Today I’ll review a series where selling your soul for a demon’s services gets as literal as possible. Can I offer a fresh look at this popular title? An anime reviewer that won’t try simply wouldn’t be worth his salt.
Title: Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler)
Original airing: Oct 3, 2008 to Mar 27, 2009
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Duration: 24 minutes per episode
Genres: Shounen, Action, Comedy, Supernatural
Source: Kuroshitsuji manga by Yana Toboso
Where I watched: Netflix (English subtitles and dub available)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions:
Young Ciel Phantomhive is known as “the Queen’s Guard Dog,” taking care of the many unsettling events that occur in Victorian England for Her Majesty. Aided by Sebastian Michaelis, his loyal butler with seemingly inhuman abilities, Ciel uses whatever means necessary to get the job done. But is there more to this black-clad butler than meets the eye?
If you’ve ever been to my blog (dumb way to start this, I know, how else are you reading this?) you can probably guess that I liked Black Butler enough to use it for my site’s tagline, as well as use the art in some banners. I created this blog many moons after watching it though, so for the purpose of this review let’s pretend we don’t know that yet 😛
In all fairness, the main draw of Black Butler for me was its vibe. Having a setting in Victorian England was already a plus point for me, as in recent years I’ve studied a lot about late 19th century Europe and the social atmosphere that precipitated the first World War (in case you missed my Girls und Panzer review, I am a fan of war history). Along with that was the core of the premise itself. This is a tale about revenge and about doing anything in order to achieve it. Such desperate circumstances usually make for good storytelling and I wanted to see just how far Ciel would go (or rather, how much further than selling his soul) to get what he wanted.
The background of Black Butler can be summed up in two statements. The first being that the Earl Phantomhive and his wife were murdered when their home was set on fire. Secondly, their son, Ciel Phantomhive, wishes to avenge their deaths by finding those responsible and meting out justice. Being a boy of just ten years at the time of his parents’ death, Ciel was hardly in a position to do anything of the sort; especially when you consider the fact that he was kidnapped by a cult at the time of the fire and held hostage. Clinging to life after a period of torture, Ciel found himself in the unique position of having a demon propose a deal to him. Give up any chance for his soul to enter paradise and in exchange have the opportunity to avenge his family. Ciel agreed to the terms, leaving the demon, Sebastian Michaelis, free to consume his soul afterward. The world thus saw Ciel return to the Phantomhive estate two years later to take up his father’s title with a mysterious black clad butler in tow.
As dark as this story starts, the first half of Black Butler isn’t entirely focused on this revenge plot. The Phantomhive family has a unique responsibility, you see, as investigators and guard dogs for the crown. I say ‘dog’ not only because that’s what the premise says, but also because Ciel isn’t exactly honored in the same way that the Royal Guard is. He is instead unleashed upon whatever unsavory problem the Queen identifies and left to deal with it as he sees fit. This leads to some dangerous situations but it’s nothing Ciel is too timid to handle, especially with a powerful demon at his beck and call.
The story thus becomes like a mystery thriller, in much the same vein as Sherlock Holmes. Ciel tackles mysteries, combats supernatural phenomena, and investigates murders (including a great story involving Jack the Ripper). All this is done while Ciel manages his family’s company: the Funtom Corporation, which makes childrens’ toys and candy. It’s a detail which is used minimally in the plot, but explains Ciel’s continued wealth and the presence of his four other servants who cater to his meals and take care of his property.
These small stories are delivered with a mix of mystery, comedy, and action that pays homage to the source material. For those of you who are familiar with the manga, which I have never read myself, the Black Butler anime follows it closely up through volume 5 (ref). The subsequent volumes came out after the anime first aired, which meant the anime’s writers had to diverge in order to finish the story. Because of this, the manga and anime follow two separate paths after the curry arc (manga vol 5).
The anime’s improvised second half refocuses on the tragedy that started Ciel down his ‘doomed’ path. It draws upon a few story elements from the first half to flesh out the scheme which conspired to bring Ciel’s family down from their lofty position. Even knowing nothing about the manga, the tonal shift from relatively light to bleakly tragic will clue the viewer in to the fact that the narrative takes a dramatic turn. The resulting story is rather bizarre, and I dare say wouldn’t sit properly with Englanders, but does provide for an ending that ties the disparate elements of the first half together.
But while the resolution of Black Butler is convincing enough, I believe this shift in focus is what challenges the series in terms of overall direction. As I stated before, the story starts off very dark, and occasionally goes back to this serious tone a few times, but breaks it up with frequent comic relief and English customs like Afternoon Tea. I don’t mind at all seeing a series set in Victorian England spend some time on culture, but throughout the first half it’s easy to forget that there is something very sinister at the heart of this story.
