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Wow, am I behind the times.  For ages now in my travels to various anime conventions, manga days and cosplay contests, Iíve watched people (usually ladies) dress like a beautifully decorated Ace of Cakes winner, all pink layers and ruffles.  This particular costume was always seen with either an abundance of dark fringe or a patch covering the wearerís right eye.  When I asked who the costume was meant to portray, the words Ciel and Phantomhive just flew over my head.  Boy, was I missing out.

Thanks to the good folks at Funimation, my eyes have been opened to the elegantly drawn, cleverly written fun and mystery of Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji).  Creator Yana Toboso has cannily tapped into the current Japanese fascination for the Victorian age, aristocracy and exceedingly competent servants of the body.  That, and throw in a bunch of bishounen characters with inferred flexible sexuality for good measure and youíve got yourself a gigantic hit.

A huge fire engulfs an estate in the English countryside.  A family will perish in the blaze leaving only one survivor, a small boy by the name of Ciel.  Funny thing is, no one saw him leave the burning mansion or carried him out, but there he is, months after the inferno, now bearing a bandage over one eye, but definitely alive.  A new servant is now planted at the Phantomhive heirís side.  This is Cielís butler, Sebastian, who, with his preternaturally keen sense of anticipation of his masterís wishes and exemplary housekeeping skills, is supernaturally efficient.  Though awfully young, Ciel not only rules the Phantomhive toy-making and confection dynasty, but stands in the service of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, stealthily solving crimes and rooting out threats to the Empire in ways no grown detective of Scotland Yard seems to be able to.  In cases like Cielís investigation of the murdered prostitutes, when the new menace called Jack the Ripper gets too close to our mini-hero, Sebastian is never far behind.  Making use of the gracelessness of his opponents, or if necessary, the Phantomhive cutlery for weapons, Sebastian wonít let anyone do harm to his master until the day he himself takes Ciel to Hell.  I might have forgotten to mention that Sebastian happens to be a demon bound by a bargain made with Ciel for the childís soul.  Utterly subservient to the aristocratic boy, thereís an underlying threat to Sebastian as this deal isnít fully explained in the two available discs released thus far, but itís certainly repeated enough to make one worry.  The other underlying threat is to Cielís presumed chastity; when men arenít trying to kill him, they are trying to seduce the twelve year old.  Thereís a definite emphasis on Sebastianís solicitous care for Ciel, and the manservant isnít afraid to be hands-on in his protection of his young ward.  We are also shown images of Ciel nude, battered and chained; being tortured by a crowd of masked villains before his deal with Sebastian appears to have freed him.  Black Butler uses all sorts of visual entendres to put across its yaoi leanings.  The fact that Ciel is not even a teenager is troubling and icky; one hopes the references certain characters make to their lust for him will stay at bay at least until the age of consent.

However, there are perfectly non-paedobait personages to admire:  When one character (- of extremely questionable gender) passionately pursues Sebastian, thatís much easier to take and entirely understandable.  Sebastian is, simply put, the perfect man; considerate before a consideration is made, he cooks like a gourmet, cleans till the entire house squeaks, foresees Cielís every need, and is, in his terms, ďmerely one hell of a butler.Ē  Each time he seemingly achieves the impossible, Sebastian modestly claims that ďA Phantomhive butler that canít do this isnít worth his salt,Ē And he ainít hard on the eyes, neither.  Same for some of the other males on the show, including an Indian prince with his own super-efficient, handsome manservant and a strange, shape-shifting dog man with a serious aversion to clothing.

Cielís sadness and mourning for his family hides behind his impatience and seeming lack of any joy in life despite having obscene amounts of money and power. Cielís outfits usually consist of the incongruous top hat or derby over childlike short pants.  Aside from his wardrobe oddities and his tiny height thereís precious little to remind anyone that puberty for Ciel is still an abstract notion.  Even his board and card games are played with a sinister edge.  The young head of the Phantomhive empire is all pouts, frosty glares and emo, though one can hardly blame him.  Cielís outward coldness is in direct opposition to the fact that the boy loved his parents so much he gave up his soul to avenge them.

The art of Black Butler is gorgeous. Itís a beautifully rendered series with layered, luxurious backgrounds and lush, opaque colours everywhere.  The interiors of the Phantomhive manor are bedecked with the wood paneling that was so abundant in Victorian architecture and are so richly shaded here theyíre nearly touchable. Thereís time spent on details like the gilt designs on the early telephones and gaslight sconces.  The attention the anime artists pay to Cielís and Sebastianís wardrobe is amazing, especially considering that Sebastian mostly wears only one outfit.  Itís just all prettiness.  One of the cuter aspects of the show are the desserts made every night by Sebastian for Ciel; they are such a highlight that theyíre usually given a placard frame and a brief description.  Sebastian can often tell Ciel exactly where his various daily teas were purchased and the names of actual British stores cleverly used.  There is the odd anachronism which makes one wonder is itís really the Victorian era or does this household simply really love host club goth lolita attire?  In the second episode, Ciel is kidnapped by some vengeful Italian bad guys who look less like characters from 1880 than from 1980, specifically Tubbs and Crockett from Miami Vice; the mobsters all wear modern pastel suits, long, shaggy hair pulled back and multiple earrings.

Funimationís main voice cast for Black Butler is on point.  With Brina Palencia sulky, low-toned and refined as Ciel Phantomhive and J. Michael Tatum hitting the right dry, soft-spoken tones as Sebastian Michaelis, though with considerably less of the seductive tones of his award-winning Japanese counterpart, Daisuke Ono.  I do wish there was a dubbing cast that could get insane characters right; like Grell (Greil) Marcus, the he/she with a thing for Sebastian sounds as nuts as he/she/it looks, alternating between high-pitched screams and low, throaty growls.  The other thing that seems hard for dubs is for voice actors to play femme gender-benders; they always sound entirely too male.  I think they need to hire more tenors.

Black Butler is a sexy, seductive feast for the eyes that entertains on all levels.  There are several engrossing mysteries happening at any given time, and the drama of Cielís loneliness and what may be his inevitable end is balanced with a very funny supporting cast of characters to take the weight off.  I was instantly enchanted with Black Butler and canít wait to see more.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

January 28th, 2011

 

 

The second set of Black Butler Season 1 will be released by Funimation on March 8, 2011, with the complete Second Season coming soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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