The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 10 – Black Butler

Black Butler 1

As we reach double-figures and come to a number with a rather British connection, politically speaking, it is about time to look at an anime that is set in Britain as there is a fair number of anime are set in the country or feature British characters.

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the anime set in Britain are period pieces with Victorian Britain being a common on. Of these kind of series, the best known is Black Butler (broadcast over two series, shown in 2008 and 2010), a series mixing dark humour, gothic-like supernatural elements and action.

The Black Butler in the title is Sebastian Michaelis, a man very talented in his job and who modestly describes himself as being “merely one hell of a butler.” He serves the eye-patched and rather emotionless Ciel Phantomhive, a 13-year-old boy whose parents died when their manor was set ablaze on the night of his tenth birthday. Upon their deaths, Ciel earned the family earldom and toy-making business empire. Ciel also works for the government, taking on the worst in the Victorian underworld, with some members of society referring to him as Queen Victoria’s “Guard Dog”.

Not surprisingly, Ciel’s life is often at stake, but Sebastian always protects him. No matter how impossible the situation, he seems to somehow come to the rescue. The reason for this is rather otherworldly, because it turns out that Sebastian really is one HELL of a butler – he is a demon whom Ciel has made a contract with, the sign of which is a pentangle marked on his patched-over eye. Upon the death of his parents Ciel entered a deal with Sebastian to find out who caused their death. Once Ciel has taken his revenge upon the killers, Sebastian can consume his soul.

Other than Sebastian, Ciel is also served by other members of household staff, most of Sebastian brought in to protect the estate from attack. There is Bardroy, a terrible cook who is an ex-soldier; Finnian, an incompetent gardener with superhuman strength due to various scientific experiments; Mey-Rin, a clumsy long-sighted maid who used to be a sniper; and Tanaka, the steward who was gravely injured when protecting Ciel when his parents were killed.

Before moving on, it should be pointed out that the two anime series made of Black Butler are not strictly speaking faithful adaptations of the original manga, which is currently still being printed. The entire second series has a totally original story line, and many anime fans believe that the manga to be the superior work.

However, in terms of the anime, there are reasons why you may want to sample it. One is the obvious fact that it is set in Britain, and therefore you can get a sort of idea of what the Japanese think about British culture, especially the Victorian period. For example, one aspect is fashion. In Japan there is a trend amongst some people that Victorian-looking fashion is cool, a style which has the slightly unfortunate name of “Lolita fashion”. Examples include the boyish “oji” style sported by Ciel (he is almost always wearing shorts and long socks with suspenders which are common with this style), as well as a secondary character, Ciel’s fiancé Elizabeth, who has a passion for all things cute and is often wearing big flowing dresses which is common with in some Lolita styles.

Another appealing factor is the characters. Sebastian and Ciel are very good creations, and the secondary characters are often just as appealing. Some of the most appealing the other demons and supernatural creatures. For example, you may remember in my piece on Death Note (No. 8) where we mentioned shinigami, a form of death god / grim reaper. These appear in Black Butler too; although they are human in appearance, have various gardening implements as “scythes” and all wear glasses. The main shinigami to appear is a very camp character called Grell Sutcliffe, who is named after Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe.

While it is not the most faithful anime adaptation of a manga, Black Butler has plenty of thrills, spills and mystery to keep most people entertained, and is worth watching purely from a British stand-point.

Both series of Black Butler are available on DVD. The original manga is published by Yen Press.