Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Jan 12th 2011
DVD - Season 1 Part 1
Sebastian Michaelis, butler for the Phantomhive estate, proclaims himself to be nothing if not honest. After all, he often claims to be “one hell of a butler” and means it in every sense of the phrase. When 12-year old Ciel Phantomhive, orphaned heir to his family's fortune, came to him at the height of his thirst for retribution, the then-demon promised him his abject servitude and every resource to aid in his vengeance in exchange for a meal of the young master's soul…and so a contract was formed and the demon was given a name, a face, and a rather tedious job he's determined to perform with both grace and mischief.
As Sebastian is indentured to Ciel, so Ciel is contracted to Queen Victoria and finds his quest to destroy the men who took away his family and destroyed his childhood endlessly delayed by the need to avoid kidnappings and hobnob with two-faced aristocrats. The young Phantomhive has his myriad faithful servants, but his position as the Queen's lapdog and the unearthly demeanor of his closest retainer puts him off with some formidable enemies in England's high society. Sebastian is confident to prove, however, that there is nothing he cannot do for his master, and the mundane criminals ruling London's streets may have more to do with Ciel's true enemies than he had ever imagined.
There's nothing like a Faustian pact to make the fangirls squeal, apparently. Between Black Butler and Hetalia it would seem that Japan is in the habit of making dry, complicated history into silly, sexy otaku phenomena. However, whereas Hetalia made an effort to turn the details of World War II into something more pleasant and unite the world under a banner of rainbows, Black Butler…makes no effort whatsoever to respect the restraints of British literature and instead favors the Stones approach and paints it all black. Jack the Ripper, the Hound of the Baskervilles, and the creepiest rendition of London Bridge is Falling Down you may ever hear are only a few ingredients weaved through Sebastian's dark pastiche, where he chuckles at lost souls amongst the uppercrust and gutter-dwellers alike.
It's near-impossible to dislike him for his ravenous deeds, though. For every Italian swindler he tries to bake into a pie, he has to suffer through multiple indignities and bears it all with a gentle smile. The series shifts from Dorian Grey to Monty Python when Ciel is forced into a corset to track down Jack the Ripper, Sebastian is reduced to using knives, forks, and plates as ambush weaponry, so on and so forth. It all gets a bit silly thanks to these mishaps and the complete incompetence of other members of the household: Baldroy, a cook who routinely sets his kitchen on fire, Mei-Rin, a nearsighted klutzy maid, and Finnian, a gardener who just doesn't know his own strength. (The verdict is still out as to what old man Tanaka does…apart from drink tea and ramble.)
Another light in the darkness is the ever-present sensuality of this gothic venue. Sebastian does…er…interesting things with his hands and mouth on a routine basis that simply cannot be interpreted any other way than how a few fainting ladies (and gents!) in the series take them. The dialogue is dripping with innuendo every other second, as if determined to prove that anything can be made sexual, and despite its Victorian setting, there's a healthy amount of skin bared in Black Butler…some of it welcome, some of it not.
To put it bluntly: it's all terribly naughty. This anime is as eager to shift from laughing at a seesawing pair of thugs in a car over a cliff to watching Sebastian tip the car lightly to plummet into a canyon and violently explode…is it still okay to laugh? However, the fact that this is essentially mass-appeal shota with a healthy male fanbase alongside its enormous female one only underlines how clever every moment and passing line has to be. Make no mistake: for as shamelessly pandering as Black Butler can be, it is far richer and darker than most any series of its type. The art is incredibly distinctive and flexible, every inch of the spectacular mansions and courtyards immaculately detailed. A-1 Pictures' animation can be considerably more stilted, but it's serviceable and the production team seems to know its limitations, opting for a number of wisely-used shortcuts (mostly jump cuts for comedic effect or to show off how speedy Sebastian is.) The music is heavily orchestral and ranges from creepy to creepier, used sparingly but to great effect. Black Butler can get by just fine on silence thanks to its wily script. Many episodes begin with a crafty reference, follow a theme on European culture or literature and then play with it until the adventure reaches its climax when all the elements blend together in a satisfying end to the whole gag that often carries with it a little wisdom and a lot of foreboding until the next escapade rolls around.
Of course, therein lies the problem of Black Butler. The board is set for a challenging game of revenge, twisted dealings, betrayal and gruesome demise and it's all so far delivered between pawns. There's no progress whatsoever made to finding the raiders of Phantomhive's estate, and details are still sketchy on what precisely Ciel wants vengeance for. (Actually, that may be because the crimes against him are implied to be too disturbing to describe even for this series.) Ciel investigates a series of murders involving prostitutes…no connection. Ciel looks into a number of kidnappings involving young girls connected to the Hope Diamond, which he also owns a piece of...no connection…wait…unless…? The story is rife with recurring characters and connected events but so vague as to who or what matters that even the potentially important details come off as filler and the whole show as directionless. It is routinely implied that Sebastian, the crafty devil, knows everything from beginning to end and simply doesn't care to tell his master. It can even be theorized that he isn't helping him as much as he could be, as he only acts on direct orders, but in those cases, the mystery is the greatest element of fun rather than a frustrating crutch.
On the note of frustrating crutches, Funimation adopted the Baccano! approach to dubbing this series and doused it all in regional accents, obviously British brogues rather than Brooklyn ones. (Apologies in advance for not giving the phenomenal Japanese track as much attention, but there is more to discuss with the English version.) The good news is that when this works, it really works, as in J Michael Tatum's Sebastian, Lydia Mackay's Madame Red, or unquestionably the best of the accents: Daniel Fredrick's. (He didn't have a credit to his name at Funimation previously, but there's no doubt after hearing it as to why he was cast as Grell.)
The bad news…? Well, obviously there are hiccups. Some of the accents are outlandish, (Monica Rial as Mei-Lin is almost directly imitating Eliza Doolittle,) and while none of them are outright bad it just gets distracting at points. The worst example of this, sadly, is Brina Palencia's Ciel, a character so dark, shaken, and serious that his routine dignified enunciation, no matter how good or bad, just diminishes his character by virtue of being so noticeable. There were no characters like this in Baccano! There were no moments meant to deeply jar the audience or make them think. In such times, despite the fantastic acting across the board, the thick affectations add a layer of alienation not present in the Japanese version, where Maaya Sakamoto's Ciel can be harsh and condemning and it gets our full attention, as it should. Both sub and dub are above the norm and equally recommended, just with the caveat that the regional English can be a stumbling block now and again.
Extras include a bonus recap episode narrated by Tanaka, an interview with Becca (singer of the ED theme,) and a pair of surprisingly informative English VA commentaries that cover a variety of topics from handling shades of British voice and colloquialisms to Sebastian's true nature and how that affects his physical appearance…rather above the standard for these commentaries, and very entertaining.
This is not a phenomenal anime and it does not ever try to be…but it is incredibly sure of itself. Like its titular hired help, it dares you to approach and once ensnared, toys with you at every turn until you're not sure where to be amused, terrified, intrigued or frustrated, running the gamut of them all and refusing to tell you what lies at the end of the ride. The joy in it all, of course, is that this Black Butler knows exactly how it plans to carry out its duties whether you can keep up or not. This celebration of tragedy and terror is not for the faint of heart, as it may very well steal your heart away.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Clever, gorgeous, funny, scary, sinfully sweet all over, terrific acting in both languages
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