Japanese Title: Kuroshitsuji
Related: Black Butler II (included in review)
Black Butler III: Book of Circus (included in review)
Black Butler: Book of Murder (included in review)
Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic (included in review)
Similar: Pandora Hearts
Watched in: Japanese & English
Genre: Historical Supernatural Action Comedy
Length: 46 episodes (3 seasons), 1 movie, 9 OVA
- That’s one hell of a butler.
- Dub’s goofiness is fun.
- The ‘Making of Black Butler’ episode.
- Book of Murder OVA.
- Ciel is a bore.
- Every Britain-set anime cliché.
- Keeps retconning itself with each season.
- Season 2. All of it.
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Black Butler is a bit of a mess. Its production is rife with uncertainty, changes of story, and confused accents.
It follows the story of Ciel Phantomhive, young noble of his name and Queen Victoria’s ‘Guard Dog’ aided by his trusty butler, Sebastian Michaelis, a demon with whom he made a contract – service in exchange for Ciel’s soul once his goal is finished. Despite the dark pitch, Black Butler is more comedy than anything as Sebastian deals with all manner of problems caused by guests and even his own staff. Not that any of this is a challenge for him. He is one hell of a butler, after all.
When the Italian Mafia tries to do the naughty in Her Majesty’s land, it’s up to Ciel to give them a good kick up the backside. Well, Sebastian will do the kicking – after offering some wine, of course. It would be insupportable for a butler to lose his manners even with the most trying of guests. Even a con-noble receives a meal before the gothic mansion eats him alive.
The relationship between Ciel and Sebastian has a good dynamic – similar to Integra and Alucard of Hellsing, though Sebastian will offer to resolve conflict with a spot of tea and cake first. Hopefully he won’t need to use the finest silverware on the guest’s throat. He’s a great character and the key selling point of Black Butler. Without him, there wouldn’t be much of worth here, for Ciel is a bore, always dour and he just sits there giving orders most of the time.
The mansion staff are incompetent – except for Tanaka, who’s fine as is – and would be fired in any other scenario, generating much of the comedy, even more so in English. Here we come to a key decision when watching Black Butler – Japanese or English? The Japanese is quite standard, solid even, but without accents, whereas the English is full of accents – British of varying classes, Irish, Indian – many of them not particularly great, but that’s part of the fun. The mansion staff in particular are a riot in English. A joke about being a posh Victorian also works better when the character sounds like a posh Victorian.
Black Butler’s serious elements are where the inconsistencies manifest. It starts with an encounter against the Ripper (featured in every Britain-set anime, along with Indian royalty), who turns out to be a weirdo and sort of a good guy. Then season one ends with a major event on which you could conclude the anime, only to have it reversed for season two, as though they didn’t know they had a green light for a sequel until too late.
Now, season two is rubbish. The antagonist is a mirror to Ciel, another young noble with a demon butler contracted. The poncey kid is obnoxious and the endless allegiance switching is a trial in tedium. That arc too ends on a major event, only to have it yet again retconned by season three. You could count the erasure of season two as a blessing considering how bad it is, but you know what would be better? Not needing to wipe it in the first place. My understanding is that these major events aren’t from the manga, which would lend to the idea that each season ended as though it were the last to avoid the common problem of incomplete anime. Black Butler now has three seasons and a movie with more likely on the way. I liked the end of season one – lots of tension, Ciel finally challenged – but not in the grander context of other seasons. It’s a real mess, I tell you.
A surprising success of Black Butler is in the OVAs. These are often throwaway episodes that waste your time, but the OVAs for season two are a ton of fun, the best of which is the ‘behind the scenes’ episode that pretends all the characters are mere Victorian actors starring in a TV show. Season three’s OVA, Book of Murder, is a great standalone Holmesian mystery around a dinner party of eclectic characters.
Black Butler’s messy nature makes it difficult to recommend in the face of countless other superior anime. Even so, its appeal will come to those looking for an anime that isn’t set in Japan or high school. This may be a case where the manga is better.
Art – Medium
Black Butler looks like anime from the era, such as Ouran High School Host Club, Emma, and Spice & Wolf, though with a gothic slant. Not much in the way of animation.
Sound – Medium
You have two choices: the better yet standard Japanese or the inconsistent yet far more entertaining dub. I much prefer the latter. The haunting Gregorian choir is great while most of the theme songs are unsuited to the gothic Victorian atmosphere.
Story – Medium
A young Victorian noble and his trusty butler dispatch the queen’s enemies in between a spot of tea. Black Butler fluctuates wildly in quality and engagement because of poor planning for future seasons and odd changes from the manga.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it. Black Butler is dated by today’s standards and has its issues, but it can be fun for those seeking something a little different. I recommend the dub. You can watch the two Book of Murder OVAs for a good standalone experience.
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