Adding to this is the knowledge that Sebastian’s seemingly jovial approach to his duties as a butler masks the fact that his end goal is to feast upon Ciel’s soul. The second half addresses some of this by dropping humor almost entirely as the final arc plays out. It maintains the nuance in the character dynamic though, portraying Sebastian as dangerous without making him seem predatory. While the return of the darker tone may provide a more satisfying ending, the disconnect between the first and second half of the series is so starkly different that it’s hard to say whether or not this improved the series as a whole.
Black Butler is centered around two main characters, Sebastian Michaelis and Ciel Phantomhive. Sebastian is the faithful, personal butler of Ciel (the Earl of Phantomhive) and devoted to carrying out any of his “young master’s” wishes. While they are interesting in their unique personas and offer a lot of quirks that might prove charming for viewers, one noteworthy criticism about the two of them is that they never really change. They begin the series with a certain goal in mind, and barring some slight hesitation on Ciel’s part, don’t deviate from that at all. While this may seem like a limitation, the characters don’t come off as boring. Viewers can think of this as yet another testament to Yana Toboso’s excellent character designs.
Throughout the series, viewers can see that Sebastian has two contrasting personalities: that of the loyal Phantomhive butler and the ruthless demon. He is often depicted as efficient, courteous, and dedicated. Viewers do catch glimpses of Sebastian’s true nature, however, which is far more dark, vicious, and bordering on sadistic.
Similar to Sebastian, Ciel also has dueling personality traits. Most of the time, Ciel is portrayed as a solemn young man, far wiser than his thirteen years. He has a strong determination to succeed and is shown to be extremely competitive. Ciel has a merciless regard for anyone he believes has wronged the Phantomhive name, showing little hesitation in commanding Sebastian to eliminate his enemies. At the same time, Ciel can also be rather childish. He forces Sebastian to dress him, is prone to fits over petty issues, and struggles when it comes to basic “commoner” tasks. Though this can be somewhat attributed to his noble upbringing, it also serves as a reminder of the protagonist’s young age. Ciel simply never learned how to be an adult before he was thrust into the very adult world he was forced to contend with.
Despite appearing rather indifferent to others, viewers see that Ciel has a ‘soft spot’ for, or at least feels an obligation toward, some of the characters in the series. When it comes to his betrothed, Elizabeth Midford, Ciel begrudgingly goes out of his way to see to her happiness; after all, it’s as much his ‘duty’ to do so as it is to be the Queen’s watchdog. Being cordial toward her would be one thing, reflecting the emotionless way he approaches other aspects of his life, but Ciel also occasionally places himself in harm’s way to keep Elizabeth safe. Amid criticizing his servants, Ciel also makes certain their needs are met. While he would never refer to them as friends, per se, his staff has an unwavering devotion and love for him in turn.
It’s noteworthy to mention how Sebastian and Ciel seem to foil one another on a few levels. For example, Ciel is shown to be physically weak at several points throughout the series. Sebastian, being a demon of course, is excessively strong. When it comes to his company, Funtom Corporation, Ciel displays a greedy side and strategizes on how to increase his profits. Sebastian, having no use for money, views material gain as ‘rubbish.’ There are also a few smaller, though humorous, contrasting traits. Ciel is allergic to cats and suffers asthma when close to them. Sebastian has such a fondness for the furry felines that he keeps several hidden in his wardrobe. Ciel also has quite a sweet tooth, but Sebastian is unable to understand human’s love for sweet things as such foods are unable to satisfy a demon’s hunger.
Fitting for a series where souls play a prominent role, there are also those whose job it is see that a soul reaches the afterlife. These are the Grim Reapers, comprised entirely of former humans who committed suicide and must endure this task as punishment until their sin is forgiven. With the special ability to view a human’s memories via their Cinematic Record, they must judge the souls of those scheduled to die in order to determine whether or not they should pass on by severing their record with their death scythe. They are also sworn not to interfere in human affairs. As such, this puts them at odds with demons (and angels) who vie for human souls.
One such Reaper, Grell Sutcliff, is a recurring character that develops an extreme obsession with Sebastian. His inclusion adds something of a challenge to Sebastian’s otherwise overpowering presence, as few other beings in the series can really stand up to the demon butler. Though he is something of a fan favorite, with his iconic character design and his his insane style (such as using a chainsaw as his death scythe), his involvement in the story is somewhat limited. After the arc that introduces him completes, he exists mostly for comic relief.
