Review: Black Butler Season 1 (Anime Classics)

There’s nothing quite as charming as a Faustian pact between a bitter thirteen-year old bent on revenge and a posh, smooth-talking demon who claims to be “one hell of a butler”.  With lovely Victorian aesthetics, a heavy Gothic lolita flair and a surprising amount of action, it’s no wonder why Black Butler is a long-standing fan-favorite. With an on-going manga and at least two anime seasons, it’s high time for Black Butler to get the Blu-ray treatment–providing cleaner animation and reintroducing this late-2000s classics to old and new fans alike.

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Also, any series that can turn a pun into a recurring catch phrase is pretty golden in my book.

A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment.

Black Butler follows the adventures of Ciel Phantomhive, the only heir to the Phantomhive noble family, and his charismatic butler, Sebastian Michaelis. But there’s more to this cunning duo than meets the eye: the seemingly devoted relationship between master and servant is only a clever guise for Sebastian, who is actually a demon contracted to serve Ciel until the young lord can avenge his parents’ death.

Once “vengeance”–however it may be measured–is achieved, then Sebastian has every right to devour Ciel’s soul; not that he seems to mind, since the longer he waits, and the more Ciel grows into a cold and calculating force, the more delicious his soul will become. (And yes, if this sounds a bit like slash bait, then you’re not too far off the mark–Black Butler is rather unapologetic about a little bit of bait here and there)

Together, this unlikely duo plays at being nobility during the day, then prowl the dark alleys of London at night as the (un)official “watchdog” of Queen Victoria, dealing with all sorts of dangerous, unsavory characters and political scandals that threaten the Crown–each step they take leading them closer to unveiling the secrets surrounding the horrific murder of Ciel’s family. Though the premise is rather grim and melodramatic, Black Butler cheerfully tows the line between humor and the macabre pretty well, with its central mystery surrounding the murders of Ciel’s family off-set by enough quirkiness to keep the story from wallowing in its angst.

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Melodrama and angry monologues aside–Black Butler is not afraid to break between heavy bouts of action with a bit of silliness

Truthfully, it’s been some time since I have seen the anime version of this series. Black Butler has been around for quite some time–since 2006 in fact–and the manga is a longstanding series that I continue to read. I actually recommend it, if the anime suits your tastes, as the story and style evolves into something much more complex with a few rather unexpected twists that the anime could not cover.

However, watching the Blu-Ray version of Black Butler was a very pleasant surprise.

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Well, things don’t look so good for our young protagonist–but at least the line quality is so crisp and clean

First, there is an obvious improvement in the quality of Black Butler’s visuals, leading to cleaner backgrounds without the fuzzy “noise” found with the DVD formatting. Best of all, the “cleaner” look that’s characteristic of Blu-Ray releases does not’t detract from the art style’s luscious moodiness, and simply enhances the vibrant colors of the characters to contrast sharply with the gloomy grey of the (highly romanticized) Victorian setting. Other minor details, such as the line art, have a crisper edge, and the few CGI elements of the show and the fight scenes benefit from the higher quality that Blu-Ray provides.

Also, as a fan of who enjoyed the subbed version, I made a point to watch the entirety of Season One with the dub cast. I can sing accolades for Daisuke Ono’s reading of the demon butler, Sebastian, but there is much to be said about John Tatum and the rest of the English voice acting team, too. The English dub lends itself to the ability to play around with accents–ranging from the posh, “upstairs” tones of Ciel and Sebastian, to something a little more “downstairs” (IE. Cockney) with Ciel’s quirky household staff.

And yes, sometimes accents can be seen as a “hammy” element to a dub, however, I find the inclusion of pseudo-British accents fitting for the highly romanticized Victorian setting. Accents aside, the English-dub does a great job with translating the script, and the voice actors behind some of the series’ more eccentric characters provide great performances, without falling into ham-tastic, over-the-top territory.

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Ciel’s “downstairs” staff is certainly less “Downton Abbey” and more “demolition crew”, but their antics are some of the best parts of the series

In addition to improved visuals and talented voice work for both the Japanese and English casts, the Black Butler Blu-Ray comes with a few great features. There are the “standard” extra features, such as the textless opening and closing, as well as production commentary from the English voice cast, as well as what I feel is a premium feature (especially for the die hard fans): a special OVA episode, His Butler, Performer, in both the English dub and Japanese subs. This cute little short has plenty of Shakespearean puns and cameo appearances by the entire cast.

With its combination the Gothic Lolita aesthetic with a revenge plot set out in a decadent, romanticized version of Victorian England, Black Butler takes rather disparate thematic threads and weaves together something that is certainly a unique viewing experience. Thus, while Black Butler is a bit of a hard-sell–since it’s not necessarily grim-dark, but not necessarily light-hearted–I think it’s a series that is worthy to check out.

Pros:

-Excellent visual upgrade that lovingly embraces Black Butler’s gothic-lolita style with crisp animation.

-Pretty impressive voice cast for both English dubs and the original line-up; Daisuke Ono is a fan-favorite for bringing Sebastian to life and John Tatum similarly brings out Sebastian’s charm.

-For diehard fans, “His Butler, Performer” is included for some Shakespearean fun! Other extras include production commentary and textless songs such as SiD’s lovely earworm OP, Monochrome Kiss.

Cons:

– I also did mention the slash bait, and the subtle slashy hints between characters mostly features around adults, but also tows the line with some slight shotacon–specifically with the relationship between young Ciel and Sebastian (Who is certainly a much older gentleman, being a demon and all). Though slash isn’t the main focus of Black Butler, the continuous bait is understandably a theme that can be off-putting to some.

Rating: 4/5

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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