Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 8th 2011
DVD Season 1 Part 2
After Jack the Ripper and the Hound of the Bask...er, the Houndsworths, Ciel Phantomhive and his demon butler must face...curry? Ciel has an unwanted visitor when he is "saved' by a wayward Indian prince. The prince and his butler move in, taking time off from tormenting Ciel only to search for a missing girl. Naturally this culminates in a curry cook-off. Afterwards it's back to fighting ghosts, purity-obsessed cults, traitorous allies, mafia drug-runners, insane angels and other such appropriately dark foes. Just as well: Ciel's revenge is nearly at hand, and he'll need all the strength he can muster to see it through to the end. The black, bitter, fiery end.
The second half of Black Butler doesn't exactly get off to a rip-roaring start. The three-episode curry cook-off is pure filler silliness, of the kind that is frankly beneath Butler. (It even has a moral. The horror!) And the child-ghost one-off that follows isn't much better. The series' first half had its fluff too, but mostly for the purpose of introducing Ciel and his associates. These episodes serve no such function. It is possible to sift through them for grains of substance: the ghost episode provides another glimpse of Ciel's cold-burning need for vengeance while the curry arc prompts Ciel to open up a bit about his bitter loneliness and also introduces Queen Victoria for the first time. But apart from the Queen none of the grains is particularly essential. And even worse, they don't provide the kind of darkness that haunted even the goofiest of previous episodes. Perhaps the show felt it needed a break from the darkness, and admittedly it deserved one. It just succeeds rather too well.
One of the advantages of having a short-story structure, though, is that you can shift directions quickly. And shift it does. Episode seventeen is the beginning of the cult arc, whereupon all of the series' blacker tendencies return with a vengeance. The preview for the first episode warns that there's strong content ahead (if watched in mixed company, it recommends a coughing fit as an appropriate diversion) and it isn't kidding. The episode features, amongst other atrocities, a strong suggestion of predatory pederasty and a bawdy scene in which Sebastian uses his boudoir skills to interrogate a nun. The arc then proceeds to delve further than ever into the grotesque facts of Ciel's parents' murder, in the process giving us our first glimpse of the divine, which naturally turns out to be even more disturbing than the demonic. Like the best of Black Butler's arcs these two episodes are essentially a mystery; a convoluted whodunit with one eye on the coolly logical evils of supernaturals, the other on the foolish and flawed evils of petty mortals, and its mind on flipping conventional morality on its head.
Having gotten its second wind, the series burns through its final third. A drug war, a World Fair gone very wrong, and more sinister machinations than you could shake a twisted angel at move Ciel inexorably towards the conclusion of his revenge (whether he wants it or not), with a break only for a Mey-Rin-, Bard-, and Finny-centered interlude that demonstrates how filler fluff should be done (namely, with sharp little jabs of substance). The chain leading from that backwoods cult to the apocalyptic end-game in Ciel's revenge is a bit disjointed, thanks to the series' structure, and plenty contrived, thanks to its credulity-stretching coincidences. But it's also clever and logically consistent, particularly within a given arc (check out how the cult arc disguises clues as plot holes), and full of the kind of velvety-smooth gothic nastiness fans have come to expect: Lovers joined Frankenstein-style into one festering body, angels whose obsession with order is more lethal than any evil, a bridge built on a foundation of human sacrifices, London reenacting the Great Fire of 1666—all leading to a showdown that finds one rooting for evil to rip the living hell out of good. When the finale begins you'll be hard pressed to remember, much less resent, the opening frivolity.
Victorian England is a great asset to Black Butler. Its repressive norms and hierarchical culture are great for breeding psychological unpleasantness. Just try to imagine Ciel and Sebastian's slyly homoerotic relationship without the master-servant dynamics of Victorian society. Its baroque interiors, filthy docksides, fog-slicked cobbles, and imposing architecture are the perfect backdrops against which to project tales of murder, insanity, and evil forces beyond man's ken. In order to exploit all that, Butler needs to illustrate the time and place just right. Which it does. When a character says of England "it's a beautiful place," he could be patting A-1 Pictures Inc. on the back. It is beautiful; in a terrible, forbidding kind of way; whether shrouded in shadow, lit with falling snow, or ablaze with hellish fire. Characters are similarly well-drawn, with elaborate, class- or species-appropriate dress, clear, disquieting eyes, and faces stamped with their personalities. Extra attention is of course paid to Ciel, who gets the lion's share of the costume changes, and Sebastian, whose slick good looks and courtly manners can hardly disguise his slippery sadism.
All the cash pumped into drawing London and its inhabitants had to come from somewhere. The animation budget, as always, is a popular choice. While far from bad, the series' grasp of movement isn't nearly on par with its grasp of composition. Sebastian's serpentine smile may be unpleasantly well-animated, and the occasional carriage crash handsomely staged, but there are too many little corners cut to wholeheartedly praise the series' mastery of movement. SD humor, by the way, plays an important part both in stretching the budget and adding an undercurrent of humor (even, dare I say, camp) to the horrific goings-on.
The ever-reliable Taku Iwasaki provides Black Butler's score, a typically excellent and appropriately moody work that director Toshiya Shinohara deploys nearly continuously. Though at a generally low register. It ranges confidently from faux-Indian silliness to almost-subliminal portents, but really shines when it swells into ominous Gregorian chants and chilling chorales.
The variety of dialects Funimation's dub uses is still its most distinguishing feature. Upper-crustites like Ciel and Sebastian speak the Queen's English. Servants speak various coarser dialects. Mafiosos have Mediterranean (I hesitate to call them Italian) accents, Indian's have Indian accents, and so forth. It's a fine attempt to give the dub some added value (after all the original had no English, so it couldn't have English dialects), and it works so long as you don't pay too much attention to how the Indians kind of sound like Apu from The Simpsons, how Mey-Rin kind of sounds like Eliza Doolittle, or how maintaining an accent throws the actors off their game. They aren't as natural as they should be, and too often they miss the subtly self-aware humor of the dialogue... when the script doesn't miss it for them.
Two episode-long commentary tracks and a disposable (but fun) OVA episode are our extras this time around. The OVA is welcome, but the commentaries are too self-congratulatory and/or useless (the first is mostly the former; the second, narrated as if by Ciel's servants, mostly the latter) to be much appreciated, particularly by the dub's un-fans.
As ever, whether Black Butler burns you to ashes in the flames of your own nerd-passion or merely diverts you for another five hours depends heavily on whether Sebastian and Ciel provide the spark to set you ablaze. The fantasy of a perfect man—intelligent, attentive, strong, protective, good at cooking—who is simultaneously subservient to and ravenous for a young boy (his soul, you perverts!) is one that will appeal mainly to a very specific slice of fandom. Myself, I'm not in it. As much as I enjoy the series' dark ambiance and cheeky meddling with morality, it'll never be more than a passing pleasure to me. But regardless of whether it consumes or just entertains you, Black Butler is still a bloody good time.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Ends strong.
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