime fan, but I often place a good deal of initial impression value on the quality of the opening song and intro sequence. It exposes the dark roots of the story, but also promises us action, mystery, and clearly elements of character growth.
Naturally, as an anime title that strongly links to the upper class social life of England, the music is often soft and classical for a majority of the social scenes. This helps set a calm mood. Although it does so to the effect of it seeming just that little bit too calm. It can bring up a notion in one’s mind that there may be something sinister behind the politeness and the affluence. On the other hand, the music really lets you know when the horror and supernatural elements start to take place. The strong violin riffs and sudden pacing help set the mood VERY effectively. During the scenes of wackiness too, often the music is similar to that of the classic tone, but slightly faster in pace. This helps establish a more light-hearted and casual feel.
Sound effects are also quite appropriate to the subject matter of a scene, especially in regards to volume adjustment for suspense, and the Doppler effect at more in the more tense scenes involving horror themes, chases or action.
Finally, I should comment that the voice acting cast has been quite well picked, and reflect the characters quite well, for the most part. Particularly in the case of Ciel and Sebastian who are both able to put on airs of a kind of eerie false politeness. All of the voice actors nailed the accents of their characters, although in a few minor of a few minor characters, their English and Irish accents tend to come off as forced. Having never seen the Japanese dub, I don’t know if I am in a position to scrutinise, but I do feel that the English VA cast is appropriate for the task of accenting. Let me put it this way, a Japanese attempt to perform an English cockney accent would probably sound downright ridiculous, so I think the English VA cast is justified in their use, comparatively.
Ciel Phantomhive is a young noble that is now in charge of the Phantomhive estate and business as his parents were killed. This would seem as a pretty lucky and go happy situation if it wasn’t for the fact that his parents weren’t killed right in front of him, his mansion was burnt down and he was kidnapped and tortured by a cult. This created the Ciel we know today, he was tortured until he didn’t care about himself anymore and all he wanted to do was get revenge. This is what Black Butler is truly about, getting revenge on the ones who hurt him, his family and dared to diminish the Phantomhive name.
He is proud, harsh, cold and calculating. Well that is to begin with of course, slowly throughout the story he does managed to soften a little bit to those around him who are supporting him the whole time. To begin with through his pride and coldness, we just seem him as an annoying brat but by watching more we can also see his strength and determination. Through the kindness of the people around him, mostly his staff and his fiancé Lizzy, he starts to also become someone who is loyal, considerate and caring of those that love him.
Sebastian is the butler dressed in black, the character that the anime is based on. He is a demon summoned by Ciel to take revenge on those that hurt Ciel and the name of Phantomhive so badly. Sebastian is a smooth gentlemen who doesn’t seem like a demon until he brings out his weapons, often silver knives and forks, and starts to slaughter the people that oppose Ciel. Sebastian is a stunning character; he is smooth, elegant, taught in nearly everything and is a true gentleman … well as gentlemanly as a deadly demon can be that is. He also somehow manages to look after the whole mansion, take care of Ciel, and be in charge of the rest of the staff. Ciel’s ever faithful servant, Sebastian in the end is just ‘one hell of a butler’.
Bardroy is the foul mouthed cook that is the leader of the staff group. An awful cook who always seems to somehow blow up or burn the food, he is seen as hopeless.
Finnian is the young gardener boy who loves to be outside and garden. He is innocent and cute, but he seems to have super human strength for some reason which causes him to destroy a lot.
Mey-rin is the cute clumsy maid that tries her best at everything but always seems to failing and breaking the important china.
Tanaka is a curious character who seems to always be in chibi form as being in his real form takes too much energy from him. He always seems to be there with tea and wisdom.
Ciel’s young fiancé is a pretty young girl who only wants to make Ciel smile. Though she seems to do this by constantly trying to make everything cute, which is funnily enough not to Ciel’s liking. Even though these characters seem to be very different, they do in the end care for each other very much.
Black Butler stands out as an anime title for me because of its uniqueness. And as I stated before, this anime did not turn out the way I had expected it to. Rather than being about problems to do with image, status and reputation amongst England’s elite, we’re presented with a dark, edgy thriller type story with lots of abstract humour thrown into the mix.
Sound like an anime you’ve seen before?
The FMA comparisons were quite easy to make, especially in regards to the wackiness of character interactions in what should be a serious and dark story. Even though Ciel promised to give his soul to the devil, the devil still insists on teaching him how to dance and live his life to the fullest. It somewhat like how Edward and Alphonse often got along with Scar… It’s kind of strange seeing a devil in human form, not so much because it’s uncommon, but more because Sebastian tends to act more human than many other characters within the anime. Not to mention that he doesn’t seem… well, EVIL. We’re often told to perceive devils as even beings of pure selfishness and malice, but Sebastian is able to perform his duty to protect Ciel and the other members of the house, often with caring words and helpful advice to help them grow as characters. Sure he’s going to get a soul out of it, but seriously, a lifetime of servitude for a single soul? That’s devotion.
Overall, I highly recommend this little gem. Don’t let the title or somewhat flamboyant cover work deceive you. Under its exterior lies a real gem of Japanese animation.