Black Butler (Season 1 and 2)
Ciel Phantomhive is the young heir to the Phantomhive "toys and confections" business, but he's also Queen Victoria's "fixer", dealing with problems the police can't handle. When you have a superpowered demon as your personal butler, it's all in a day's work.
Melding humor and horror so that each complements the other is difficult. Among the shows I'm familiar with that attempt it, Princess Resurrection and Moonphase seem the most successful, though Calamity of a Zombie Girl might rate an Honorable Mention. As for Black Butler...well, maybe not so much. It tries to get some physical comedy out of three klutzy household servants, but it mainly leans on some raving lunatics to try to amuse us- and, since a discussion of the period REQUIRES I put it this way, We Are Not Amused. As far as I'm concerned, these guys are just INCREDIBLY annoying. Worst of all is Grell Sutcliff, who's a Grim Reaper, but one with an outrageously over-the-top obsession with the show's title character, that Black (=Demonic) Butler, Sebastian. To me Grell came across as an unflattering caricature of a trans person, and it infuriated me no end that so much of the storyline was given to Grell to carry. I should also mention that Grell's "Death Scythe" seems to be intended as humorous anachronism, but this show has LOTS of anachronisms. Ciel's nominal "fiancée" Elizabeth has an affection for "cute" things that ends up with her anticipating cosplay by a century or more. (Elizabeth's sweet and, if brainless, at least not quite AS brainless as her traveling companion Paula; it's kind of a shame that she's engaged to someone who sold their soul to a demon.)
The show's revisionism of the Victorian Empire reminded me a bit (unfortunately) of Le Chevalier D'eon. Given the timeframe (the 1880s), an encounter with Jack the Ripper was inevitable, but Jack's motivation here is a bit unusual. I do recall speculation that this type of individual might have been the killer, but it's one of the less popular Ripper theories; certainly Jack's actual identity here was a complete surprise. And speaking of historical revisionism, the show does its most major number on the Queen herself, but I can't say more.
The First Season seems to be trying for a consistent feeling of dark cynicism (though the antics of Grell kind of diminish it); even the political leadership reeks of corruption in those days, it seems, and although I'm sure the Victorian era really DID have a strong undercurrent of cruelty under its veneer of propriety and sentimentality, that cruelty apparently extended even higher than one could believe possible. (The First Season does ill to its most idealistic character, though that character was at least able to influence Ciel's thinking. Ciel's not exactly a "good" kid, but, as the show seems to suggest, morality can be relative, and relative to a lot of the people of the time- even people in authority- he doesn't look that bad.)
I liked the Second Season much better, even though, according to Wiki, it wasn't based on the manga. We've the introduction of that perennial favorite sort of adversary, one whose backstory and capabilities are similar to the "hero's" - including having his OWN demon butler- but who, in the words of Tim Burton's Bruce Wayne, has a head full of bad wiring. Our young villain is named Alois Trancy, HIS demon butler is named Claude, and Alois is quite LITERALLY the sort who pulls wings off butterflies, not to mention gouging out a maid's eye in a fit of pique.
To be honest, I was a little disoriented at the beginning of the Second Season- was it a sequel to the first, or a prequel? Certain remarks by Ciel seemed to be out of place, but things do get sorted out, and if the ending wouldn't necessarily be considered wholly "happy" in any conventional sense, maybe it's the best possible given the show's circumstances. Before we get to that, however, we have a delightful episode set on a train that is faced with, as Sebastian drily observes, "A full-course menu of crises". The traincar has, in a genuinely hilarious "coincidence", EXACTLY the right specialists to deal with each problem, but Sebastian's the sort who just likes to work alone...
I guess this is a good time to deal with Sebastian. He's best summarized as droll, but omnipotent. His favorite catchphrases are, "A Phantomhive butler who can't do that much is not worth his salt", and "I'm a hell of a butler." He originally made the bargain with Ciel because he thought Ciel's soul would be especially tasty (Ciel's soul is not ENTIRELY dark; as noted before, there's still some decency buried there), but the relationship may evolve in a rather unexpected way.
While I did find Sebastian an interesting character, my favorite character in the show is a minor one: her name is Ran-Mao, and she's the "arm candy" of a trader/opium dealer named Lau, who's somehow wormed his way into Ciel's entourage. She's the most overtly sexual character here, but she's more fascinating than you might think because (1) she speaks VERY little, and (2) the show uses her sparingly. Only once, in the Alice-In-Wonderland (OK, Ciel in Wonderland) OVA, does she actually venture into hentai territory, and even then it's in the service of a couple of sight gags. She also has a delightful moment, in the Welcome to the Phantomhives OVA, where we get another clue about what's REALLY going on in her mind.
The Ciel in Wonderland OVA also has a surprisingly good moment near the end, where, in spite of all the previous silliness we've seen, there's a speech by THIS Wonderland's Red Queen that's surprisingly somber and thoughtful, and really gives an interesting perspective on everything in the series. The Making of Black Butler II is a mock "behind the scenes", showing our characters themselves "rehearsing" for the Second Season, but featuring some honestly hilarious scenes that NEVER show up in the "real" show; my favorite has Queen Victoria- at least THIS show's version of her- piloting a very British-looking giant mecha. I think that scene may stay with me for a while...
Here the decision was between three and four stars. I ALMOST went down to three, based on Grell and another raving lunatic character named Viscount Druitt (HIS over-the-top obsession is an "artistic" one), and on some awkward plot contrivances. On the other hand, I found Sebastian a fascinating character (I don't think it's proper to "like" a demon), LOVED Ran-Mao, and even found Ciel himself possessed of more virtue than it might seem at first sight. And the show looks good (A-1 Pictures series usually do.) There are some flashes of genius in the OVAs (though admittedly many jokes that fell flat), and the denouement of Alois Trancy's story (and of the Second Season itself) was somehow both exceedingly strange and yet emotionally satisfying. So we'll go with the higher rating. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Neflix rates TV-MA. It's mostly for violence (limbs get sawed off, blood gushes, and some folks even spontaneously combust.) There's that infamous scene in the Ciel in Wonderland OVA with Ran-Mao, but it's meant for humor rather than sexuality. While Right Stuf goes for 13+ on the S1&2 Aniplex video, I think the Netflix rating is more appropriate.
Version(s) Viewed: Netflix video stream.
Review Status: Full (36/36)
Black Butler (Season 1 and 2) © 2008/2010 A-1 Pictures
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