Ciel Phantomhive is an English Earl in 19th Century London and head of the Phantomhive family since the death of his parents in a fire that burned down the family mansion two years previously. After initially disappearing after the incident, he returned with the titular Black Butler, Sebastian. This series follows Ciel’s life at the age of 12, his work and the nature of the binding contract between himself and Sebastian.
As well as running the highly successful Funtom toy and confectionary company, Ciel is often occupied with his other job as “the Queen’s guard dog”, a legacy of his family history. In this capacity he follows her every order, usually investigating and stopping murders with the exceptionally able assistance of Sebastian. Although he is not afraid to throw himself into dangerous situations when necessary, he is often prevented from doing so by the butler, who either stops him in an effort to protect him, or has already dealt with the situation.
Sebastian is a very capable man, indeed he’s “one hell of a butler”. If that phrase seems even vaguely amusing now, after you’ve heard it for the fiftieth time, it really won’t be, nor will the equally annoying variations on “if I couldn’t do this much at least for my Master, then what kind of butler would I be?” which is usually said directly after he has done something either remarkably unlikely, or flat out impossible for a normal human. The obviously hint from the repeated phrases serves as a less than subtle reminder of what exactly Sebastian is.
Visually he looks for all the world like Alucard from Hellsing in a fine suit and vocally he’s a slightly posher Jiro Mochizuki from Black Blood Brothers. Although you might be already interpreting that allusion as him being a vampire, he is in fact a demon. The plot is somewhat drip fed across the episodes, but it is quickly established that Ciel dealed a contract between them after the death of his parents and that Sebastian will serve him faithfully following his every order with inhuman precision, until some ill-defined point in the future, at which point in return, he will take his soul.
One of the most enjoyable facets of the series is the relationship between Ciel and Sebastian. Ciel is usually stoic but is seen to delight in finding out what Sebastian doesn’t like and doesn’t treat him especially well (which given a normal Master/Servant relationship, is understandable) whilst Sebastian is entirely devoted to him. His devotion is both in the standard butler duties and extends to whatever his master orders of him in addition to being a deadly efficient bodyguard even when not directly asked to be. The action of the series largely revolves around set pieces with Sebastian fighting a variety of people and non-human entities in some slickly animated fights which nicely show off his superhuman strength, agility and recuperative abilities. It is as yet unclear if all demons who form contracts with humans are as incredibly polite, effective and almost affectionate towards what are essentially their prey, but even Sebastian points out that he will remain at Ciel’s side and always served him in life, but should his form in this world be destroyed, he’ll still be there on the other side, waiting for Ciel’s death so that he might consume his soul.
The supporting cast is rather an odd point for this series. The regular supporting figures are at best pointless filler and worst, deeply annoying wastes of screen time. Bardroy the chef, Finnian the gardener, Mey-Rin the maid and Tanaka the steward are the Phantomhive household. Tanaka is the only bearable member but oscillates, between near silent and chibified and normally drawn and extremely eloquent, handwaved as something to do with his stamina apparently. The rest are a massive waste of time with some of the worst “cor blimey guv’nr” mockey British accents I’ve heard in a while. I dimly hope that they may prove of some use in the rest of the series, but for these episodes, they are largely in the way of interesting things happening.
The irregular supporting cast are substantially better and you’ll likely be wishing were around more often. The most notable are Lady Elizabeth (Lizzie) Middleford, Ciel’s fiancé, whose bubbly preciousness is enjoyable
in the short doses it is given, Lau a Chinese noble who doesn’t appear to have much of a reason to even be in England but always seems happy to help with whatever mission Ciel is currently on and is amusingly enthusiastic, regardless of never having an idea what he’s ab
out to be involved with until after he volunteers his services. Finally there is an unhinged gravekeeper, who is used for information and is paid by making him laugh; he is incredibly entertaining and although only around for about 5 minutes total across his appearances, steals every scene that he’s in.
The two discs of Black Butler, Series 1, Part 1 are split as a series of mini arcs, or cases and a smattering of standalone episodes. The first case is that of the seminal classic murder mystery, Jack the Ripper, the second involves mysterious deaths in a creepy little town headed by a man who seems incapable of referring to people with any term other than those you’d use for dogs and the final case see’s Ciel solving the disappearance of a number of young girls in London. The stories tie together nicely and mix moments of occasional comedy with often all too brief action and almost zero character development for anybody. I would hope that that is a product of this being the opening part of the series and was meant to gradually lead viewers in before giving anyone other than Ciel and Sebastian some depth, but I fear the supporting cast will largely remain cardboard cut-outs into the future.
There are 12 episodes on the DVDs with a sort of bonus episode re-capping the most important parts of the series so far with a voiceover from Tanaka, also hinting at the future. In addition to the standard extras fair, there’s a mini bio of the singer of the end credits (the accompanying animation to the end theme during the is a really fun “day in the life” piece) and some commentaries too.
If you can see past the annoying Phantomhive household, there’s a lot of fun to be hadwith the series as the relationships between Ciel and Lizzie and Ciel and Sebastian unfold. Assuming the problems with the peripheral characters lessen, I am looking forward to the rest of the series.
The first volume of Black Butler is due for release on 15th August and is available to order now.
Black Butler – Series 1 Part 1 [DVD] – £14.99 (£1.24/episode)