In Victorian England, a young boy named Ciel Phantomhive seeks to avenge himself and his murdered parents, even selling his soul to a demon in order to achieve that end. This demon must do everything Ciel orders him to do, complete every objective, and ultimately bring down those responsible for Ciel’s suffering. In return, once this contract is fulfilled, the demon will devour Ciel’s soul. Until then, until “the end,” the demonic Sebastian will be Ciel’s greatest servant: one hell of a butler.
The franchise that is Black Butler can be a little tricky to untangle. There is the original anime, and it’s sequel season, which tell a continuous story. Then there are the “book” additions: The Book of Circus, The Book of Murder, and The Book of the Atlantic. These are, respectively, a shorter season, a two-part special, a movie, and the potential for yet more to come. The “books” also have a clear continuity among them, one that I understand is a bit more true to the manga. They refer to events portrayed in the original anime, but clearly deviate from that timeline, with original characters and other distinctions. They have the same beginning, and may ultimately have a similar ending, but there is a great deal different in the middle.
What both iterations have most in common, though, is that they both deal in profound tragedy.
There is, first and foremost, the tragedy of Ciel. Not only does he carry the trauma of his many losses, but if ever he succeeds in his goal, that will be the end of him. The original anime found a way to work around that, but only insomuch as to slightly alter his fate, rather than to redeem his soul. Redemption is impossible for him, it would seem, and not least because he willingly accepts and willfully embraces his damnation. It is a cold and ruthless form of determination unlike most I have seen, as if it were the last trace of purity left to him, and it lends some credibility to Sebastian’s slavering hunger for the boy’s soul. He truly is unlike the rest.
Then there are the tragedies which befall those around Ciel. His parents, of course, are dead. He sees his aunt reduced to an insane serial killer before she, too, is brutally murdered. Friends, colleagues, and protectors come into his life with their light, and those that don’t die for him or turn on him end up bereft, left behind by his eventual demise and descent into Hell.
And so it goes.
A circus troupe made up of orphans are turned into monsters by their insane benefactor and end up destroyed for it, never realizing how terribly they have already been betrayed. An honest, humble author is nearly driven mad as he witnesses a murderer brought to justice, but not for the murder he committed, and faces a demon in his quest for answers. The guardians of life and death go mad, a queen falls to her own desires, loyalty itself is cast aside in the face of brutal necessity. The very worst face of humanity is revealed, and it is grotesque. Good people have to do brutal things as they plunge into the deepest darkness which lies barely concealed beneath the veil of upright civilization.
And who are the stewards of both civilization and what lies beneath it? The butlers. They stand at the door, preventing innocent young ladies from seeing the mess of a bloody corpse in the hall beyond, one moment aiding in the creation of said corpse, and the next, speaking soothing words of reassurance so the lady may go back to sleep peacefully.
Sebastian, of course, is the consummate butler, accomplishing many an improbable or even humanly impossible feat with elegance and charm, as any seductive demon might. Other butlers include an elderly man of surprising eloquence and strength when the needs calls for it, a grim reaper that is obsessed with Sebastian, a Hindu monk with a right hand blessed by the goddess Kali, and a fallen angel who delights in delivering judgment and massacre. That last may be somewhat different in the “book” iteration, replacing the angel with a pair of deadly earls instead, who are happy enough to hang Ciel out to dry.
Speaking of, that’s another distinction between the two iterations: the relationships are much more all around antagonistic in the “books.” Ciel and Sebastian are practically one being in the original anime, operating smoothly and without incident between them, but in the “books,” they poke at each other without mercy. The reapers in general are still obsessed with avoiding overtime, but where they are reluctant allies in the original anime, they are flat-out enemies in the “books,” which adds complication.
I will say, though, that at least other characters besides Ciel and Sebastian have a proper chance to shine in the “books,” albeit briefly, and in such a way that highlights their own tragedies. In the original, those two were the central powerhouse duo and everyone else played second fiddle, Ciel’s eternal tragedy overshadowing all the rest. Which was a particular waste, considering the potential all the other characters had, such as how we hardly ever got to see any ass-kicking from some surprisingly kickass women.
I also have to appreciate the humor they managed to infuse into this anime. It’s a bit like any other recipe: the ingredients need to balance each other out, too much of any one will overpower any sense of taste. The many tragedies of Black Butler needed to be balanced with witty, over-the-top humor, which made pivotal character moments feel all the more grounded and realistic. Otherwise, it would have been little more than the relentless beating of a thoroughly dead horse. Not that such is entirely out of Black Butler’s wheelhouse, with plots that lay on the complication and lighten up how much sense they really make, so the characters may shine in their respective tragedies.
Fair warning, in addition to all of this darker material, there are two scenes where Sebastian shows off how seductive he can truly be. The first one, in the original anime, came out of nowhere and made no sense to me, but the second, in The Book of Circus, was much better-crafted and added to both the texture and the plot.
Basically, if you want something happy, this is definitely not it. Humorous, certainly, with a very dark flavor, but Black Butler is a chronicle of tragedy after tragedy within overarching tragedies. It’s a veritable study in how to unnerve and disquiet a civilized audience with blood, pain, loss, and sorrow as well as many freakish sights and sounds. Some elements can be a bit repetitive – I can never listen to “London Bridge is Falling Down” for awhile after watching this anime – but that minor annoyance just adds to the unsettling texture of the show. It’s about as far into horror as I generally like to go, but it is riveting, especially the “books.”
Rating: all in all, I give Black Butler 8 stars out of 10.