What They Say:
Ciel Phantomhive is the most powerful boy in all of England, but he bears the scars of unspeakable suffering. Forced to watch as his beloved parents were brutally murdered, Ciel was subsequently abducted and violently tortured. Desperate to end his suffering, the boy traded his own soul for a chance at vengeance, casting his lot with the one person on whom he could depend: Sebastian, a demon Butler summoned from the very pits of hell.
Together, they’ll prowl the darkest alleys of London on a mission to snuff out those who would do evil. They’re a rare sight, these two: the Butler who dismembers with dazzling cutlery and the Young Master who carries the devil’s marking. Rest assured that wherever they may be headed, it’ll be one hell of a ride.
The series is presented with two audio tracks- a 5.1 English track and a Stereo Japanese one. For the purpose of this review the Japanese track was used and it is a mostly solid, yet despite the effort to create directionality something is missing here as it feels hollow somehow, almost as if the life of the track had been turned down, especially in the opening. A quick check of the English track shows it is far more powerful yet something still seemed missing during the short period it was sampled. Other than that, the audio track was found to be free of dropouts or other distortions and it gets its point across as dialogue is delivered clear so it accomplishes a fair amount for what seems to be such an audio shortcoming in terms of presentation.
Originally airing in the last quarter of the Japanese 2009 television season, Black Butler is presented here in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and is complete with an anamorphic widescreen encode. The series itself looks like it didn’t shy away from spend money on its visuals, though some elements still stand out from the original production (like the unmistakably obvious CG images) while others probably are attributable to either the DVD format itself or the authorization of the disc. Somewhere in between production and manufacturing the images have picked up a number of flaws including banding, a fine level of noise, ghosting, some blocking, jaggies, a bit of aliasing, a bizarre moment where some lines of slightly different contrast appear then condense on themselves before expanding again and vanishing, an odd flicker at one point where the screen lighting changes for the briefest moment, moments where background bleeds through foreground characters, and a bit of combing in the OVA. Sadly these flaws do detract a bit from the beauty of the series but a few of them are so brief and the rest mostly minor that it may be something that is ignorable with a bit of effort or with for those not outright looking for it.
This review is of the DVDs only but the packaging is covered in Chris Beveridge’s review of the Blu Ray portion of the releases review.
As for the DVDs themselves, they use a black background with the discs’ own silver properties used to create the image of a rose with its stem and thorns along with the series title as well as a circle at the bottom with the disc number listed.
The menus themselves use various static images of screen grabs from the series (except for the Episodes Menu which lists the names of the episodes) against a rather elaborate background pattern while an instrumental track plays in the background. The menu itself is rather easy to operate with the various choices either being present at the bottom of the image with prompts on either side to highlight the currently selected item or with the option turning purple in the case of the horizontally stacked options. While saying the menus are rather standard and basic might be seen as a slight it really isn’t in this case as the menus use some tried and true methods to make navigation easy and it is responsive to changes in selection as well as implementing choices with minimal delay.
Black Butler is a series that follows a devilishly talented butler and the Extras section seems to mimic this by bringing for a bounty of extras one would think would only come with a Faustian contract. To that end the series presents four episodes with English commentary, a recap episode with a few unique scenes and narration lines titled The Story Thus Far with Narration from Tanaka that has both English and Japanese language selections available, a Musician Profile for the singer of the first closing theme as well as Textless Opening and Closing Songs. To round out the set there is a special unaired 25th episode included here “His Butler, Performer,” which takes the cast and throws them into a very lose adaptation of Hamlet which has more than a few overtones for the series itself given the themes both this series and the play share in common.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Adapted from the manga series of the same name written by Yana Tobaso that debuted in the later part of 2006, Black Butler is a tale of a young man with a tremendous burden on his shoulders and the demonic butler who serves him for a price- the young man’s soul which the demon will take from him upon completion of the young man’s quest for vengeance.
The young man in this case is named Ciel Phantomhive and he is the 12 year old heir to the noble house of Phantomhive and the fortune and family responsibilities that come with it. While to the outside world the Phantomhives are merely one of a multitude of noble houses that exist in the late part of the 1800’s Britain they in fact have a face that is hidden from the public at large.
The underworld it turns out has a much better idea of their true face however as the monarchy has long used the Phantomhives as a guard dog whose mission is to keep tabs as well as check on many of the illegal activities that have grown up along over the centuries with the nation. When necessary, it is the Phantomhives role to clean up and remove threats that are either beyond the power of the police or whose existence if made known through the use of official police action would prove an embarrassment to the crown.
As if this predestined fate due to his name weren’t enough Ciel suffers an additional horror as on his tenth birthday his family is killed, his home burned to the ground and he is sold into slavery. He winds up as being marked for a cult sacrifice and his rage, pain and anger summon a demon to his side with whom Ciel makes a Faustian bargain to bring about his vengeance in exchange for his soul. To this end his right eye becomes marked with a contract that both grant him the demon’s help but which also serves as a marker so the demon can find him no matter where he goes. When Ciel refers to the demon as Sebastian the contract is complete and Sebastian obliterates the people of the cult and the two return to the ruins of Ciel’s former house.
