Review: 'Black Butler' a whimsical Japanese Faust

Posted at 07/29/14 9:14 PM

"Black Butler" is a popular Japanese manga series that my daughter and friends liked very much. So when a movie version came out exclusive in SM Cinemas this week, they were all excited to go see it.

I have not read Yana Toboso's manga "Kuroshitsuji" yet, so I felt I needed to see the film first myself before she does to see if it is okay for her age group. The local film classification board had rated it R-13, but they had not been entirely consistent the way they classify films per appropriate age.

The beginning narration sets "Black Butler" in a near future time, when the world was divided into East and West. The West is headed by a Queen who has "watchdogs" to keep her enemies at check. In such a world, a "Demon's Curse" killer is going around assassinating diplomats by some sort of gruesome instant mummification process. Alarmed, the Queen chooses an orphaned 17-year old toy company magnate, Earl Genpo Kiyoharu, as her "watchdog" to get to the bottom of this matter.

The young Earl is actually a girl Shiori pretending to be a boy in order to secretly exact revenge on her parents' killers. She has under her service a butler of many skills, Sebastian, who does whatever his young master wills him to. It turns out that Sebastian's talents are because of his demonic nature, for which the Earl will have to pay for with her soul.

I learned that this film had made major changes from its source because the Kiyoharu in the manga is a 13-year old boy. Making Kiyoharu a teenage girl also made it possible for a love angle to develop between master and servant, which of course was not present at all in the manga. The original setting should have been Victorian England, but all we see here are the Victorian-looking Genpo Manor and its beautifully manicured and colorful gardens.

The opening sequence alone where Sebastian takes on an entire warehouse full of gangsters only with his butter knife sets the fantastical and whimsical tone for the whole film. There would be a number of fight scenes, murder scenes, death scenes, as well as scenes of drug abuse, and the disturbing demonic subplot, which would automatically make this film rated R-16 in my book. In between these violent scenes though, the film's momentum dips a lot with long talky explanatory scenes.

The lead actors playing Sebastian and Kiyoharu are both with that androgynous-look which seems to be the current rage among the younger generation. Hiro Mizushima looks like he is enjoying his black coattails and cool tricks and stunts as Sebastian. Ayame Goriki does not really look convincing as the boy Kiyoharu, but she looks cute with her eyepatch and one blue eye. She gives her character the necessary angst.

There was even more campy acting from the actors playing the unnaturally clumsy maid Rin (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Kiyoharu's unnaturally sweet guardian, his Aunt Hanae (Yuka). All the one-dimensional villains they faced also come from the same school of exaggerated histrionic acting.

Overall, this is a confused film with a rather convoluted plot which did not have a clear direction that it wanted to take. If we were to only judge it with this film, it does make me wonder what those fans of the original manga loved in it. This film alone is occasionally entertaining anyway but it most probably could have been done or adapted much better than what came out now. 4/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."