Based on the popular manga written and illustrated by Yana Toboso, Black Butler is the animated story of Lord Ciel Phantomhive and his upscale life in the outskirts of Victorian-era London. Ciel is all of 12 years old and seems to have a pretty good life: he's got a humungous mansion, he's the heir to the Funtom toy empire and he's even got a handful of faithful servants at his command. Unfortunately, his parents were murdered several years ago...but instead of building a Batcave and fighting crime, Ciel traded his soul to a demon in exchange for vengeance. His most faithful and skilled butler, Sebastian Michaelis, is the demon entrusted to carry out this task...and when his job is complete, Ciel's life will effectively be over.
Sounds like one big gloom-fest, but Black Butler somehow manages to be pretty funny and light-hearted at times. Even so, it's the bursts of demonic imagery and horror that keep Black Butler sharp during this 24-episode season. Gothic overtones play a major part in the series' visual design, which often favors luxurious backgrounds, a subdued color palette and a diffused appearance that's often aided by tasteful CGI effects. The music's pretty impressive too, except for the crappy theme song. What else is new, right?
But it's the characters that make or break shows of all genres, and Black Butler has no shortage of good ones. Comic relief is occasionally handled by other members of the Phantomhive estate, including Baldroy (a well-meaning but overzealous cook), Finnian (the destructive gardener) and Mey-Rin (a vision-impaired maid who longs for Sebastian). The comedy gets a little less evident as this first season wears on...and this is usually a fair trade, since Black Butler has no shortage of great villains and deliciously evil layers of revenge below its surface. Ciel and Sebastian are undoubtedly the focal point of the series, though, and their curiously organic relationship is almost always compelling enough to anchor it.
Voice acting is uniformly excellent, whether you stick with the original Japanese track or lean towards the English dub. Anime fans are usually firm in their habits...and as much as I favor the original language tracks of all movies and TV shows, Black Butler presents quite a tempting alternative. This is undoubtedly due to the series' distinctively British backdrop, which pairs nicely with the regional dialects featured in the English language track. We don't get an exact translation of the Japanese script (if the subtitles are accurate, of course), but the series' stately dialogue often flows even more smoothly. I'd imagine that even the strongest compliments might not sway anime's most stubborn purists, but trust me: this is a fantastic dub that deserves your attention.
In any case, Black Butler's debut season offers a unique and engaging experience during the bulk of its 24-episode lifespan, providing you don't mind a bit of yaoi mixed in with all that demonic business. Stand-alone episodes are paired with a handful of major and minor story arcs, while this first season culminates with a rather definitive ending that somehow paved the way for a second act. FUNimation presents this first season of Black Butler as an all-inclusive Combo Pack that includes four DVDs, three Blu-Rays and a somewhat hefty price tag (but anime fans should be used to that, right?). Featuring a solid technical presentation and a handful of assorted bonus features for good measure, there's definitely enough meat here to make Black Butler worth seeking out.
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Black Butler: Season One looks good from start to finish. The show's diffused visual style ensures that some sequences aren't razor-sharp (in fact, they're only a step above "upconverted DVD" quality), but this is a stylistic choice and perfectly acceptable. Black Butler's subdued color palette is rendered nicely, black levels are consistent and the sporadic CGI effects look great. The included DVDs look well above average for standard definition, and both formats show no obvious signs of digital manipulation, compression artifacts, pixellation or other digital eyesores. In short, it's a perfectly good presentation that fans should appreciate.
The audio is also quite consistent overall...and though I rarely say such a thing, both options are just about equal in quality and effectiveness. Both the original Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 dub are included here; each of them offer clean, crisp dialogue and strong music cues. Obviously, the 5.1 dub is more enveloping, but that's not all: FUNimation really did a fine job with the ADR, and the British accents suit the series' location quite nicely. Purists may want to stick with the original Japanese track, but these are both excellent in their own right. English subtitles are included for translation purposes only, which is annoying but understandable.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen above (in DVD format), the menu designs are smooth and extremely easy to navigate. Each episode has been divided into roughly half a dozen chapters, no obvious layer changes were detected and a number of forced trailers must be skipped before the main menu loads. The packaging is practical and efficient, as this 7-disc Combo Pack is housed in a multi-hinged keepcase (twice the width of a standard Blu-Ray) with attractive double-sided artwork. One promotional insert is also tucked inside.
The extras lead off with four Audio Commentaries
during "His Butler, Able", "His Butler, Merrymaking", "His Butler, in an Isolated Castle" and "His Butler, Engaging Servants". These laid-back but informative sessions feature key voice actors (some of which are in character), ADR engineer Kevin Leasure, series director Ian Sinclair and producer Colleen Clinkenbeard. Though I'd have appreciated more input from artists and designers, there's still some good information presented during three of these four commentaries.
Other bonus features include a short but well-rounded Season 1 Overview (1080p, 23:58) hosted by Tanaka, which basically serves as a skewed bundle of Cliffs Notes. It's odd that a feature like this is here (as opposed to, say, the Season 2 collection), but I suppose it's better than nothing. We also get a Bonus OVA Episode entitled "His Butler, Performer" (1080p, 26:39), which originally aired three days after the season finale), as well as three text-free Opening/Closing Songs (1080p, 1:30 each). Like the episodes themselves, optional English subtitles have been included for translation purposes only.
Black Butler has an interesting premise, a unique atmosphere and several great characters...and more often than not, this formula gets the job done. This full-length debut season doesn't take long to get rolling; once it does, the good episodes firmly outweigh the weaker ones. This seven-disc Combo Pack serves up all 24 episodes on two different formats, paired with a great technical presentation and a few thoughtful bonus features. Anime enthusiasts should find Black Butler worth owning, but casual viewers might want to rent it (or read the manga) first. Recommended, if you can find a good price.
NOTE: The above captures were taken from the included DVDs and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two in his spare time. He also enjoys slacking off, lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.