‘Black Butler’ is a 2008 anime following 12 year old Ciel Phantomhive on his hunt for those that killed his parents, aided by his supernaturally efficient and mysterious butler–the titular black butler–Sebastian Michaelis. Ciel has also determined to continue the Phantomhive business–not his family’s world-renowned toy company–but his parent’s work as agents of Queen Victoria. Ciel immerses himself in the criminal underworld of England as his parents had to protect Queen and country from threat. However, Sebastian Michaelis is not just one Hell of a butler–he’s a demon, bound by a contract to follow Ciel’s orders and help him avenge the death of his parents. In return, Sebastian will feast upon Ciel’s soul…
Sound dark enough? Well, I was drawn to this as it had been compared to ‘Bat Man’. I can tell you that aside from Ciel having dead parents, and being bent on revenge, it is nothing like ‘Bat Man’. In fact, as dark as it can and does get, it balances it with farcical humor. Take the first episode; Ciel and Sebastian work together to rid Ciel of a treacherous business partner–toying with him like cats with a mouse, and exacting haunting methods of revenge; Sebastian spends much of the episode trying to run the home despite an inept trio of staff who cause various domestic disasters. But does it work?
Before I had watched any anime, I would have said ‘no’. Having seen some now, though–well, the phrase ‘it’s an anime thing’ excuses a lot. ‘Black Butler’ is a heady mix. The series offers a world of bloody Victorian crime with an array of villains from story to story and the persistent mystery of how Ciel’s parents died, and Gothic tragic darkness in knowing that the resolution of the mystery promises Sebastian turning upon Ciel. This is contrasted with characters frequently devolving into the chibi super-deformed anime style when they experience extreme emotions,slapstick humour and pantomime comedy. There are serial killers, demons, werewolves, angels, and then there is butler rivalry, fancy-dress parties, bake-offs and dessert interludes. It is crazy.I don’t think I have watched a show with such disparate tones–one minute silly and childish, the next sombre, bloody and adult.
This opposing darkness and comedy is balanced by the central relationship between Sebastian and Ciel–Ciel, the vulnerable child, who has sacrificed his innocence to avenge his parents, and the protective Sebastian, utterly devoted to his service through his hunger for Ciel’s ever darkening soul. Working together they are a formidable whole. Yet this central relationship is also a source of discomfort… The tenderness Sebastian exhibits toward Ciel is that of butler and surrogate parent, from intimate moments dressing the boy and cradling him when he is wounded, to the declarations of devotion countered with the knowledge that Sebastian has predatory intentions towards his soul, there is more than a little allusion of love possibly sexual fantasy; of pederasty. Ciel is only 12 or 13… You can’t get much darker than that. Season two really pushes at that, with a child character who has actually been the victim of sexual abuse–which is thankfully portrayed as an evil–a crime–he character is subjected to which damages him. This–somewhat curuiously–lightens the tone of Sebastian and Ciel’s relationship.
This mild discomfort aside, it is a fantastic show. One I could easily have watched in an epic binge watch. I could watch it again now, and I only finished with it a couple of months back. I loved the supporting characters in Ciel’s staff–the short-sighted maid May-Rin, Baldroy the chef prone to burning the kitchen down, Finny the gardner who has superhuman strength (and is adorable), and Tanaka the original butler–who spends much of his time ‘deflated’ into chibi mode; which is never explained. Oh, and Ciel’s intended, Elizabeth. The relationship all of these have with one another is so innocent and sweet, and even Ciel, who is prone to treating everyone as pawns to be sacrificed in exchange for the truth, would seem to have affection for them. How could I forget Grell–the grim-reaper who is head over heels in love with Sebastian. Okay, so he could easily be viewed as an offensively gay stereotype, but I love him.
The show does a great job of balancing the silly and the horror, and feeds the mystery to the audience piece by piece through different episodes. Whereas many shows string out the overarching mystery and relationship resolution for the series’ entire run, ‘Black Butler’ wraps it all up in its first season. Going into season 2 I had no idea what to expect, and from how it plays out I would think the writers knew some of the conceits they could have committed or been expected to try, and they use these to toy with the audience with what feels like a reboot and undoing of some of season 1. For many of the first episodes I was asking myself what had happened between Sebastian and Ciel, how a certain character had seemingly returned from the dead, and who these new characters were and how they fitted in–and these become season 2’s driving mysteries. Clever, funny, sincere, ridiculous, complex, and oozing Goth and emo indulgent angst, I can’t wait to see what happens in season 3. I would give it four out of five curried buns and suggest that if you haven’t seen it, and especially if you haven’t watched much anime, that you remember that open mind you had as a kid, but brace yourself for some adult emotions and give this a go.