Matt Kamen on Black Butler, the Satanic Jeeves
Ciel Phantomhive seems a very privileged boy, especially for an orphan living in Victorian London. Inheritor of the family manor and business, the internationally successful Funtom toy company, Ciel is a young man of considerable means. But the death of his parents was no accident, and he craves vengeance on those responsible – so much so that he offers his soul for the servitude of Sebastian Michealis. A Satanic Jeeves, Sebastian is perfect in every way, a master of any domestic, social or martial task that is asked of him. He is, as he likes to boast, one hell of a butler, often fulfilling the duties of Ciel’s inept staff, and 100% committed to helping his master achieve his goals. Once he has, Ciel agrees that Sebastian will kill him, claiming his soul for the underworld. But before that comes to pass, Ciel must also fulfil his family obligation to Queen Victoria, investigating the strange crimes that plague London Town – including a certain Jack the Ripper….
Black Butler debuted in manga form in 2006, the first ongoing series from creator Yana Toboso following her short work Rust Blaster. Those were only her mainstream works– the talented 27-year old also published “boys’ love” manga under the pseudonym “Roku Yanao” (Rock Ya Now – get it?).
However, Toboso’s most notable visual influence in Black Butler is her love of Victoriana and Neo-Victorian styles. The Japanese obsession with such refinements dates back to the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the musical genre of Visual Kei started to take off in the 1990s that the trend really took off – a movement that took ornate Victorian fashions and blended both male and female styles into a rock-infused androgyny, paraded around in music videos and elaborate on-stage performances, and soon in numerous Gothic Lolita and Steampunk fashions.
As such clothing styles grew in popularity in Japan, they generated a fascination with the social behaviour of Victorian times, particularly that of high society with its outward image of propriety and decorum. To a Japanese audience, nothing exemplified this more than the English aristocracy’s staff of butlers and maids – and the latter have crept into manga and anime with incredible regularity. The Victorian London setting of Black Butler allowed Toboso to engage all of these elements at once – elaborate clothes, tense master-servant relationships, and ornate backgrounds, with a supernatural twist befitting the city’s dark and foreboding gas-lit streets. It all combines to make one hell of a show…
Black Butler 1.1 is available now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.