Black Butler

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/13/14 12:26:10

"Not the manga, but still devilishly cool."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: One of the women in front of me was throwing her hands up roughly every ten minutes or so during this movie, and I wondered off the top of my head whether she was just having a general "what the hell is this thing?" reaction to a movie that always has some other crazy thing to offer its audience or a more specific "what the hell have they done to my favorite manga because it's not supposed to be like this?" one. I gather the film takes some pretty extreme liberties with the source material, and maybe if I'd read more than a few chapters in Yen Press's brief attempt at a weekly Japanese-style manga anthology, I'd be upset too. But I haven't, and I'm not, because this thing is just gloriously daffy.

It features 17-year-old heroine Shiori Genpo (Ayame Gouriki), who cross-dresses as her illegitimate brother Kiyoharu so that she can inherit the family fortune and title in an alternate 2020 where there is still a powerful aristocracy - some members of whom, like Shiori, serve as secret agents for the Western Queen. Her butler Sebastian (Hiro Mizushima) is a demon who protects her and serves as a partner so that he may someday consume the soul she sold to him as a child in order to escape and bring the men who kidnapped her and killed her parents to justice (the world believes Shiori to be dead). Almost immediately after breaking up a human-trafficking ring, "Kiyoharu" is assigned a new mission: Discover who is behind the spontaneous mummifications happening throughout the city. Aunt Hanae (Yuka) may be able to get her "nephew" entree to the club that seems to be the epicenter, and Shiori's investigations not only discover links between new drug "necrosis" and arms dealer Youzo Shinozaki (Ichirota Miyagawa), but that someone else involved, Shinpei Kuzo (Masato Ibu), may also have been part of Shiori's kidnapping ten years ago.

Some fantasy adventures are content to insert one new thing into the familiar, but between original manga-ka Yana Toboso and screenwriter Tsutomu Kuroiwa, Black Butler throws one thing after another onto the pile, and why not? Once you've got the demon in there and made the decision to change the setting from Victorian England to an alternate reality (which made it much less weird to shoot with a Japanese cast), there's not much end to what you can do. What's most surprising about going this direction, though, is that both the writers and directors Kentaro Otani & Keiichi Sato opt not to take the frequent winking "isn't this all so wacky?" attitude most pulp mash-ups go for; this is a surprisingly intense action movie for being so downright weird, though it stops well short of making the whole thing a joyless trudge through ever-darker territory.

A good chunk of this feeling comes from the look of the film, a slick modern world with anachronistic flourishes. The costumes are a particular highlight; many of the outfits are neo-Victorian frillery with a Matrix-inspired color scheme, and while the first impression is of a cosplay gold mine, they're actually building a foundation, with severe cuts and a formality that says "serious business" even as the exaggeration in the top hats and giant bows is just a little bit playful. It's a conscious but not winking bit of fetishization, such that fight scenes which would normally have nasty arterial spray seem to skip it in order to avoid getting red on all those pretty clothes, and other bits of Victoriana get fit in around them, such as exorcisms and séances being social events.

Atmosphere will only take a movie so far, so it's good that what's going on in front of that background is enough to get Black Butler the push it needs in the right direction. The script is a bit of an odd beast; for all that it is different from its source from the setting to the main character (apparently a boy somewhat younger than Shiori in the manga) to the resolution of some mysteries, it blows past explanations at times, seeming to rely on a bit of familiarity. It goes for the strange and the audience should mostly be able to keep up, at least until the action sequences kick in. Those are not bad at all - they're fast-paced with a hint of superhuman capability, and a little eye-opening for how viciously both sides will escalate to no-holds-barred without much consideration of bystanders - and kind of a blast to watch, even when they are the moments when you can see the filmmakers don't quite have a Hollywood budget to tear the world they've built down.

They do have a mostly fine cast, although there are places where the viewer might want a little more, even if it's not clear whether from the story or actor. Ayame Gouriki, for instance, winds up playing one of those kick-ass action heroes who isn't a whole lot else. We never get much sense of a girl pretending to be a boy, or that she's played this part for so much of her life that Kiyoharu is more real than Shiori, much less that she's playing another part on secret missions. If she supposed to be no-nonsense in all situations, it's a good performance, but why would filmmakers go that way?

Fortunately, Hiro Mizushima is around to steal every scene that's not nailed down. He gets the snazzy uniforms, flowing hair, and fight scenes that involve killing with table utensils, but most importantly, he seems to realize that Sebastian is often coyly described as "devilish" because that sounds more crush-worthy than "demonic", even if that may be more accurate. So he plays up the sexy hyper-capability and charm, and a little wink as he talks to cats, but the smirk that's never far from the surface is a reminder that he really doesn't give a damn about people or humanity. Protecting Shiori is a job he hasn't quite gotten bored with yet, and you'd better not count on her making a crack in his gleeful amorality.

"Black Butler" isn't perfect, but I'm only half-kidding when I tell folks that it's the best Tim Burton movie in a couple of decades despite his having nothing to do with it in the slightest (although him doing a remake with Johnny Depp as Sebastian might not be an awful idea). The story is kind of bonkers, the look is as much trendy as truly original, but the execution is good enough that if the finale implies the start of a series, my hope is for later installments to be as fantastically strange as the first.

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