Black Butler (Review)
aka 黒執事 aka Kuroshitsuji
Written by Tsutomu Kuroiwa
Based on the manga created by Yana Toboso
Directed by Kentaro Otani and Keiichi Sato
Demon butlers, terrorist conspiracies, gender-hiding revenge plots, English-Japanese hybrid toy baron nobles, and an alternate world with only two spheres of influence is the setting for a murder mystery that soon balloons into a wild tale that could only be a live-action manga tale. And, yes, it is. Kuroshitsuji (黒執事) – aka Black Butler – features a demonic butler named Sebastian who aides his master in her revenge quest in return for the permission to devour her soul once it’s completed. Despite the overly-complicated world building, the resulting film is entertaining and fun, delivering a cool story without biting off too much and feeling like everything is rushed.
Black Butler takes a train into gender confusion land. We first run across Ayame Gouriki held captive by human traffickers. After the action sequence is finished, she rips off her wig to reveal shorter hair beneath. It’s not until a scene or two later (like 20 minutes into the film) that I figure out she’s pretending to be a man named Earl Kiyoharu Genpo. Which means in her first appearance, she’s a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl. Like Connie Chan or Polly Shang Kuan, there is a zero percent chance that anyone would think that Ayame Gouriki was a male, which makes the scenes even more confusing.
Shiori is under disguise because her whole family was wiped out by a traitor. She survived only by promising her soul to the demon Sebastian, who posed as her guardian servant, and Shiori posed as the illegitimate son of her father, named Kiyoharu Genpo. Why the illegitimate son has the same last name as the dad is best unanswered. She keeps up the ruse while trying to track down who hire the hitmen who slaughtered her family, and while running her family’s very successful toy company. Sadly, the toy company doesn’t factor into the plot as much as it should.
The world is divided into two groups – the West and the East. The Queen of the West has agents called The Queen’s Watchdogs, of which main character Earl Kyoharu Genpo is one. He is tasked with solving a mystery involving high profile ambassadors turning into mummies at inopportune times, like when they’re driving a car. The Earl sets out on his task, aided by his faithful butler, Sebastian. In fact, she was already investigating this in the opening scene, the man leading the sex slavery ring was around all of the victims shortly before they died. He refuses to answer any questions, even after Sebastian slays all his men with just some butter knives.
The investigation soon gets bigger, from secret society and parties to mysterious chemical bomb weapons. Even with the setting, things never get confusing. The plot structure follows a normal progression that could work in any flavor of setting, the characters carefully explain anything that could becoming confusing in the future through dialogue and example scenes, and events are paced well enough to keep the film from getting dragged down.
Hiro Mizushima as the Black Butler Sebastian is amazing, he’s the perfect deadly loyal servant who has his own agenda and only does the heroic things to save his charge because he’ll soon feast on her soul. His thin frame and well-kept suit makes his opponents underestimate him, much to their peril.
Mizuki Yamamoto’s Maid Rin is hilarious, always on the verge of dropping everything she carries and stumbling in the way of Shiori while she’s trying to do investigations, but there is a very good reason for that. Her character’s prominence sort of telegraphed something like that was going to happen with her, but it was still fun when it did happen.
If anything, Ayame Gouriki is the weakest link among the mains, but that’s due to her playing a character who spends most of her time playing another character. This forces a lot of emotion to be reserved in scenes with others, and it’s only when interacting with Sebastian that she can become Shiori instead of Earl Kyoharu Genpo. But it does mean plenty of fun costumes.
At one point Shiori and Sebastian examine the body of one of the mummy victims, brought to them by a Japanese Johnny Depp! I had no idea there were still more Johnny Depps in the wild, but he fits in perfectly with the art direction and alternate Earth. The costumes are amazing throughout the film, it’s like a retrofuture dreamland with the Victorian-era clothes mixed with the French costumes and the mix of modern clothes.
Kuroshitsuji was created by Yana Toboso. The manga takes place in the 19th century, while the film is set in the year 2020, the excuse being they would be unable to cast Japanese actors in 19th century England. Considering the entire tale is one of ridiculous world changing events, this excuse is laughable. The bits of advanced technology used in the film would be more out of place in alternate 19th century England, and that seems more of a real excuse to me.
The setting does raise some of my usual complaints about how royalty is dumb and hereditary royalty is even dumber and hereditary servants is slavery, thus this film romanticizing it is bad. Granted, it’s all employed by someone who sold her soul for revenge, and Sebastian seems cool if you ignore his entire motivation for doing what he does, so anyone who thinks having a Sebastian of their own would be cool is probably not the brightest bulb in the tulip shack. But at least I could probably scam possession of their soul pretty easy.
While I go out to collect a fat stack of soul deeds, you should set out to check out Black Butler, especially if you enjoy weirdly set Japanese tales. If you are expecting commentary on class or spirituality, there is sadly few if anything despite the film being ripe with the ingredients to say something interesting. But Black Butler is pretty cool.
Rated 7/10 (devil card, like butter, tattoo brand, gas attack, that guy!, stolen from The Rock, gun tattoo)
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