Revisiting Black Butler in the Year of Our Lord 2019 introduces an interesting conundrum. After a decade and an entourage of Ciel-in-a-Dress cosplays at conventions around the U.S., fans have moved on to the next goth kid favorite. The series will always hold a special spot next to the likes of Tokyo Ghoul and and Hellsing but with the nostalgia blinders off, it becomes easier to see Black Butler for what it was: a perfect potion of character types and aesthetic to entice Hot Topic kids. I say this with zero condescension. I would have fallen for Sebastian in a second if I’d been about five years younger when it premiered. As an adult viewer now and far less likely to swoon over fictional characters, the series’ appeal starts to wane.
Ciel Phantomhive is an orphan of impossible privilege. He’s extremely wealthy, has fantastic business acumen despite his young age, is a secret agent on behalf of the English monarchy, and has special powers thanks to a deal with a demon who is also is capable bodyguard and butler. He’s joined by an incompetent staff maintaining his manor who are also expert assassins. He doesn’t yet know who is behind the death of his parents but his business and political connections and allegiances with less savory members of society will unearth more clues to the violence committed against him as well as get him wrapped up in a multitude of supernatural mysteries.
Black Butler blends comedy and the macabre with mixed results. Its characters all have larger-than-life personalities, an anime trademark for the time period marked with silly antics, super-deformed faces, and yelling. Sebastian is the quintessential 2000s bishonen type: highly capable and possibly Do-S once you get your imagination involved and Ciel is very much tsundere but he’s also 12, so I’m just not touching that. Both he and Sebastian’s dynamic is, if you’ll excuse the term, edgy. It was considered a bit shocking at the time that this cute kid and his butler were up for offing people whenever the need arose. Hell, they break a dude’s legs and put in him an incinerator in the opening episode and that was for attempting to commit fraud.
The dark story arcs are hit or miss, sometimes aptly infusing his historical context like the ghosts of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York and other times wildly missing the mark. Reframing Jack the Ripper’s murderous crusade against sex workers as a jealous, childless woman taking revenge on women who sought abortions leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Then there are the arcs that just feel tonally too silly to be included at all, i.e. the curry contest. Black Butler is set on dancing with pretty dark themes while its attempt at levity keeps it squarely in a juvenile box. The show moonlights as darker horror but its window-dressing to make its characters seem more “dangerous” and thus appealing. Your mileage is going to hinge on whether Sebastian gets your heart-racing and if an overly anxious character constantly threatening to kill themselves reads “funny” or not to you. The various supernatural mystery shenanigans aren’t going to be enough to tide you over otherwise.
At this point I feel like I’ve taken a classic out to the backyard and just beat it to death, which might be a step too far. What it comes down to is I missed the nostalgia boat on this particular series and now, horror fan that I am, I’m too old for it. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t show it to my teen cousin as an anime entry point, but I wouldn’t pass it on to most of my older friends who don’t already have experience with the show.
If this is a series that holds a certain level of nostalgia for you, Aniplex‘s release includes enough style and extra goodies to earn a place on your shelf. The black chipboard box includes attractive gold foil accents on the edges with an unaltered picture of Ciel and Sebastian on the back in case you’d rather display the key art instead of the more minimalist black and gold front.
Also included is a special guidebook with character design art and short bios for all the key characters and a short episode guide. I’d like to have seen a few more pages dedicated to key art or something by creator Yana Toboso but it’s a nice addition nonetheless. The included art postcards are pretty nice; three are prints of the same art used for the disc jackets and the remaining six are Sebastian (the demon butler is on six in total) and Lau. Overall I’d say the presentation is nice, especially the box.