Occasionally a film comes along which throws caution to the wind – going straight out there to enjoy itself. Black Butler, the live action film of the bestselling Manga comic strip books, is one such film. Here is a high octane caper, about as near to a real life imagining of a cartoon as you could hope to get.
Following the death of his parents, the young Shiori Genpo (Ayame Gôriki) inherits control of his family’s toy manufacturing empire. Looked after by his personal butler Sebastian (Hiro Mizushima) Genpo would appear to live a life of luxury, free from the cares and trials of normal society. But there is more to Genpo and Sebastian’s ‘special’ relationship than-meets-the-eye – the depth of which could have life threatening consequences for one of them in particular.
There are more than a few similarities between the Black Butler and the Batman film franchise, not least that they share the same production company, Warner Brothers, as well as feature a central character who, after being orphaned at a young age, is taken under the wing of a benevolent manservant who may not be all he seems. Little is required from the two actors in the lead roles, in a world peopled by characters whose lives are as much about outward appearances, as it is about what lies beneath their perfect, cold, exteriors. More important here is the film’s ‘look’ on screen, which retains an air of originality in a hyper cartoon’ish fashion that will also remind the viewer of the big screen adventures of the above mentioned ‘Dark Knight’. Many aspects – such as its opening in a Gotham’esqu, rain lashed city, and Genpo’s stately home – bare similarities to the life of the ‘Dark Knight’ in everything but name. However directors Kentarô Ohtani and Kei’ichi Sato, along with cinematographer Terukuni Ajisaka, recreate enough of an air of Japanese wackiness that the production has a freshness which sets it apart from other comic book adaptations.
There is always the fear that films which represent violence in a cartoonish fashion will desensitise it, giving younger viewers the impression that it is hence ok. However, like Manga comics themselves, Black Butler is not aimed at a children’s audience.
In its transition from page to screen, the-powers-that-be saw fit to put the film’s source material through some fundamental changes. In the original Manga comic strips the character of Genpo is a boy called Ciel Phantomhive who, following his parent’s murder, inherits control of his family’s toy manufacturing empire. In the film the young heir (Genpo) is portrayed as a girl, forced to disguise herself as a boy after her parent’s death in order to run their business unhindered, in the male dominated, Japanese society into which she was born. That this secret is known in main only to her ever-watchful butler, adds a certain sexual tension to the mix which might not have otherwise been there. Here is a film saturated with dark undertones, which has changed the identity of its central character to introduce a love aspect. It also (one feels) is at times in danger of overemphasising its cartoon qualities to dilute aspects – including drug use and people-trafficking – which under normal circumstances may be unacceptable subject matters for its core demographic of impressionable teenagers.
Instead of the comic’s setting of Victorian London, the action transfers to a modern-day Japan of gleaming skyscrapers and Genpo’s über-expensive Versailles-like family estate. Though one could say no less cynical, the transposition of the production’s location – clearly to make the film appealing to an international audience – feels somehow more acceptable than the aforementioned gender-bending. You may debate as to whether filmmakers give younger cinema-goers enough credit where accepting period pieces is concerned. However one feels that where Black Butler is concerned its modern sensitivities add to rather than detract from the overall air of the surreal.
Deep and complex, Black Butler can be watched on many levels, all of which will appeal to those who wish to dig deeply beneath its glossy, comic strip veneer.