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"Black Butler" Season 1 Part 1: Pretty Boys, Pretty Brutal, Pretty Good

In Victorian-era England, Ciel, a pretty anime boy bent on avenging his parents’ death, cuts a deal with a demon named Sebastian in exchange for his soul. If this sounds to you like equal parts Victorian Romance Emma, Death Note and Batman, perhaps with a side of Faust, you’re on your way to describing Black Butler. The studios behind it are similarly familiar: the omnipresent-in-anime FUNimation punching in with dub and localization, while the Japanese side is held down by Aniplex and Square-Enix, two kingpins of otaku entertainment. With so much in the way of a good premise being delivered by good talent, this anime should be delight to watch, likely steeped in serious drama and action, correct?

Then come the stock anime gag poses and comedy blood spray four and half minutes in. Then at the end of the same episode, a man who tried to screw Ciel over in a business deal is cooked alive in an oven by Sebastian. Preconceptions, you’re going down the drain today.

After all, a cursory glance of Black Butler might lead one to call it fujoshi-centric, as even in the west this title seems built for female otaku. A handsome, charming-yet-brooding, 20-something-looking butler waits hand and foot on a thinly-veiled and quite-tsundere shota-character, all in the perpetually romanticized Victorian Era. Even the humor seems to frequently ride on gay innuendo, with relatively innocuous acts like putting on a corset being twisted into double-entendre. Such a premise with such execution is pitch perfect fangirl fodder, and if that presses your particular otaku buttons, nothing I’ll say in this review matters one way or the other. You’ll watch Black Butler with glee, then buy doujinshi of the show from the guy in the dealer’s room screaming that he’s got “red-hot yaoi.” Just to sweeten that deal, I will also mention there is a little cross-dressing.

Yet, the manga source material ran in a magazine mostly targeted at young teens, and the hyper-violence, while arguably evocative of shoujo staples like X/1999 and Trinity Blood, ultimately seems to suggest it wasn’t meant to hit that audience. Every stock shoujo gag and rare breaking of the fourth wall is counteracted by choreographed brutality if not outright torture. So, what is Black Butler anyway?

Well, plots pretty much follow the same basic formula: something isn’t going Ciel’s way, but now thanks to the deal with Sebastian, no one is going to get away with anything Ciel doesn’t like. It’s thin on plot as such, but it’s swift enough, multi-faceted enough and short enough that you probably won’t care, man or woman, so long as you enjoy the villain/problem of the episode/arc being solved through a deus ex machina. Sometimes there is some particular additional twist like a kidnapping or a serial killer or a business deal involved, or issues with a social affair, but really, none of the twists are terribly unique. I mean, sure, the serial killer they chase for the show’s first multi-episode arc is Jack the Ripper, but it almost feels a little easy to put that character into the mix so early in the show, even if they do pull a few fake outs during the course of those events, some of which are really too good to spoil. The comic relief is fairly typical as well: a clumsy maid, a goofy chef and a somewhat shrill and childish fiancé amongst other tropes fill out the cast of characters, and the situations that rise out of this are pretty average as well. Training a klutzy butler for the extended family, getting dinner ready on time in spite of grand setbacks, and other fairly generic storylines are in play, but somehow the breezy pace keeps it enjoyable.

On the lack of originality side, even the violence seems to owe serious dues to Hellsing, with certain poses coming dangerously close to plagiarism rather than homage. Yet, as I stated earlier, it seems to bounce along rapidly enough most of the time that it’s fun to watch; bad guys get murdered, brutally, sadistically, some what referentially, but entertainingly nonetheless. Maybe it’s the shocking betrayals (none of which I dare spoil) that make up for the more typical elements. You’ll learn to love a character, even write them off as an impotent trope to fill out the cast, and then … Well, you’ll have to see for yourself. I will say though, expect some of the freshest, and most brutal moments in those episodes. It’s really good stuff.

On the technical side, Black Butler is quite respectable in almost every aspect. The animation is crisp and clean, with adeptly used and period-appropriate colors, while the actual storyboarding and episode direction are similarly tight. It should be jarring to pop between sorta-generic light anime humor and skin-crawling horror, but they swing it pretty well. The only caveat might be the cel-shaded 3D elements, but while they don’t perfectly match, they don’t feel that jarring either. The music and mix for the Japanese and English language versions is good, though the use of often mediocre accents in the dub really, really distracts from the show, so I’d definitely lean towards watching it in Japanese in spite of the western setting. Not that the dub is all bad, but the weak moments are obvious if you’ve watched enough British television. Actually, more galling is the Super Mario-like accent on the Italian characters in the series; it really made me thankful that FUNimation kept Gunslinger Girl accent-free in spite of the European setting. Still, outside of a regrettable dub, it’s very accomplished in its technical aspects.

Ultimately though, even having watched the first half of Black Butler, I’m a bit at loss to say who it’s for. It seems a little effete for those wanting gory, manly action, a little too derivative for those looking for a fresh mystery/supernatural show and a shade too dark for a lot of shoujo fans. I mean, when it does really punch in with darker moments, the contrast is almost jarring but even that might be off-putting to some viewers. However, it’s pretty enjoyable and satisfying with whatever it’s trying to do, and if you’re unsure, FUNimation has put it up streaming at various sites, not the least of which include YouTube and Hulu. Basically, as long as you’re not violence-adverse or trope-adverse, you should give Black Butler a watch if not a buy. I’m not sure if it’s one hell of a good show, but as Sebastian is keen to remind us via his catch-phrase, he is “one hell of a butler,” and much like how he always fulfills Ciel’s wants, he gives the viewers a good spectacle as well.

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