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Spotlight on Victorian Fantasy – Black Butler

Black Butler is a popular manga series by Yana Toboso that first appeared in 2006. A few years later, A-1 Pictures adapted it as an anime, directed by Toshiya Shinohara. (Noriyuki Abe directed season 3 and the animated movie “Book of Murder.”) The story concerns an orphaned English aristocrat and the butler who serves and protects him. It’s not steampunk, but its Victorian setting and quirky fantasy elements will appeal to many fans of the genre. Despite its young protagonist and use of slapstick comedy, the show has mature, disturbing story elements. I wouldn’t recommend it for children. By the way, “black” is not the butler’s ethnicity but his dark and occult nature. He is a demon in disguise.

The teenage orphan, Ciel Phantomhive, is the only survivor of a fire which destroyed his family’s mansion, now miraculously restored. Through flashbacks we see him abducted, tortured by a Satanic cult and rescued by the demon who becomes his butler, Sebastian. They live on a country estate with the family’s former butler Tanaka and three buffoonish servants who provide much of the show’s humor. Sebastian is both father-figure and slave to Ciel, though it’s understood that Sebastian will someday receive Ciel’s soul as payment.

As the inheritor of his father’s title of Earl, Ciel has the responsibilities of an adult. He seeks revenge against those who have harmed him and solves crimes on behalf of the Queen. Sebastian stays by Ciel’s side, fighting the boy’s foes both natural and supernatural. As a demon, he’s immortal and faster, stronger, and more competent than a human, though without human empathy. Though he protects Ciel he allows tragedy to befall innocents if not ordered by his young master to intervene. As such the series reflects the Japanese view of the universe – not divided between pure good and evil, but a continuum. Thus we root for the charming demonic protagonist, who is more likable than his surly, embittered young charge. His catch phrase is, “I am merely one hell of a butler.”

Though I haven’t yet read the manga, Arlys and I have watched all three seasons of the anime (2008-2010 and 2014), plus additional content including a full-length movie.

The cast of Black Butler includes many fascinating side characters. The most outrageous are the shinigami or grim reapers. In Japanese folklore, these “death gods” reap human souls at the end of life. They are the sworn enemies of Sebastian because as a demon he will try to consume the souls of the dying before they can collect them. The exception is Grell, a flamboyant gay shinigami who makes hilarious unrequited advances toward Sebastian throughout the series. In a weird anachronism, Grell’s “death scythe” is a modern chainsaw. Another great character is Elizabeth, Ciel’s fiance, a spoiled rich girl who is far stronger and more capable than she seems.

I’ve focused on the setting and characters of the show, rather than the plot lines because its characters are what make it enjoyable. If you’re not squeamish about animated violence and weird occult themes, Black Butler is a lot of fun.

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