The Bottom Line
Ciel Phantomhive, the young scion of a nineteenth-century British clan, has a most unusual manservant: a demon bound to him by a pledge that surpasses life and death, and who will do anything to help him find the ones who murdered his parents.
The first half of a series that’s become a massive fan favorite is uneven, sporting a curious mix of goofy humor and blood-curdling dread. That said, most fans of the show—and specifically, its swoon-worthy titular butler—will readily forgive such problems.
- A charismatic and endearing lead character makes watching the show fun.
- Wildly inconsistent in tone, sometimes within the same scene.
- Director: Toshiya Shinohara
- Animation Studios: A-1 Pictures
- Released By: Aniplex
- Released Domestically By: FUNimation Entertainment
- List Price: $59.98
- Age Rating: 16+ (horror violence, thematic material)
- Audio: English / Japanese w/English subtitles
- Anime Genres:
- Related Titles:
- Hayate the Combat Butler
Guide Review - Black Butler (Season 1, Part 1)
Good help is hard to find. It’s such a luxury to have someone upright and dependable to pour tea, clean house, weed the garden … and fend off kidnappers with kitchen utensils. Especially if the butler in question has demonic blood, and is bound to his master by a Satanic contract come hell (literally) or high water.
I imagine most people could do without those last couple of details, but young Ciel Phantomhive doesn’t have a choice. He’s the newly-minted head of his family and their business—toymakers of distinction in Victorian England—and his butler Sebastian Michaels is the envy of anyone’s household retinue. Handsome, flawless in his skills, polite to a fault, Sebastian’s both manservant and substitute father for Ciel. The boy’s sullenly assumed his familial responsibilities after the murder of both his parents, and one of his ongoing agendas is to use Sebastian’s power to find those responsible and punish them.
Just as Sebastian himself has two faces—loyal servant vs. diabolical, otherworldly creature—so does Black Butler itself. One half is saturated with dread and darkness, all blood oaths and diablerie. The other half is pratfalls, dumb sight gags and dippy double-takes. The gags themselves are not the problem—I laughed a good deal at the other servants in the Phantomhive household, for instance, who mostly exist to mess things up and collide with the furniture. The problem is when something that’s supposed to be horrifying is approached like just another gag—such as when Ciel and Sebastian do battle with the chainsaw-wielding grim reaper Grell Sutcliffe, a character who winds up being played for laughs. There is another character in this portion of the story who's handled far more seriously, and that goes some distance towards offsetting the silliness, but it still borders on schizoid.
The real appeal of the show is in seeing the ultra-smooth Sebastian strut his stuff. Whether improvising a meal from burnt scraps, dangling thugs over a precipice or disciplining a werewolf, he never loses his cool, never lets so much as a single fold of his jacket come uncreased, and never lets his sly smile lose any of its electricity. His charisma and his butler’s skills, which he uses to make silk purses out of any number of sow’s ears, are great fun to watch. “After all,” he says, in what has become this show’s perennial catchphrase, “I am one hell of a butler.”
What’s less fun, again, is how the show thrashes back and forth between being lightweight and heavyweight, often right in the same scene. Also, despite set in Victorian England, it handles its historical details frivolously (and sometimes downright anachronistically); fans of the source manga have complained about how much of the research featured there has all but evaporated here. Then again, the show’s main goal is to be entertaining, and it certainly entertains—it’s just wildly inconsistent in how it does it. Here’s hoping the second half of the season picks a tone and sticks with it.