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Black Butler What the Butler Saw

Saturday 24th March 2012

Matt Kamen on the love that dares not speak its name.

Black Butler

Set in the midst of London in the late 1800s, Black Butler follows young Ciel Phantomhive, the sole inheritor of his parents’ estate following their brutal murders. At his lowest point, he makes a Faustian pact, gaining the services of the demonic Sebastian Michaelis as his personal butler and aide. Sebastian, a master of all manner of skills – from cooking and cleaning to dancing and fisticuffs –  assists Ciel in his tasks until the day his master has claimed vengeance on those responsible for his family’s suffering. Then, Ciel will surrender both his life and his immortal soul to the underworld, and Sebastian will be the one to slay him.

However, revenge will not come fast, as Ciel must also fulfil his familial obligation to the Crown, investigating all manner of unusual goings on in England and its principalities. One of the earliest cases for Master Phantomhive is investigating the murders of Jack the Ripper, precisely dating the series to exactly 1888.

First and foremost, Black Butler juxtaposes horror against polite decorum. As the series progresses, viewers are given an insight into the complex relationships and expectations of polite society in London at the time. While Ciel is promised to marry his own cousin Elizabeth (not uncommon amongst the aristocracy – marriage to a ‘commoner’ would be social suicide), the show devotes more time to male-male pairings. Sometimes this is played for laughs – a scene of Ciel being squeezed into a corset to go undercover is deliberately shot to imply Sebastian is giving him an entirely different kind of ‘service’ from behind, and a Grim Reaper is exposed as an exaggerated, camp stereotype who loudly and violently lusts after Sebastian.

There’s often a quieter, subtler examination of male closeness though. Though Ciel keeps all of his subjects at an appropriate professional distance, he clearly cares for them all, and his bond with Sebastian in particular grows from master/servant to companionship and perhaps feelings of more – even if, given the butler’s demonic nature, those feelings could never escalate. But if they could, would the rigid Victorian moral scale even allow it?

At the time of the series’ setting, male homosexuality was still a crime in the United Kingdom, and would be until almost a hundred years later until the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Female homosexuality has never been formally recognised by the law. However, upper class Victorians were a contrary bunch, their public personae a far cry from what they got up to behind closed doors.

In the 1880s, Oscar Wilde was high society’s darling, an advocate of the aesthetic movement and a noted speaker, poet, novelist and playwright. Despite being married with two sons, and adoring his family, the bisexual Wilde also had a penchant for men younger than himself, notably Lord Alfred Douglas and Canadian journalist Robbie Ross.

A scapegoat for the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour – the maximum sentence – on 25 May 1895, having been arrested just a month earlier following a libel case surrounding his proclivities. As a public figure, Wilde was fed to the sharks, though his behaviour was not unusual amongst men of all classes – only his openness over his many loves was. Wilde would move to France following his release, where he later died in 1900, his friend Reginald Turner at his side.

With such a vicious response to open male sexuality, it’s certainly unlikely that Ciel, Sebastian or anyone else in Black Butler could indulge their repressed feelings, at least not without extensive acts of subterfuge. For anyone who’d care to read between the lines of their relationship though, the complete series of Black Butler is on sale now!

The Black Butler Complete Box is out on Monday on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.


Black Butler Complete Series Box Set

was £39.99
Ciel Phantomhive is the most powerful boy in all of England, but he bears the scars of unspeakable suffering. Forced to watch as his beloved parents were brutally murdered, Ciel was subsequently abducted and violently tortured. Desperate to end his suffering, the boy traded his own soul for a chance at vengeance, casting his lot with the one person on whom he could depend: Sebastian, a demon Butler summoned from the very pits of hell.
Together, they'll prowl the darkest alleys of London on a mission to snuff out those who would do evil. They're a rare sight, these two: the Butler who dismembers with dazzling cutlery and the Young Master who carries the devil's marking. Rest assured that wherever they may be headed, it'll be one hell of a ride.



Black Butler

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 Part 2 - Back in Black

Matt Kamen on the satanic servants of Black Butler 2
The first series of Black Butler, based on Yana Toboso’s manga, was a parable on the cost of revenge, following the single-minded Ciel Phantomhive as he sought vengeance against his family's murderers. Ciel’s only aid came from his demonic butler, Sebastian Michaelis, to whom he paid the ultimate price. In contrast, the anime-original second series explores the price of greed and obsession. Introducing  the cruel and scheming Alois Trancy and his own malevolent manservant, Claude Faustus, the 12-episode run spotlights the machinations of the new young lord as he vies for the prestige of the Phantomhive name.


The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Helen McCarthy reviews Mami Sunada’s Ghibli documentary
Show, don't tell: the mantra of every writer and film-maker, and a particular challenge in documentary film. Every work has its own agenda, hidden or not: for director-writer-cinematographer-editor Mami Sunada, the challenge was immense. And she rises to it with unobtrusive magnificence.

The World of Hideaki Anno

Evangelion's director in conversation at TIFF
This year's Tokyo Film Festival also included a festival within a festival, an awesomely thorough programme of screenings and live appearances by the maker of Evangelion. It covered Anno’s career from his early amateur films to his live-action, to his work as an animator and anime director.

Ghost in the Shell Fashions

Helen McCarthy on Major Kusanagi – fashion icon
Ever since her debut, the heroine of Masamune Shirow's manga-turned-global-franchise Ghost In The Shell has been a high-end product. She's a cyborg combat specialist modified to look like a cross between a top fashion model and a porn star, in a world where most of the women we see are as objectified as in our own reality.

Naruto Music: Asian Kung Fu Generation

Tom Smith on the Britmaniacs behind the Naruto theme.
They’re so loud and proud that they insist on writing it all in caps: ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION – possibly one of Japan’s most important alternative rock acts. The group’s tenth single ‘After Dark’ makes for the energetic, guitar-heavy opening theme to the latest volume of Bleach, released in the UK this month, and the group’s sound might at first seem reminiscent of America’s indie scene dashed with elements of punk, it actually has a lot more in common with The Who, their generation, and the sea of British-based guitar heroes that have appeared since.
With all three of the Madoka Magica Movies available on DVD and Blu-ray now in the UK, it’s the perfect time to take a quick look at the franchise.

Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods (Trailer)

The first Dragon Ball movie in 17 years...
Released in the UK by Manga Entertainment.

Gareth Edwards: From Factory Farm to Godzilla

The director’s path from Sci-Fi London to Hollywood
“We pulled all our favourite moments from Akira and had this library of reference, so whenever we got stuck, or we ever felt like a sequence wasn’t inspired enough, or we didn’t know exactly how to give it that edge to made it feel as epic as we could, we would always thumb through the Akira imagery and suddenly get a wave of excitement or a new direction.”

Naruto Music: Totalfat

Tom Smith on Naruto’s rising punk-pop stars
‘The next hero in the Japanese rock scene!” boldly claims their press release. Someone certainly believes in Japan’s rising guitar act TOTALFAT, it’s not every day there’s an English language press release accompanying a theme song from Naruto (or most anime for that matter).
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