Black Butler: Collection 1 Review
From its title and cover alone, you should have a fairly reasonable idea what to expect from A1-Pictures anime version of Yana Toboso’s manga series Black Butler. A Victorian setting, an elegant but rather sinister looking butler, dressed in black, attentively positioned beside his young charge who wears an eyepatch and who has a look in his visible eye that nonetheless suggests he may have lived through rather more than his age would lead you to believe. You could probably extrapolate from similar-looking series – Full-Metal Alchemist, for example – that there might be a bit of Steampunk and an occult edge to the master and servant relationship here, and indeed Black Butler fully lives up to expectations on this level. Whether it has any original touches of its own to offer remains to be seen as the series develops, but there are at least a few other familiar aspects that might not be immediately apparent from an initial impression.
As far as defining up the relationship between the master, the young Lord Ciel Phantomhive and his butler, Sebastian, that is achieved right from the outset, from Episode One of Series One. Sebastian is the typical, unflappable and elegant butler whose job is to ensure that everything runs smoothly on the Phantomhive Estate, particularly when it comes to domestic duties in the estate’s grand gothic manor. He does have his work cut out for him, and not just on account of the other rather incompetent servants who can only be relied upon to create a disaster wherever they set their hands, but his presence proves essential for protecting the young master Ciel from unscrupulous and dangerous guests, business associates and family members who turn up from episode to episode. Invariably Sebastian has a Jeeves-like ability to be where he is needed and save the day, turning a potential disaster into an unqualified success through his imaginative schemes, his seemingly supernatural abilities, his culinary talents in making extraordinary desserts and the indispensible qualification of any English butler to be able to make a proper cup of tea.
I say “seemingly supernatural abilities”, but it becomes obvious fairly early on in the series that that Sebastian is, to use a phrase repeated often and with some amount of knowingness in tone, “one hell of a butler”. His parents having died in a fire that consumed Phantomhive manor three years previously, it gradually becomes apparent that Ciel has made a Faustian pact of some sort that has ensured the entire reconstruction of the house, not as new, but right down to the old cracks in the walls, the creepy corridors and dark rooms with their unsettling portraits, and it’s clear that Sebastian is there to, well ...protect his investment. All of this establishes a strong situation with a certain amount of rivalry or even antagonism between master and servant as well as mutual dependency, which would be natural in such circumstances, and the story consequently has plenty of dark, gothic and occult potential, but there are clearly hints of other dark family secrets and background left to be explored as the series develops.
In the first 13 episodes of Black Butler Collection 1, released in the UK by Manga Entertainment, the series paces itself well between establishing the characters in their setting and creating an intriguing backstory around their origin, and then taking it out into the Victorian world that it is set in, with recourse to all the gothic imagery, decadent nobles and grim horror of the period. This includes a blood-thirsty three-part Jack the Ripper episode, an episode with a Demon Hound that makes reference to the great Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and an episode set around a fair on the frozen over Thames that involves the Hope Diamond – an object with a sinister reputation that has particular relevance for the Phantomhive family. With its business interests in the toy and games industry, and with the young Master having a role as emissary to Queen Victoria, there are plenty of other colourful elements to build on.
There’s also obviously a certain amount of humour to be derived from playing knowingly with the conventions of the situation, as well as from the entertaining antics of the staff of Phantomhive manor, who are clearly there to provide comic relief with their slapstick incompetence and with the serving maid’s infatuation with the sleekly handsome butler as she clumsily falls into his arms. The different character designs match the variations of tone, from the One Piece cartoony style of the comic characters to the elongated shojo influences of the Black Butler. The series is well-animated by the A1-Pictures studio, slipping into the appropriate mode for each of the situations, with a certain fluidity and dynamic to the action and fight sequences. The backgrounds, and the occasional Victorian London street-scene when it ventures outside the manor, also have nice period character and detail.
Black Butler: Collection 1 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD only, collecting the first 12 episodes of the 24-episode series on a 2-DVD set. The set is Region 2 encoded and is in PAL format. The series looks exceptionally good, even on Standard Definition, with few of the usual standards conversion issues. Colour and contrast are strong, the image is clear and stable, free from any marks or artefacts and there are no noticeable interlacing issues.
The available audio tracks are the original Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track and the English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1. I’d suggest that there are good reasons for preferring the English dub with this particular series, as English works much better with the London Victorian setting than English characters speaking Japanese. It also helps that the dub is well done, the American voice actors making a creditable effort at posh English accents. Even if some of the cockney accents on the secondary characters in the serving staff are a little bit odd sounding, even slipping into a Scottish twang, it’s not exactly out of keeping with the exaggeration of the characters themselves. Optional English subtitles for the Japanese track are yellow and are literal, but reasonably translated for colloquial terms.
Extras are not plentiful, but the rarely are for a regular series like this. Disc on includes Commentaries for two of the episodes, narrated by the English language voice-actors, who inevitably talk about how much fun it was adopting English accents. Disc 2 includes a bonus episode, ‘The Story Thus Far’ (23:00), narrated by the enigmatic servant Tanaka, which summarises the first-half of the series. There’s also the usual textless (useless) Opening (1:29) and Closing (1:29) credits and some biographical information on the musician Becca.
Black Butler plays its gothic horror storyline out with some knowingness and a certain amount of cross-genre stylisations and a variable tone that stretches from dark horror to slapstick in a way that is uniquely Japanese, but it does so well. There are strong if rather well-worn character-types in the anime, but they fit into an intriguing occult story that manages to be consistently entertaining in its attempt to find new ways to work with old Victorian horror tropes. Manga Entertainment’s presentation of the first 12 episodes of the series in the 2-disc Collection 1 is excellent, with good audio and visual specifications, if it’s light – not unexpectedly really – on extra features.