a review by Nalini Haynes
Director: Shinohara Toshiya
Produced: A-1 Pictures
Ciel Phantomhive, a twelve year old boy, is head of his family, an earl and Queen Victoria’s guard dog. Sebastian is the Black Butler, a demon turned butler serving Ciel for the term of a contract at the end of which Sebastian will take Ciel’s soul. Lady Red is Ciel’s mother’s sister and only living relative. Lady Elisabeth is Ciel’s betrothed, appearing primarily for comic relief. Ciel has three incompetent but well-meaning servants in addition to another butler who is usually shrunken but occasionally makes appearances as the ‘real’ Tanaka.
Unlike many TV shows, Black Butler does not give you the initial framework in the first couple of episodes. Piecing together what has happened is like solving a mystery, and is a story arc in itself. So only read on if you don’t mind spoilers. Ciel’s parents were murdered two years earlier and their house burnt to the ground. Ciel went missing for months; what happened at that time is unclear except that Ciel feels humiliated and wants revenge. When Ciel reappeared, Sebastion, who is ‘one hell of a butler’, appeared with him as his aide, bodyguard and servant. The family mansion was replaced with an identical structure, identical even to the faded patch on the wallpaper when a painting is moved.
A number of episodes are reminiscent of The Twilight Zone; these episodes range from slightly creepy to chilling. Jack the Ripper is on the loose, so the queen sets Ciel to stop the murders. Later Ciel is sent to stop breeding of vicious attack dogs whilst ostensibly being sent to start a holiday resort village for the queen.
Set in Victorian England, Black Butler does not quite seem to be steampunk although it occasionally brushes up with that genre as when some gentlemen in a car had a mobile phone that looked antique. The animation is good. Some of the artwork is beautiful. I don’t know what the rating will be; there was plenty of blood splashing around in some scenes but no guts. One scene obviously intended as fanservice showed ample cleavage, legs and knickers but all in an antiquated bathing suit.
You will enjoy Black Butler if you enjoy historical fiction, mild horror and comedy in a format of individual stories with a mystery story arc. This is not limited to fans of anime; if you haven’t seen any anime and you enjoy the above, I urge you to give Black Butler a try.
One of the fascinating things about Japanese culture is their tendency to link storytelling media so that there are anime, manga (comic books) and video games of a story. Black Butler is no exception.
This article was previously published in Dark Matter issue 3, April 2011, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.