Set to come out in a couple weeks, the first part of Black Butler promises to be one of FUNimation's more prominent titles. The franchise has made waves with a series of manga available since 2006 and the 24 episode series from 2008 has even garnered a second season in Japan. With 13 episodes on two DVDs, the first release gives more than enough insight as far as what to expect.
The show takes place in Victorian era London and tells the tale about a young boy named Ciel Phantomhive. Ciel isn't your typical kid. He's a cutthroat noble who is the head of the Phantomhive estate. His parents died two years prior to the show's beginning and he stands as the sole heir to their riches and business. It's ironic that the Phantomhives are in the toy market, because Ciel isn't the kind of kid who would play with toys. He's dark and brooding, and isn't afraid to order the death of someone who belittles him or stands in his way. And just who does he order to dish out the pain? Why, his butler of course!
Sebastian is the Phantomhive estate's head butler. He's charming, calm in demeanor, and always soft spoken. Behind his words, however, are veiled threats, and he constantly refers to himself as "One hell of a butler", which pretty much hits the nail on the head. You see, Sebastian is actually a demon disguised as a human. He has formed a pact with Ciel and will serve him faithfully until the inevitable day where he will kill Ciel. It's a dark and tragic relationship between the master and servant, and one always gets the sense of danger when the two are together. Still, Ciel uses Sebastian to further his own personal goals, and he considers the demon to be a tool in his disposal.
Joining Sebastian and Ciel are a host of other personalities that live at the estate or frequently visit. These characters simply add flavor and humor to the series, while the main action focuses on the aforementioned duo.
In this first release, the series doesn't really move the needle in terms of development. It also doesn't give viewers much of a chance to glean where things are headed either. Instead, the show spends its time dawdling about with some episodic adventures and mini arcs. Some of these are important to the series as a whole, but by and large they more or less feel like unnecessary filler. Even in these moments Black Butler is still entertaining, but I can't help feel that if the focus of the show were a little tighter we'd get so much more out of the material. Then again it's a smallish shonen show, so I suppose it's to be expected to some degree.
What's not expected, however, is the light yaoi theme. Ciel often finds himself in Sebastian's arms, Sebastian isn't shy to get close to Ciel's face, and there's even a naked guy as part of the cast. It's a bit off-putting if you're not a fan of yaoi, and it's worth noting that it's part of the atmosphere.
Ultimately Black Butler is a show that is about as good as it's not. The dark tone of the series is engaging, and I appreciated the way the characters and storylines played with it. Sebastian is an interesting character as well and his relationship with Ciel is a strong force for the show. It's just a little disappointing that the anime squanders some of its time with pointless storylines and diversions rather than being a finely tuned piece. I'm interested enough to check out the next installment, but merely recommend the show in the meantime.
Black Butler is presented on DVD with its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. The series looks good with bright colors and clean animations. The color palette also strikes some nice contrast between its characters. Some softness is present at times and there's a little blocking, but overall the show is pleasing to the eyes. I appreciated the Victorian era designs the show uses and the gothic nature will definitely appeal to some, if not most, in the audience.
English 5.1 and Japanese 2.0 are what you're going to find here for audio. The Japanese track is the far better of the two, though the English is serviceable for viewers who prefer an American take on things. Music plays a somewhat important part in the show, as it often sets the darker mood, but the rock-like riffs at the start and end definitely throw off the period aspect of the series. Optional subtitles are included, of course.
For bonus features there are a couple audio commentaries, some trailers, clean animations, and a profile on the music.
Black Butler has a decent showing in its first release and what action is here definitely entertains. I also appreciated the dynamic between Ciel and Sebastian, and the mystery surrounding both characters is a driving force for the show. With that being said the series wastes a lot of its time early on and it takes a while for things to get going. Maybe the second release will correct some of that, but for the time being this one merely gets a recommendation. Check it out when you have the time, but it's not a "run out and buy" kind of show.