Before I get to talking about the live-action version of Black Butler, we should talk about where the story originated. First, a manga series written and illustrated by Yana Toboso, Black Butler (or Kuroshitsuji) was serialized starting in 2006 in a shonen magazine called Square Enix’ (the company behind Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Kingdom Hearts). Then, in 2008, a 24-episode anime adaption aired in Japan produced by A-1 Pictures. In 2009, the series was brought to North America by Yen Press and the anime was licensed by Funimation.
The plot involves a very popular gothic manga theme of taking place in Victorian-era London, with a young gentleman acting as a sort of mini-Holmes investigator. Earl Phantomville is the head (and only surviving member) of his family but also acts as one of the queen’s watchdogs, tasked with investigating cases especially important to the crown. Through an elaborate plot, he becomes beholden to a demon he named Sebastian. The demon vows to be his servant and protector to help avenge his family’s death in exchange for being able to consume his soul as payment when he dies.
Changes made to the characters in the live-action are mostly just the main character’s name. Instead of Ciel Phantomhive, they gave him a Japanese name, Shiori Genpou. Otherwise, the characters follow the manga pretty closely. The name change is explained in the movie as a way to cover the true identity of Ciel.
And now on to the live-action movie, released in 2014 and starring Hiro Mizushima as Sebastian and Ayane Goriki as Shiori. You can watch it with subtitles below free on YouTube. If you want the English dubbed version, you will need to rent or buy it.
The movie opens with a rainy cityscape and a lone car crossing a bridge. When the car stops, the man inside writhes in pain as he seems he is melting from the inside.
Only then do we meet Shiori, our hero, being beaten and held captive by a gang. Sebastian arrives and at first, the gang members think he’s just a properly dressed butler that has come to get his master, armed only with a butter knife. They soon realize he is much more than that as he dispatches all of them (and their guns) with hand-to-hand combat. This first scene with Sebastian proves that he is more than a butler. A fighting expert for sure, but is there something more? When they ask who he is, he replies with my favorite line from the series…
“Who am I? I’m simply one Hell of a butler.”
Unlike the manga, which is a series of investigations mostly for the crown, the live-action movie revolves around the main storyline of Shiori finding out how and why his family was killed and who is responsible. He also discovers the secret behind the melting people and a mysterious capsule that causes the effect.
Being a major Black Butler fan, I could not wait to gobble up the live-action movie as soon as it arrived. I was not disappointed. While some live-action movies destroy or play farce to the manga, comics, or books they are derived from, this film adaptation kept everything lovely about BB intact.
With a blend of dark comedy, mystery, and that little bit of chibi-esque slapstick, this film illustrates a story that is as close to the feeling of reading the manga as possible. With costumes and sets, they even did a fair job of translating the art style of the gothic lolita manga art. Although this story leans heavily into the action genre, the demon being and his connection to the mortal is true horror magic.
Highlights of this series are:
*The worthless household staff of the Earl, which Sebastian has to constantly save including a bumbling elder butler and a clumsy gothic lolita maid.
*Sebastian’s dark personality which at once makes you wonder, does he really want to consume the Earl or has he fallen in love with him?
*The constant gender-bending feel. Is the Earl a boy? Or a girl? And could Sebastian be his love interest?
*The cool eye on the Earl that matches Sebastian’s tattoo. This signifies Sebastian’s claim on his soul.
*The underlying feeling of dread as if the Earl may die at any moment.
*The language used by Sebastian and even the Earl at times, hinting at a more sinister plot than any of the humans are aware of.
The casting choices in this film were also very well done and I absolutely love Sebastian’s voice-over actor who I believe is the same as the anime voice, J. Michael Tatum. The translation was done very well and I can’t imagine anyone who is a fan of Black Butler not enjoying this flick.
Black Butler mangas are still for sale on various book sites, they even have Kindle and ComiXology copies. You can enjoy the anime series both dubbed or subtitled on Netflix, and this live-action film is for sale at Amazon.com.