(2014) Directed by Kentarô Ohtani and Kei'ichi Sato; Written by Tsutomu Kuroiwa; Based on the manga by Yana Toboso; Starring: Hiro Mizushima, Ayame Gôriki, Yûka, Mizuki Yamamoto and Masatô Ibu; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Humans are incapable of sharing sorrow as a group. They choose their own survival, even if it means damning others. Behold: this is a microcosm of society.” – Shinpei Kujo (Masatô Ibu)
The translation from manga to anime show to live action feature can be tricky. Witness Mushishi – despite its stellar origins, the live action film version never quite captured the depth or subtlety of the source material. In all fairness, it’s tough to condense something that was multiple volumes and multiple episodes into one coherent two-hour film. Superficial traits and thumbnail sketches substitute for depth, until the finished product plays like a “greatest hits” compilation. Also, after we’ve grown accustomed to the animated characters, attempts to duplicate them in live action invariably resemble cosplay. With this in mind, I kept my expectations in check, but remained hopeful. Considering the manga and excellent anime series, Yana Toboso’s story about a young aristocrat and his demonic butler was a deep well to draw upon.
Black Butler veers off on a different tangent from previous versions, including a gender reversal on one of the principal characters. Instead of Victorian England as the backdrop, the story takes place in a near-future alternate reality, where the sun never set on the British Empire. The location is never specified, other than “An Eastern Nation,” which we assume is ostensibly Japan. Kiyoharu* (Ayame Gôriki) is heir to the considerable Genpo family fortune, and the 17-year-old head of the Funtom toy company (sadly, we never see the fruits of the company’s labors). He also serves a secret role as “The Queen’s Guard Dog,” spying for the British government. Kiyoharu has his own guard dog, so to speak, in his trusty guardian Sebastian, known for the signature tagline, “I’m simply one hell of a butler” (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge). He’s a demon in human form, bound to protect his master from harm and assist him in his quest for vengeance against the individuals responsible for the death of his parents. Sebastian is clear, however, that his loyal service comes at a price, as he vows to consume Kiyoharu’s soul upon his death.
* In the anime series, he’s “Ciel.”
In an early scene, Sebastian makes short work of some yakuza thugs, breaking up a human trafficking ring, which proves to be only the tip of the iceberg for a greater mystery. Kiyoharu is ordered by the Queen to investigate the gruesome deaths of several high-ranking dignitaries, in which the victims undergo a sort of instant mummification. Digging deeper, the clues lead to Epsilon Pharmaceuticals, where its unscrupulous CEO Shinpei Kujo (Masatô Ibu) has produced a powerful drug with some unfortunate side effects. In one scene, he unleashes the drug on a group of wealthy, unwitting test subjects, with bloody results. Besides suffering from a conspicuous case of affluenza, these upper crust twits reveal their poor vocabulary – I imagine most folks would suspect Kujo was up to no good with a drug called “Necrosis.”
The best performance belongs to Hiro Mizushima for his depiction of the unflappable butler Sebastian. Mizushima plays the part with restraint and dry wit. His suave demeanor belies a sadistic streak worthy of his demonic lineage. He’s not above toying with his prey or taunting his master. Gôriki is good, if not exceptional as Kiyoharu, single-minded in his pursuit of vengeance. He harbors a secret of his own, which I won’t reveal here. Other characters, such as Genpo family steward Tanaka (Tarô Shigaki) and the undertaker (Louis Kurihara) are glossed over. By comparison, Rin (Mizuki Yamamoto), the klutzy maid with an ace up her sleeve, fares much better. She gets to have her moment in the sun in one improbable action-packed scene.
Black Butler suffers from a weak third act, which coasts on the good will of the previous two acts. The plot devolves into familiar action movie territory, with a race against the clock to stop a bomb (equipped with the de rigueur LED counter). What was once fresh in Goldfinger has been copied ad nauseum, to the point where we know exactly how this is going to turn out. Another tired element is the drug, and its deleterious effects. Exposure to Necrosis varies, depending on how important the character is to the plot. The drug either kills within minutes or lingers long enough for the duration of a protracted scene (or two). On the plus side, the filmmakers wisely chose to tone down the CGI effects. While CGI is employed for backgrounds and to stretch the physics in the action scenes, the film never seems bloated with spectacle. There are a few notable scenes that benefitted from an eye for visual flair (especially the colorful gardens surrounding Genpo Manor), although it would have been nice to see more such flourishes.
Black Butler confirmed and denied my suspicions about live action versions of popular anime series. It never quite escapes the shadow of the admittedly superior source material, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t possess its own charms. It’s best to go in with an open mind and expectations that are lowered a notch or two. Black Butler might not change your perception of a manga/anime adaptation, but it works well enough. To someone who’s uninitiated to the Black Butler universe, it’s possible many of the quibbles won’t matter. And if it encourages rather than discourages digging deeper to read the manga or see the anime series, that’s not a bad thing, indeed.