Review: Black Butler: Complete First + Second Seasons

Ciel Phantomhive is a somber young earl with sophisticated tastes. The eyepatch that obscures his right eye hides more than just a pool of shimmering sapphire – it conceals a dark and terrifying secret that will eventually destroy Ciel and all that he stands for. And his loyal servant Sebastian Michaelis? Well, let’s just say he’s one hell of a butler. Funimation’s gothic tale of aristocracy and supernatural elements Black Butler: Complete Seasons 1 + 2, now available as two exquisite Blu-ray/DVD combos, hits a home run with its masterful blend of drama, black comedy, and mystery that weave an addictive tale of a boy and his domestic servant.

The young earl Phantomhive, having lost his parents only years ago in a bizarre tragedy, has grown up cold, calculating, and dead-set on seeking revenge. There’s not a shred of compassion to be found behind those dazzling blue eyes; only anger and sorrow on the left, and the binding contract he formed with demon Sebastian Michaelis on the right.

The seal embodies all that’s sacred between the two parties. Sebastian, for all intents and purposes, belongs to Ciel for the life of the contract. Once Ciel has uncovered the mystery of who murdered his parents and made a mockery of the Phantomhive name, the demonic butler he calls an ally right now is given clearance to devour his soul.

Knowing that, Ciel’s certainly made of stronger stuff than most of us, but in the end that’s what makes Black Butler so intriguing. The silent rage of Ciel combined with the occasional weakness and fragility he so fears to exhibit juxtaposed with Sebastian’s subtle darkness creates tension that even the greatest of the Grim Reapers (not counting bumbling Grell Sutcliff, of course) would have difficulty cutting through. Will Sebastian truly stay Ciel’s faithful servant until the end? And is Ciel’s soul so tempting that a cunning and beautiful demon would willingly demean himself, taking up the mantle of a mere butler, knowing he’ll receive the diminutive earl’s tender soul in exchange?

Aside from the brilliant, chilling dynamics (and are-they-or-aren’t-they romantic moments seen in interactions between Ciel and Sebastian) a colorful cast of characters deliver satisfying moments of comedy and intrigue. Ciel serves as the Queen of England’s “guard dog,” tasked with solving crimes of the supernatural sort for the good of the land, and with the aid of Sebastian thwarts the well-intentioned plans of Scotland Yard, or the Metropolitan Police Service. With the help of Sebastian, Ciel is often able to get to the root of problems the Yard simply glosses over or doesn’t consider, leading to often hilarious tensions between the two parties.

The Phantomhive servants offer well-paced humorous filler episodes as well, with former test subjects, assassins, and soldiers rounding out the list of help for the prestigious family. Some particularly memorable shenanigans involve the trio who, in a bid to please one of Ciel’s more prestigious clients as the heir to the Funtom Toy Company, completely destroy dinner and its accoutrements, left to Sebastian to rectify. It’s best to savor the laughs when they’re served up in Black Butler, as they run few and far between – it’s a dark ride from start to finish, especially once you reach the series’ second season, split into thirteen episodes as opposed to the first series’ 26.

Season two offers an insightful look into a brand new threat to the Phantomhive name, as well as Ciel’s livelihood himself. Answers from the first season are answered with swift closure and completeness that stray from the manga series, but offer fan service and a rather unexpected end to the series that you won’t soon forget. While it does manage to leave some rather messy plot enigmas less than tidy, it’s still a serviceable follow-up to the first season.

Melancholy strings and aristocratic, somber melodies accompany clean, bright visuals. This is a great-looking anime. And standout performances from Brina Palencia (Ciel) and J. Michael Tatum (Sebastian) are both convincing and real – Sebastian’s distinct, regal English accent is swoon-worthy. And Palencia’s role as Ciel highlights the selfish ambition of a young earl quite nicely. Both fantastic efforts from the dub actors, comparable to the excellent Japanese track. Even after hearing Tatum in a recent hit, Eden of the East, it seems Sebastian Michaelis is the role he was truly meant to play.

Funimation’s Black Butler Complete Season Blu-ray/DVD combo sets span the first season’s 26 spellbinding episodes and Black Butler II’s 13 suspenseful vignettes, leading up the series’ shocking conclusion. Six additional OVA episodes accompany the second season; one-shot tales that supplement your first (or third, or fourth) viewing, and gorgeous cases accompany each box should you wish to compact both into one smaller package to display on your shelf. It’s a mournful, hypnotically gorgeous tale of vengeance, redemption, and even love in the strangest of places that will no doubt linger long after you’ve rushed through both seasons. For one hell of a butler story, Black Butler, or Kuroshitsuji, is your best bet.

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