There are several other side characters that come from the manga, such as Prince Soma and Lau the Chinaman, that participate for one one or two arcs, but the aforementioned change in the story direction leads to their involvement being heavily stifled later on. They are rather interesting characters for the most part, offering some perspective on the British government’s impact on people in other parts of the world, so it’s a shame they aren’t expanded upon more.
Having made this before other superbly animated shows like Sword Art Online and Your lie in April, A-1 Pictures wasn’t as well known it is today, but seemed to have the same commitment to excellence. Black Butler’s visuals aren’t stunning, but the animation quality is crisp and well executed.
Turn of the century London is brought to dreary life in this series, with special attention given to the atmosphere and scenery. The depiction of city streets and landmarks reflects a good deal of research on the part of the animators, and their work pays off in creating an immersive environment that silently accents the series’ tone. Not all the scenes are dark and dreary though. Daylight and interior scenes are much brighter, while keeping the art style consistent. Ciel’s mansion and the royal palace are expectantly extravagant, with plenty of rich decor, but they don’t have the same feel as the school in my last review (Ouran), thanks to the use of duller lighting and muted tones.
The character designs play a big role in the immersion as well. Aside from the main characters, most of the people are dressed in drab colors typical of the period. Even Queen Victoria wears plenty of black, in keeping with her depictions in most other media. Ciel’s dark outfits reflect his mentality, constantly mired in gloom even amid the parties and public events he must often attend. Brighter colors are saved for the more lighthearted or eccentric characters, such as Ciel’s staff, Elizabeth, or Grell. The foreign characters, Soma, Agni, and Lau, also stray from the darker style to further separate them from the rest of the cast. As is typical with many anime, the art style breaks occasionally to use chibi designs in order to adapt comedic scenes from the manga, but otherwise remains consistent.
In terms of action an animation techniques, Black Butler doesn’t offer anything truly remarkable, but does have something unique in the cinematic record effect where the Reapers are involved. The film like record often flickers the way you would expect to see in an old movie, while the reel speeds past the screen and around the characters in a 3-D fashion. These scenes don’t occur too often, so it’s interesting to see when they do.
The opening and ending themes for Black Butler are all rather different, reflecting different aspects of the show. Kiss of Monochrome is a fantastic piece on its own, featuring a moderately paced rock song which builds up a lot of energy and helps psych up the viewer for the show that awaits. Lacrimosa, on the other hand, is a much more somber song, beautifully representing the ominous tenor of the series’ direction at that point. I’m ALIVE! stands out among these three in that it’s a fully English (American) song and features chibi visuals of Sebastian’s daily work in a lighthearted and memorable presentation.
There is nothing to complain about with the show’s music, though I can’t rightly say that there is anything to especially point out either. The tempo of the BGMs used for the different types of scenes, whether it’s action, comedy, or somber, are all very appropriate. They are well crafted and fit the series from a tonal standpoint as well. My only issue is that none of them really stand out or strike me as especially impressive. Perhaps the music was meant to be like the background visuals (which I thought were great), subtle but impactful. Without anything to really focus on though, I can’t say much on this.
As another Netflix anime, I did watch most of this as a dub. For non native speakers who have to fake their accents, Brina Palencia and John Michael Tatum do a fantastic job, respectively, as Ciel and Sebastian (unlike the rest of Ciel’s staff). Brina pulls off a young boy very well. I never would have guessed that Rei Ayanami’s actress from the Rebuild of Evangelion series could also play Ciel, but it’s a great show of versatility. Of course for the original Japanese, Maaya Sakamoto’s extensive talent works great for Ciel’s nuanced dialogue and Daisuke Ono sounds amazingly devious as Sebastian. Definitely check out some of the Japanese version, even if you prefer watching a dub.
As I stated in my intro, I did very much enjoy the stylistic aspects of Black Butler. I love the time period, though it is kind of unspecific about what year it is exactly, and the dark theme is something I haven’t seen much of since Hellsing. On top of that, the somewhat unique way in which the series portrayed the demon contract was very interesting to see. Many stories that involve summoning demons or otherwise using their power involve a contract. The demon grants you a service in exchange for a price; that often becomes more than a person is willing to pay. Not only is Ciel keenly aware of the price, and doesn’t seem to be bothered by it, but the demon offers him literal service in return. It’s an amusing portrayal that I can’t believe no one else has done thus far, at least to my knowledge.
