“I am simply one hell of a butler,”
~ Sebastian Michaelis
The highly capable butler’s catch phrase pretty much says it all. This series, based on the original manga by Yana Toboso, is set in Victorian England. This fact alone predisposes me to liking the story, being a closet steampunk-phile. The premise of the story begins approximately three years prior to the main story line, when the manor of a prominent British noble house, the Phantomhives, burns down killing the Earl and his wife. At the opening of the series, we find a young Ceil Phantomhive floating in limbo negotiating some mysterious bargain. The bargain is closed and the series begins in earnest.
We discover through the course of the story that the bargain is for the service of a certain demon, bound to serve the young earl “until the end.” Whether that means the end of time or the end of Ceil’s life is left unclear, though one could readily assume the latter. Young Lord Phantomhive is also called, from time to time, “The Queen’s Guard Dog.” He is charged, it seems, with investigating and dealing with all manner of problems as dictated by Queen Victoria too strange or serious for mundane authorities to handle.
This premise is rife with possibility, and the writers capitalize on a cast of interesting characters. Ceil Phantomhive, for example, is just a twelve year old boy. He is small and thin, not terribly imposing in a physical sense, and tending even toward foppishness in his waistcoat, shorts, and stockings. He has, however, been subjected to great trauma and charged with huge responsibility. As such, the young lord is dour and serious. He has little time for child’s play, and even when he plays games it carries serious and even dark purpose and metaphor. He is quite clever in his own right and dedicated to his purpose.
To balance his lack of physical prowess, we have the title character, Sebastian. With a few exceptions, the butler displays very little self-direction or free thought. It is made clear that he acts only at the explicit direction of his master, but once he acts he is supremely competent. The hellish butler can slay an army of underworld criminals and powerful divine creatures with little effort. Between Ceil’s intellect and Sebastian’s prowess, the two are a formidable team.
I was initially disappointed with the lack of excitement in combat scenes. Sebastian is SO badass that pretty much nothing can stand up to him. After the first few episodes, however, the writers redeemed themselves by making the stories more cerebral and mysterious. Taking Ceil’s pursuit of Jack the Ripper, for example, the plot arc spans several episodes and includes red herrings, false trails, and culminates in a couple of surprises and an epic battle. Where I was expecting the series to lapse into a pattern of “identify a problem, send in Sebastian, he kills everyone, end of story,” I was pleasantly surprised by the writers’ thoughtful approach and ability to twist a plot.
Having said that, though, I do need to complain a little about some of the more frivolous and seemingly pointless details of the series. Perhaps it can be attributed to standard anime fair, but the presence of Lord Phantomhive’s other servants is a considerable irritant to me. There are four of them, and they are to a one completely useless characters. They can’t cook, every time they attempt to clean or serve something gets broken, and they’re constantly having to be bailed out by Sebastian.
The very nature of the other butler, Tanaka, has also caused me many WTF moments. Tanaka is a little big-headed chibi who never speaks or even really does anything other than give the occasional “haw haw haw” chuckle. He can, it seems, transform into human form – “Real Tanaka” – but this requires the expenditure of a great deal of energy and he can’t maintain the state for very long and he soon returns to the mute little chibi. I haven’t watched the entire series yet, and perhaps his nature is explained in some future episode, but I have yet to understand who he is, why he’s there, or why he’s a big-headed cartoon most of the time.
There are other fairly significant WTF moments in the series, including oddly useless characters, strange diversions that don’t seem to move the plot forward at all, and weird imagery. For example, nearly entire episode is used to introduce Ceil’s betrothed, Elizabeth, in which she redecorates Phantomhive Manor with all manner of childish décor, and at one point as the director is sharing images of the decorating devastation, there’s a scene that shows two fluffy white animals (that might have been rabbits) impaled with a sabre. It’s a stark image in contrast to the “little girl chic” hearts and flowers, and based on the shots surrounding it the image makes no sense at all.
Still, though the Black Butler series is a little slow to get started, I’m looking forward to watching the rest of it. The principle characters are engaging, and perhaps I’ll even grow to enjoy the juxtaposition of serious and capable main characters against the bumbling incompetence and superfluousness of some of the minor characters. In terms of artwork, the show is at the top end of average – I’ve seen many better, but certainly many more much worse. Overall the show is enjoyable and I would give it 3 stars out of 5.