Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Black Butler: The Movie BD+DVD
Preteen genius Earl Kiyoharu Genpo is the Queen's trusted guard dog, in charge of solving all the supernatural crimes in her now-worldwide kingdom. Assisting him is his trusty demonic butler, Sebastian, ever since Kiyoharu's parents were shot to death and the young master vowed revenge. The pair are in for a challenge when important foreign dignitaries start turning up as mummified corpses. The only clues are the mysterious tarot cards left in their pockets. The answers Sebastian and Kiyoharu seek are not only complicated, but much closer to home than they ever expected.
You can tell just from that synopsis that we're not in standard Black Butler territory anymore. This live-action film departs from the source material in its very first scene, plunging us into modern-day Japan rather than Victorian England. For sure, it relies on convoluted worldbuilding to try to keep some of that atmosphere, like the grand European estates and mentions of an offscreen queen. It's an admirable effort to justify the movie's all-Japanese cast, but it can feel like a betrayal if you're attached to the show's original 1800's setting.
That odd mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar looms over the whole film like a shadow. You might not always be thinking about it, especially since the main plot is excellent high-stakes drama, but it still lingers in the back of your mind. For starters, Sebastian is the only character straight from the original cast. All the other main characters have new Japanese names and differing identities. Ciel is now Kiyoharu Genpo but retains his original costume. (Hey, at least that sounds like a real surname unlike "Phantomhive.") The film interprets Kiyoharu's morality and motivations a little differently from Ciel's and puts an extra twist in his backstory, but they're still essentially the same character. It's the modern setting that really makes this Black Butler feel so off. They ride in cars, beat up thugs in modern alleyways, and even squeeze their way through a crowded, flashy nightclub. It has all the discomfort of a "modern AU" fanfiction; they remain the same people in different places and circumstances that you'd think would change them somewhat.
It's worth getting past that, because this is one of the most thrilling Black Butler stories yet. Fans of the series' creepier episodes will especially enjoy it. The "mummification" at the heart of this mystery is truly horrifying, with one scene unveiling the process in all its gory detail. There's some great dramatic irony as viewers realize exactly what the villain's "ticket to heaven" means. It's ultimately a lot of set-up for a riff on one of the anime's earlier mysteries, but it even manages to one-up the original in that regard, by turning a fairly sexist moral into one that's slightly more progressive, illustrating how patriarchal family norms use up and spit out women. It's nothing other stories haven't done better, but it's still nice to see remakes do better by their female cast.
By the way, all this flashy action looks really good. That tends to be the stumbling block for anime fans with live-action versions, since a lot of anime's outlandish character designs just look bizarre on real people, and the special effects can be clunky if you're more used to Hollywood's action blockbusters, usually in attempts to make the fantastical far too literal. Black Butler is smarter about this than most, partly because it sticks to physical action and sets aside the more cartoonish characters like Grell. That may not be an entirely good thing emotionally, but it definitely helps the movie's look and feel. In that sense, it more than surpasses the aesthetically unremarkable anime series, feeling like a typical sleek crime thriller.
The set and costume design are what sell the movie most. The sprawling Genpo estate is gorgeous, but its elegant interiors still look lived-in. The costuming does a good job of mimicking the characters' original designs in a realistic way. Sure, the contrast is jarring when they walk out into the modern world, but it's worth it to see the original series' opulence made real in an engaging way.
And yet, all that set dressing and dangling of fan-favorite lines like "one hell of a butler" only make it clear how much this isn't really Black Butler anymore. On its own, this is a highly entertaining supernatural thriller. You'll find yourself on the edge of your seat several times. But in trying to refine the series, this movie filtered out its flamboyant heart. Even at its darkest, the anime Black Butler always had some camp and humor just around the corner to loosen things up. Aside from a lone one-scene wonder, there's nothing like that in this movie. This is Black Butler with its serious face on, and the result is a version I feel better recommending to fans of more cold-blooded melodramatic crime procedurals. This is more like Black Butler for Death Note fans—especially the second half of Death Note.
This movie did make me realize what odd protagonists Sebastian and Ciel are for the world they inhabit. They're both harsh, deadpan characters (especially Ciel) in a show that's often defined by its zany camp. But in this world, they slot right in, with Japanese Not-Ciel coming off as one of the more kindhearted people in the movie. Maybe that's not such a good thing.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Art : A
Music : B
+ Highly entertaining and creepy plot, great visual design, some refreshing twists on a familiar story
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