There was a lot of potential with a theme like this, but inevitably some of the story would involve Sebastian’s various butler duties. While I did critique some of the more frivolous and light moments in the series, it wouldn’t be the same without them. The mystery aspect of the series was thoroughly entertaining, as it had Ciel & co. interacting with iconic English features like Scotland Yard and retelling stories like Jack the Ripper or the Hounds of Baskerville. Shifting to a more gothic supernatural theme later on, the initial charm was somewhat lost and the story relied more on magical or otherwise unexplained phenomena in order to reach the desired outcomes. I’m still not sure if I would have preferred the entire series in one theme or another as they both served their purpose story-wise.
What proved to be more distracting was the over the top silliness and some of the fanservice elements that the series seemed to enjoy throwing around. While there was some deliberate male targeted material, much of Sebastian’s portrayal as a suave and handsome character is played for female consumption. Whether he’s the target or Grell’s affection or persuading a certain impressionable nun, Sebastian is meant to be disarmingly attractive. The more troubling side of this is the notion of a more than professional relationship between him and Ciel.
I won’t deny that some subtext is implied, as Ciel is portrayed as delicate and vulnerable with Sebastian being very attentive of him. Still, there is no outright display of anything between them in the anime, and viewers will see what they want to see. Having a servant dress you wasn’t uncommon for people of high status back then and Sebastian’s hungry glances are more than likely in anticipation of eating his soul. What the manga’s author implied in her work is perhaps more cut and dry, but the anime is still fairly ambiguous. Still, it’s something to keep in mind if the thought of such things bothers you.
Summary and Recommendations
Whether you’re looking for a supernatural mystery thriller or enjoy stories set in Victorian England, Black Butler has lot to enjoy. The premise of a vindictive young noble and his exceptionally capable butler allows for a variety of stories, most of which deliver in an entertaining and satisfying way.
With fascinating characters like Ciel and Sebastian, viewers find themselves pulled in by the unique dynamic between them. Ciel’s petulance is masked by his refined demeanor, while Sebastian’s ever attentive loyalty and patience hides the dark truth about his grim intentions for his master.
The music and visuals blend together to recreate a romanticized version of late 19th century England, full of recognizable sets that are sure to catch the eye of anyone vaguely familiar with the city of London. The time period is shown faithfully, but the series also attempts to create a more gothic atmosphere with a story centered around angels and demons, hearkening to the mythos and style of earlier centuries. Solid animation make the characters engaging to watch, while the action scenes are fluid and dynamic as well.
The series sometimes struggles in defining a direction for the story, finding difficulty in balancing its serious and comedic aspects. Additionally, the interactions between some characters can be taken as suggestive, creating a throng of ‘enthusiastic’ fans. While I feel that none of this should dissuade you from watching and forming your own opinion on the matter, be prepared to be meet with some debate if you’re not sailing the same ship.
Watch if you:
Enjoy Sherlock Holmes-esque thrillers
Like dark, gothic themes
Want to see a good revenge story
Don’t watch if you:
Want to see good character development
Are bothered by BL subtext
Even without a fully cohesive story or anything that meaningfully changes the characters, this anime still provides a thoroughly entertaining experience. My rating is 3.5 of 5 Ciels.
For those of you who have seen the ending, you are probably aware how mixed the opinions of it are among the anime community. Let me start off by saying that I did like it. Given the way that the series started, there was no other place where Ciel and Sebastian could end up. What makes it a little difficult for many to live with, I think, is the fatalistic nature of the narrative.
I’m not an advocate of any sort of romance between Ciel and Sebastian, but the anime did give a strong impression that Sebastian regarded his master as more than just food. There was something of a kinship that could have served to give both of them a motivation besides the one they started with. Even while toting this sentiment through most of the final episode, the series doesn’t do anything to show that Ciel could learn to live beyond his revenge or that Sebastian could learn to value a human life enough to preserve it.
Of course, that is assuming that Ciel could still exhibit a life worth preserving. Defining himself purely by the trauma he experienced, he has Sebastian follow him as a constant reminder of why he’s still alive in the first place. Ciel can’t grow as a character because his life virtually ended the day he agreed to the pact. His trauma, just like Sebastian, protects him from further harm, but also prevents him from opening up to others and finding further meaning in life, given the demon’s promise to consume his soul.
Of course, some of this is turned on its head in Black Butler II. The existence of that series guarantees that we haven’t seen the last of Ciel and Sebastian, but I’ll save my thoughts on it for that review itself; which will be coming after a couple others.
As always, you can check out my other reviews on my Reviews Page or click on the tags below to see posts on similar shows.