Netflixing: Black Butler
This post was originally published at my account on Steemit.com.
First, a disclaimer:
This show is not for kids. It’s an animated show, yes. Its main protagonist is a child, yes. But kids should not be watching this show.
I wouldn’t have to make this disclaimer in any other country, but America, for some reason, automatically jumps to the conclusion that animation is always for children.
With that said, this is Black Butler.
In Black Butler, a young heir living in Victorian England has his life overturned when his parents are murdered. Desperate to punish their killers, he makes a pact with a demon, who agrees to serve him with perfect obedience until vengeance is served (with garnish!).
The demon warns young Ciel Phantomhive that the price for such a service will be the young boy’s immortal soul, which will be devoured upon consummation of the contract, but Ciel readily agrees.
In order to remain inconspicuous, the demon takes the form of a butler named Sebastian Michaelis, but as simple as the arrangement seems, they are both in for quite a ride. Because it turns out that the Phantomhive family has a secret obligation to the Queen of England. For generations, they have served as the hound of the monarchy, hunting down and punishing those criminals who are too dangerous or too devious for the police to catch. Only Ciel’s determination and Sebastian’s unnatural talents will be enough to put down all the monsters living in England’s shadows.
Let’s examine the various elements of the show.
Sebastian, for all outward appearances, is the paragon of butlery. Demure, genteel, and soft spoken, he always manages to keep up the charade he is playing, even though inside he is an insatiable monster.
His particular brand of magic is a little mystifying. While it is hinted that he can perform many wonders, most of these happen off screen. The stuff the audience sees comes mostly in the form of superhuman strength and speed. So he may, for instance, set all the tables in the dining room in half a minute or landscape the estate’s entire grounds in only an hour, but all the work is still done manually. Which, when you see it, is more impressive than it would be if he just snapped his fingers and made stuff happen.
Ciel’s demands are neverending, and each time a new task is set, the viewer is left wondering if Sebastian can really pull it off this time, but no matter what chore is given him, he answers simply (and in English), “Yes, my lord.”
Ciel and Sebastian have many challenges set for them, not only in being the kind of gracious hosts that 19th century nobility were expected to be, but in being the queen’s secret detectives as well.
One of the first story arcs has them going after Jack the Ripper, which never fails to engage from the outset to the vicious twist ending. I can’t say very much about it without a mountain of spoilers, but it’s one of the more interesting subplots and it all happens within the first few episodes.
After that, each new case brings them closer and closer to the killer of Ciel’s parents, which will also bring the fulfillment of the contract with Sebastian and the promised soul-devouring.
The first season has a palpable “tightening of the noose” feeling as Ciel closes in on the victory that will surely kill him.
Fantasy fiction is often known for its depiction of food. I’ve known people to read The Lord of the Rings just for its food descriptions (I wish I was joking).
Black Butler carries this tradition from the written page to the small screen by hosting fabulous desserts in many episodes. Often, a closeup of the confection will be shown with a title listing the dessert’s name. The overall effect of this is to make the viewer hungry. And it works.
Such a small idiosyncrasy might not be worth mentioning, except that it fits in so well with the show’s theme. Sebastian composes himself well, but he is still a hungry demon, dreaming of the day he will sate his own appetite, while he, as a butler, must stand at attention and watch others eating fine delicacies.
As I said above, this is not a show for children.
The criminals hunted down by Ciel and Sebastian are not the halfwits that thrive in saturday morning cartoons. They are vicious killers, every one of them. And scenes of murder, physical abuse, corpse mutilation, and other atrocities are peppered throughout the series.
In the second season, these issues are further compounded by a subplot involving child sex trafficking, and though the worst parts of that are never shown, the narrative is not exactly gentle with the subject.
But all these pale against the real controversy surrounding the show, namely the relationship between Ciel and Sebastian itself. Sebastian washes and clothes his master (as was not unusual for servants in the Victorian era), and he often stares hungrily at Ciel (though it should be kept in mind that Sebastian is planning to literally eat him). Because of this, there is a lot of speculation that there is some kind of romantic involvement between the two, which would be wildly inappropriate, seeing as how Ciel is only 12 and Sebastian, while thousands of years old, has the appearance of a man in his 20s.
The show itself actually plays down this idea, giving it little credence. The promotional materials, however, for both the show and the manga go to great lengths to imply such a relationship, perhaps in an attempt to generate buzz by courting controversy.
The Supporting Cast
Ciel and Sebastian are not the only great part of this show! In fact, they are not even the best part. That title has to go to the excellent supporting cast.
Ciel’s other servants serve as welcome comic relief. Each is horribly inept at their duties, forcing Sebastian to pick up the slack. And the ways that they fail only get more and more entertaining as the series progresses. Eventually, their true qualities are revealed, but I can’t tell you what those are without spoilers.
But the thing that really makes the show shine are the reapers.
Not content with plain old scythes, these reapers use all kinds of garden implements to do their work. That work being the collection of souls at the moment of death. Which may seem exciting, but to a reaper, it’s all one big bureaucracy. Never has death been so mundane, and the reapers are all too eager to spice up the experience any way they can.
Occasionally, they cross paths with Ciel and Sebastian, sometimes being helpful, and sometimes stirring up trouble. It makes for great tension.
Black Butler is a show full of mature themes and situations, particularly death and vengeance. It is also a lot of fun to watch.
If I were to pick out one problem, it would be that the show has one or two glaring plot holes. By the end of the second season, you will have questions, with little hope of them ever being answered.
Two seasons are now on Netflix. If you liked this review, then be sure to catch the series.