Revenge. A source of motivation that has led countless people throughout history to commit any number of dubious action to see their fury quenched. Be it deception, violence or even forging their lives down an intended path, those wrought with feelings of vengeance rarely escape the prison they build for themselves. But what of those who lack the means to accomplish their goals? Whilst some may allow their desires to fall away, there are those who would enlist external help. Help from those who reside in a world separate from normal society, from those who forgo their humanity and dwell in a realm of darkness.
For the first few years of her life, Shiori Genpo was just your average girl, who just so happened to be the daughter of one of the richest businessmen in the world (toymaking is a lucrative business apparently). However, her life was inextricably altered when her parent were shot before her very eyes. It was then that she promised revenge on those who destroyed her life, going so far as to sell her soul to a demon for the chance. Thus she returned to her former home under the guise of an illegitimate son, taking on the name Kiyoharu, with her devilish new butler in tow.
Well, now that the prologue is out of the way, let us start with the film at hand. A dangerous new serial killer has appeared in An Eastern Country (that’s as geographically specific as it gets), one whom has the police stumped. You see, the victims aren’t simply killed, but flash mummified. It’s just as horrible as it sounds. Thus, on top of her whole “quest for revenge” subplot, Kiyoharu must endeavour to crack the case and save the day…because she’s a Watchdog of the Queen you see, which is like a kind of extra judicial force that works directly for the Queen. Also the police hate them for some reason, though we’re really given no reason as to why in fact, other than a glancing reference to a fear that they reside secretly within nations. In fact the only example we see of the Watchdogs is Kiyoharu, who does nothing but try to end the Devil’s Curse (the name the media provides for the murders). Heck the few police officers we see are petty jerks, so this whole “law vs justice” concept is remarkably under developed.
As is so often the case with these types of stories, a hidden echelon of upper class society holds a clue to solving these murders. There’s even a secret rich person party, though that’s seen for all of tens seconds before the plot leads us into a hidden room full of evil exposition, courtesy of some of the dumbest villains of all time. Seriously, they just bring Kiyoharu into the room where they explain the intricacies of their plan. It wasn’t even a matter of convenience, they physically brought her into the room. Why? What purpose did it serve? None. Other than to push the story along for the audience. One villain even had a chance to kill Kiyoharu, with no threat of being caught, but they just kind of…didn’t. I honestly don’t know why and it makes even less sense following some later plot revelations.
Also, do not be fooled by my constant mentioning of the Devil’s Curse Murders, for the film does not share this same focus. Though the case is the motivation behind the film, the constant reminders that Kiyoharu sold her soul to Sebastian (the demon butler) for the chance at revenge serve to drown it out. It’s almost as if the movie can’t decide whether to focus on the drama at hand, or the overarching theme that drives the characters forward, resulting in a distracting premise and an immediate story that lacks impact.
That being said, there are positives to be found in the visual and audio aspects of the film. Owing to its position as a fictional world set in the near future, the city found within this enigmatic Eastern country is a composite of metropolitan elements. For the most part however, this wide range view of the city is reserved for a few establishing shots, with the majority of the film occurring in locations that are more akin to everyday life…if your life takes place around mansions, warehouses and illicit, underground clubs that is. Whilst most of these locations are shown in the dark of night, Kiyoharu’s mansion is always bathed in a very vibrant sunlight. Even when trying to sleep, light pours in through the windows. This provides the film one location wherein a sense of contentment may be felt, combining with the overall jovial nature of the Genpo family staff and contradicting the world around them. It is also the presence of these old fashioned servant positions that provide some of the more memorable fashions of the film. Formal suits, traditional maid wear and Sebastian’s trademark swallow tail suit add a sense of character to the background cast who, for the most part, dress in a more reserved manner. Even Kiyoharu spends a fair amount of time with a cane and top hat, along with a shirt that has more bow than collar. Though I’m honestly not sure how cutting your hair and wearing pants justifies her disguise as a boy. She even still has long, manicured fingernails. Is it really that easy to disguise one’s gender?
On the note of sound, the film provided a backtrack that added to the dramatic moments of the film, most notably when Sebastian shows his combat skills. What interested me more however, was the prevalence of spoken English throughout the film. As the country in the film is home to a number of foreign citizens and dignitaries, a large portion of the extras in the film were non-Japanese actors. This status also saw a majority of the in universe media presented in English, both spoken and written forms. Though it may seem like a very simple aspect, it is surprisingly rare to find a Japanese film that utilises foreign cast members, at least in my experience. Having this factor present just kind of sold the concept to me that this is a fictional city set outside of Japan, despite the real world origins of the film.
Jumping outside the film for a brief moment, this DVD has a fair amount of extra features, most of which present behind the scenes moments on set and with the cast. Though it may take away some of the magic, seeing how scenes are broken up really gives you an appreciation for what actor have to go through.
Black Butler possess an interesting story, but is unfortunately lacking in execution. Despite there being an immediate problem in need of solving, too much attention was drawn to the slow burning plot that has driven Kiyoharu throughout her life off screen. Of course, with all of this attention, it is no surprise when the situation develops direct relations to this revenge storyline. That being said, this almost heavyhanded foreshadowing does not allow the film to escape the scrutiny of coincidence and at the end of the day everything just feels too connected. Also, despite the constant mentioning, the fact that Sebastian is a demon feels almost undersold. He’s so polite and proper that he could just as easily be a former soldier and the story would march onwards in much the same way. He never does anything explicitly demonic, just a bunch of cool action stuff. So, when all is said and done, what we’re left with is a sort of supernatural, kind of crime story that never really commits to either. Which is a real shame, because there lies promise in both.
Only a Madman would sign a contract with a demon…no matter how charming they may be