When I first beheld the title of this TV series, my heart soared: Finally, an anime version of Benson! Obviously, that isn’t the case, as Black Butler is based on a popular shonen manga rather than a hoary old sitcom starring Robert Gillaume. I also need to applaud the title’s brevity, because it makes absolutely no bones about its subject matter—even calling it EVIL JEEVES wouldn’t have made it any simpler. But unlike P.G. Wodehouse’s famed character, the titular hero of Black Butler is an actual, bona-fide butler. Jeeves was more of a valet to his employer, Bertie Wootsen, but Black Butler‘s Sebastian Michaelis does the full range of butling—he supervises the other servants, scrutinizes the entire property carefully, and even dresses his master, a minor (and extremely young) Earl of the Edwardian era named Ciel Phantomhive.
Yeah, the kid’s name is faintly ridiculous. You’re going to have to suspend your disbelief for that one, and you may need a crane. Young Master Phantomhive manages a successful toy trading business in the stead of his deceased parents, but his days aren’t filled with price fluctuation reports, shipping news, and lading arrangements. He’s also a sort of personal attache to the English royal family, dispatched whenever supernatural problems rear their head. For a scrawny tween, Ciel can be surprisingly imposing, and his eyepatch, which adorns his right eye, seems to be designed to conceal and contain something horrible and scary rather than cover up a nonfunctional eye. That’s not even getting into Sebastian’s other role in the Phantomhive family: when things get weird, he’s basically Ciel’s demonic attack dog.
Black Butler’s opening moments imply that Ciel has made a deal with the devil, an idea only further highlighted by Sebastian’s incredibly obvious evil aura. I’ve seen the word “Faustian” utilized to describe Black Butler, but if you ask me, it leans closer to Clive Barker than Christopher Marlowe—not only is there a significant dose of implied manly romance, if you get my drift, Black Butler’s got a weird humorous edge to it. Ciel’s a tough kid, but he gets in over his head on a regular basis, and when that happens Sebastian leaps into action, either directly or indirectly defusing the situation with alarming ease and darkly comic disdain for what he sees as simple, dull work. Ciel and Sebastian are augmented by the household’s other servants—cook Baldroy, gardener Finny, maid Mey-rin, and Tanaka, the family’s semi-retired and nearly silent elderly master butler.
One thing that strikes me as very interesting about Black Butler is that it’s targeted and marketed as a shonen series, putting it into the same group as beloved classics like One Piece, Hajime no Ippo, and Fist of the North Star. But I don’t think Black Butler is really meant for young men, but rather for their girlfriends. One might accuse me of just looking at Sebastian’s fine clothing, haughty demeanor, and bedroom eyes and jumping to conclusions, but the fact is that just one month ago, I found myself in a focus panel at the New York Anime Festival for Black Butler’s English release, which drops in January—and I was utterly, absolutely, and entirely surrounded by teenage girls. Almost to a woman, they were prior fans of the manga and anime, which has actually been available in Japan for some time, but they really, really wanted details on the English version.
Yeah, about that English version? To boil it down to two words: not bad. It’s extremely tricky business, using a US-based cast to dub something so obviously set in turn of the 20th-century London. The standard-bearer for this sort of dub is Hellsing. In that series, producer Jonathan Klein sensibly utilized LA-based British actors, notably Dundee, Scotland’s own Steven Brand as Father Alexander Anderson. But Funimation, based as they are in Texas, don’t have that luxury, and the resulting dub features a series of British accents faked with a broad range of ability. Leads Brina Palencia (Ciel) and J. Michael Tatum (Sebastian) are the obvious standouts, and acquit themselves well, but the supporting cast are a bit less adroit and often slip into Dick van Dyke from Mary Poppins territory—my favorite of the secondary cast has got to be Monica Rial, who does her best Eliza Doolittle impression as Mey-rin, the stereotypical meganekko (glasses wearing) maid, who grows flustered and barely coherent at any contact with Sebastian.
More than anything else, what intrigues me about Black Butler is just how odd it is. It’s Edwardian-era fare, but it doesn’t take the easy way out and get all steampunk. It is fairly action packed, with car chases, kidnappings, and gunfights emerging within its first two episodes. It isn’t altogether too obvious about its supernatural trappings (it’s not like they named the main kid “Crowley”), but it does have an air of weirdness and dread that evokes both Marlowe’s Faustus and H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tales. Mixed in with that is Ciel and Sebastian’s humorously unequal relationship, and the show’s occasional but often-potent doses of comedy—Sebastian’s behavior in particular left me thinking of him as Hellsing’s Alucard crossed with Mr. Belvedere. Black Butler is no blockbuster, but it’s an intriguing curiosity that will have you sending your servants scurrying for more.
Available: January 11, 2011
©Yana Toboso/SQUARE ENIX, Kuroshitsuji Project, MBS.