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.
Black Butler - or Kuroshitsuji as it has been known and adored by fans for some time - is making its official debut in the UK. In the anime fan community, the distinctive gothic image long precedes the release on DVD. Fans have been turning out to conventions decked out in exquisite cosplay of the characters for years. They revel in the beauty, falling prey to the phenomenal mix of antiquarian elegance that is one of the greatest selling points of the series. It is a richly dark and arresting beauty that attracts this audience, a fantastical vision of Victorian macabre, of English estates and aristocracy intertwined with the supernatural and the intrigue that emerges amidst realms of social influence.
For fans of bishonen, the appeal is obvious and the show glitters like an open jewellery box-rich with inspiration for minds preoccupied with the possibilities of yaoi pairings. Despite this obvious skew towards a predominantly female following, male fans should not be discouraged, this is by no means an insipid and dewy-eyed view of romanticised male relations. The characters are robust, complex and - yes - kick ass. It is lavish without being "lah-di-dah". 12 year old Ciel Phantomhive may be the little lord of the manner but his delicate and diminutive façade houses a fierce and even ruthless personality. With no family to support him, the orphaned heir seals his fate by forging an unusual alliance with an ethereal ally. In an effort to preserve and protect his position in the present he has forfeited his soul, entrusting it to a graceful guardian - his demonic manservant Sebastian Michaelis. Sebastian deftly performs any task with all the devotion due to his position. On the surface, he is the very paragon of a perfect servant. He prepares delicious delicacies, polishes the silver wear and keeps the whole household running like clockwork. Beyond the daily toil, he meets out justice as directed by his master, wreaking revenge upon those who wrong the Phantomhive family without mercy or hesitation.
It is an engaging stage on which to place the drama of each episode. As scenarios proceed to their conclusion and Ciel manages to retain his grasp on the Phantomhive estate, any triumph is marred by the forebodingly Faustian alliance that binds the lead characters. Ciel may be in his mansion but all is most certainly not right with the world: the butler's duties are performed to perfection but always with a predatory twinkle in his eyes.
The demonstrations of devotion are sinister indeed as servitude is most certainly in Sebastian's own self-interest and one is encouraged never to forget that. Protecting his master is merely a prelude to receiving his prize. Sebastian is - as he is so fond of reminding us - one hell of a butler.
The animation is very nice and the action from Toboso's manga is well executed, perhaps with more finesse than even the original. There is scarcely a dull moment and the stories often have a nice little sting in the tail. It is clear that Toboso enjoys playing smoke and mirrors with the characters she creates and the directors have certainly made the most of this in the anime. Protagonists emerge and evolve in ways that are unpredictable and often quite delectable. With Ciel, Sebastian and Grell, the series has produced some of the most adored male characters to emerge from manga and anime in the past decade.
Supporting characters are the less than adept household staff comprised of Bardroy the roguish American cook, Finnian the young groundskeeper and Mey-Rin the clumsy bespectacled maid. Their capers often cause chaos which must be rectified by the sharp skills of Sebastian as the elderly steward observes from the sidelines, most commonly with a cup of green tea and a chuckle. These characters provide a light contrast to the dour demeanour of Ciel and the often creepy content of the storylines. Also of great import are Ciel's living relatives and a variety of exotic noblemen from the orient. These characters have their own secrets and fascinating stories to tell.
Sebastian exudes an elegant presence that is almost feline. He watches with the casual interest of a well-fed predator as the dramas and drudgery of humanity unfold around him. He stands apart from the corporeal world, moving like a shadow across the unwise individuals who present a threat to his young charge. His efficiency and resources are without limit and serves Ciel without compromising his pride or power. His dutiful attentions and communications are followed by a sinister smile of that makes no secret of his dark agenda. As both he and Ciel are both acutely aware of the terms that bind them, he becomes a parody of the perfect butler. Sebastian is a delight to watch and his presence alone makes the series well worth watching.
Sherlock-style sleuthing meets the supernatural with style. Black Butler has many excellent attributes, humour, beauty and a deliciously dark side, however, for all its charm it somehow it lacks substance. It is as if the creator has presented us with the promise of something greater but keeps it just out of our reach. The story arcs and the cast help to generate energy and plenty of entertainment but I get the sinking feeling that the story will be one without climax. Black Butler is constructed with a setup similar to a sitcom - while it allows us time to gallivant in its gorgeously gothic realm, in the long run it is unlikely to actually go anywhere. The demonic contract that brings a delightful and unique slant to the master/servant dynamic is one that must, at some point, pay its debt to both Sebastian and audience. I suspect that the longer the series tarries, the more inclined I am to feel that my patience for the payoff is bound to wear thin. While many fans may be happy to stay ever lost in the labyrinth, I for one need to feel that meat of the matter must at some point be served.
In the subsequent stories, will Sebastian be able to sew a little magic back into the frayed fabric of the series? Despite a few minor misgivings, my curiosity bids me to accept another invitation to the Phantomhive estate in part two.