Dark and dirty in the streets and stately homes of Victorian England, Black Butler flirts with demons on far more levels than the theological. It’s the kind of series that charms the viewer into a false sense of security with slapstick comedy, food porn and sprinklings of ecchi until, somehow, we’re locked in face to face with our encrusted wounds, and the desires we hide.
It’s Ciel Phantomhive who leads us there, the child benefactor of the Funtom toymaking company once owned by his father. His father who died beside his mother in a fire at the family manor. A fire he knows was set by people who meant malice; he knows, because they tortured him. And then they killed him, too.
Resurrected by a black magic pact to exact his vengeance, Ciel returns from the valleys between life and death with a butler named Sebastian Michaelis. He exists to serve and protect his master, by any means required of him, until Ciel can find his murderers and mete out their karmic humiliation. His corporeal body, which bears a striking resemblance to Ciel’s father, is merely a shell formed as a means to that end, a puppeteer’s illusion.
The complex bond akin to blood between the two is an intoxicating simulacrum of the corruption, debauchery and social prejudices of the Victorian era. The evils they encounter as our gracious queen’s appointed shield may be bound by the supernatural, but are always informed by the realities of murder, human trafficking, animal cruelty, sexual perversion and abuse. In maintaining self-restraint with its gothic darkness, the series leaves room for viewers to approach these themes, critique and feel for them, while healing where each might have touched their lives. One of the ways it’s brave enough to create this respectful distance is through humour.
Grim reaper Grell Sutcliffe is Black Butler’s jester, but mangaka Yana Toboso wrote him as a scarlet banner against the era’s sexual shaming, redacted by the frills and ruffles of Victoriana and still lingering through the modern day. He’s up for it with anyone, and he’s theatrically framed for us to applaud him as he re-enacts Romeo and Juliet in a rooftop tangle with Sebastian, death scythe poised to drag him back to the otherworld. His every move is performance, smile strung out wide like the sickle of the moon that overlooks London, all bathed in its dispassionate glow. He, like Ciel and Sebastian, is tragically doomed to be loathed in hushed tones by those who damn them for what they are.
Each character has an emotional realness exposed in wit and absurdity, and tempered by the shadows of all left unsaid. The housekeeping staff of Phantomhive Manor begin as full-blown cartoons, but these deceptions become unveiled as the mockeries our pain and fear makes of us. Black Butler is a story for outcasts and underdogs, told by the outcasts and underdogs. Its raunchy attitude and pitch-black tomfoolery lifts us out of self-pity, and allows us to revel in being the freak masks we use to hide our hurt.