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Black Butler - season one, part two (2008)
Director: Toshiya Shinohara

review by Sarah Ash

"Because, you see, I am simply one hell of a butler."

Sebastian Michaelis (Daisuke Ono/ J. Michael Tatum), butler to 12-year-old earl Ciel Phantomhive (Maaya Sakamoto/ Brina Palencia) has many extraordinary talents. But will a contest to make the best curry at a 'curry festival' defeat even his devilishly clever abilities? Ciel and his butler find themselves pitted against runaway Indian prince Soma and his butler Agni in a competition that takes place in the Crystal Palace before none other than Queen Victoria herself (who arrives still heavily veiled in mourning for her long-dead consort Albert.)

But all is far from well in the teeming dockland slums along the River Thames where Ciel's business associate, the inscrutable Lau (Koji Yusa/ Jerry Jewel) runs an opium den. Soon, Scotland Yard is investigating a series of murders, with young Inspector Fred Aberline (who first appeared to investigate Jack the Ripper in part one) assigned to the case. The curry contest descends rapidly into farce (as do so many of the incidents that Ciel and Sebastian become involved in) but hints at future, much darker, developments have been planted.

And dark is what this series does best: as the opening theme, Kiss Of Monochrome by SID and animation (new words and images) reminds us, the demonic Faustian pact that unites the unfortunate Ciel and Sebastian underscores everything that they do and can have only one inevitable outcome. Traumatised by the horrific death of his parents, Ciel is still determined to avenge them and bring their murderers to justice. Many of the scenes are steeped in shadow and night. Taku Iwasaki's moody and atmospheric score is particularly effective in enhancing such scenes, although perhaps the most apt marriage of music and images comes in the new ending theme Lacrimosa, from Yuki Kajiura, which is performed by Kalafina. Here we see Sebastian slowly poling an open boat down a dark river; in the boat on a bed of pure white flowers, lies the body of a boy... Yuki Kajiura has produced some memorable opening and ending themes for other series (Loveless, Noir, and Madlax come to mind) and this song produces just the right elegiac shiver.

Sent on the queen's command to investigate a suspicious religious cult, Ciel and Sebastian encounter the white-winged angel Angela and begin to uncover significant corruption at the heart of the monarchy. They have met this avenging angel before in a different guise and when Ciel's company is implicated in a drugs scandal, they realise that they are mired in a deadly plot which will not just destroy the Phantomhives but England and all its inhabitants if they don't take action. On their desperate quest to prevent this happening, they are joined by the sinister undertaker and red-haired grim reaper Grell Sutcliff. But when Sebastian is arrested and dragged away to be tortured in the Tower of London, Ciel is left to fend for himself. Apocalyptic scenes of fire and destruction ensue. Angels are pitted against demons. Is it time for Ciel to die - and for Sebastian to claim his soul?

The second part of series one brings plenty of revelations: if you were keen to find out about the pasts of Ciel's energetically enthusiastic but utterly useless servants, Mey-Rin, Bardroy, and Finnian, you won't be disappointed, as at last they get the chance to prove their worth. And some of the mysteries surrounding the death of Ciel's parents are uncovered. As in part one, the tone of Black Butler (aka: Kuroshitsuji) veers wildly from pratfalls and farce to gothic horror and tragedy, and this can be more than a little jarring for the viewer. The setting of the tale in an alternate Victorian era doesn't always convince, either, in spite of the well-researched backgrounds for the curry festival (I live not far from the site of Crystal Palace, so it's familiar territory), and the Paris exhibition.

Little niggles, such as shots of Big Ben accompanied by the tolling bell of some other lesser church (are the chimes of Big Ben protected by copyright?) or greater annoyances, such as the bizarre (and frankly unconvincing, even for alternate history) role played by Queen Victoria, prove distracting. As do the accents in the English dub. The prize for the best voice actor goes to J. Michael Tatum, who manages his suave British accent as Sebastian, the eponymous butler, with just the right amount of sly, demonic charm. Brina Palencia brings a sombre, earnest quality to her voicing of Ciel, but her efforts to preserve her British accent mean that some moments of genuine emotion are not fully conveyed. The other voice actors veer from Gwyneth Paltrow clipped via Dick van Dyke cockney to Australia and back again. Distracting - and not in a good way. For those with a sensitive ear, perhaps the best thing is to stick to the original Japanese where those problems don't arise´┐Ż

Yana Toboso's Black Butler manga (which appears in GFantasy from Square Enix, a publication that has also brought us Saiyuki, Pandora Hearts, and Nabari no Ou) has proved wildly popular in translation as well as at home in Japan (especially with cosplayers), and each new volume has gone straight to the top of the New York Times best-selling manga list. There's even a stage musical version in Japan! The animated series preserves much of the uniquely dark and warped humour of the original, with character designs that bring the mangaka's beautiful bishonen drawings to vivid life.

From a dramatic point-of-view Black Butler makes compelling, if sometimes uneven, viewing. There are less teasing Boys Love moments than in the earlier episodes, although the shota vibe it gives off is still strong. It's only when it exposes the darkness at the heart of the narrative that it really comes into its own, and the last episodes built up to an impressive, tense and doom-laden finale. The real story is that of the uniquely warped yet close relationship between orphaned Ciel and Sebastian and the question that hangs over each succeeding episode like a looming thundercloud is not so much if Sebastian will claim Ciel's soul but when.

And then, perhaps to cheer the viewer up, an extra OVA episode is included: His Butler: Performer showing (in earlier days?) Ciel reluctantly attempting to organise a charity performance of Hamlet, aided - correction, hindered - by his staff and friends. Much hilarity ensues... (Don't miss the preview of the 'next' episode.) Other extras include text-less opening and ending themes, and commentaries on episodes 16 and 21. NEO magazine readers have just voted this their 'best anime of 2011.'

Black Butler



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