The series begins around two years later as Ciel has not only rebuilt the mansion but has also taken over the role as leader of the Funtom Company in the world of the light and the role of guard dog for the Queen in the underworld. Sebastian has meanwhile become Ciel’s loyal (ish) butler whose talents at almost everything help keep the mansion running- a task not made any easier as the household only has four other servants and their contributions range from (at best) almost nonexistent to being a major stumbling block for Sebastian’s work of maintaining the manor while keeping his charge safe until the day comes when he claims Ciel’s life.
As the series progresses a number of events will take place from Ciel punishing a subordinate who is looking to swindle him to Ciel having to take up a number of tasks for Her Majesty as a number of incidents plague the land. To this end he will find himself up against a number of different assignments which bring his path to cross against drug dealers, the enigmatic Jack the Ripper, a mysterious demon hound, a national tragedy, missing children and even a curry contest. No matter the challenge the earl Phantomhive and his mysterious butler will have to gather all their powers and wits to match the fight before them or risk both the family honor as well as Ciel’s life. But when events start to coalesce and the secrets of the enemies who created the horrors of his past become revealed will Ciel have the strength to carry through with his resolutions or will his butler wind up starving?
Black Butler is a title that up until very recently I had only the barest of knowledge of its existence and now in less than a two week period I find that I’ve read through 6 volumes of the manga and have watched the first anime series. In some way this feels like a 0-60 kind of acceleration as I’m suddenly awash in the world of the young Lord Phantomhive and his demonic butler- and that isn’t a bad thing.
While it would be easy to sit and gripe about the changes made between the manga and anime (and some parts where the anime is remarkably faithful) there is little to gain by trying to argue which version is superior as each takes their own twists on the same starting point but they then go about telling their own planned tale based on where the authors wish to go. Instead it is far more productive to just talk about the anime on its own and the things it brings to the table which are both good and bad.
Probably my favorite part of the series is found in the interplay between Ciel and Sebastian as theirs is a relationship that is difficult to simplify. While Sebastian is bound by contract to protect Ciel he does so at his own pace and the two often spend time subtly sniping at each other which probably would have been quite off in the society of the time given their individual statuses. In both the anime and manga there are a number of scenes that play off this as it seems the two are locked in a battle between them as they clash wits and egos in an attempt to win some contest only they know they are fighting.
In addition the series is replete with a good deal of humor throughout as the jokes can fly and the super deformed characters appear at some of the oddest times. A good deal of the humor is provided by the secondary cast as Ciel employs four servants, three of who’s every move is more likely to end in some sort of (well intentioned but still destructive) disaster and the fourth swings between a standard character and a SD one. These certainly aren’t the end of things as Ciel will often also have to rely on the assistance of some rather offbeat characters with their own particular mannerisms that stand at odds with Ciel’s usual dower display of disposition.
But humor isn’t all there is to the series as the series also knows how to build up a story and introduce characters in such a way as to turn the knife in the viewer and Ciel as well, though Ciel himself often hides his emotions almost completely behind an apathetic and dispassionate façade his actions prove there is more to what he feels than what he revels. This attitude stands in sharp relief to a number of his actions though as there are times where he is willing to sacrifice some of those closest to him if it means the accomplishing of his goal. This duality is one of the great appeals to the series as the various events force Ciel to deal with some of the things he otherwise may have chosen not to as Sebastian stands at his side, his sharp eyes reading through the front that Ciel attempts to present and his acerbic wit quick to comment on his “bosses” incongruities.
Added to this is the series darker tone which presents an air of danger and intrigue to many situations, danger which only one with superb skills or the devil’s own luck could escape. While it isn’t exactly the darkest series I have ever seen the premise of Black Butler places Ciel and friends in some rather bleak situations and escape isn’t always guaranteed. One other note about the series is that it is one that often has a rather strong and usually, but not always, underlying and subtle sexual subtext to it. On occasion the subtext rises to the surface which probably won’t bother most people, though a few might find some of the themes less to their liking than others. How much this either attracts or repeals any individual will be a subjective thing but for me there wasn’t much here that I felt would get the attention of all but the most sensitive of viewers though there is one scene in particular that might raise a few hackles considering one of the characters involved and his true nature which even a demon it seems finds a source of repulsion.
Black Butler is a series that operates on a couple different levels at times and as such it isn’t afraid to use any of a number of tools that it can lay its hands to accomplish its goal. What one will find here is some dark, smart and often sexy adventures as its protagonists operate outside the law at the bequest of the highest law of the land. The series is one that provides a number of thrills and chills along its dark and winding path of vengeance- a path which may consume the lead character and all those around him. The series is one that stands out as a risk taker and one that those looking for a devilishly good time would be well advised to seek out and explore.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Episodes 01, 07, 16, & 21 Commentary, The Story Thus Far with Narration from Tanaka, Bonus Episode: “His Butler, Performer,” Musician Profile, Textless Opening Song, Textless Closing Songs
Content Grade: B
Audio Grade: B-
Video Grade: B-
Packaging Grade: N/A
Menu Grade: B+
Extras Grade: A+
Released By: FUNimation
Release Date: April 3rd, 2012
Running Time: 600 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Samsung 50″ Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.