Review - 'Black Butler' 2015 live-action film version
NOTE - SPOILER ALERT!!!
I'll say it from the outset - 'Black Butler' (Kuroshitsuji) is my favourite amine series. Based on the manga by Yana Toboso, it tells the story of an aristocratic boy, Ciel Phantomhive, whose parents are murdered and who makes a contract with a demon, to trace and take revenge upon the killers in exchange for his soul - and (because this is Victorian England) the demon assumes the physical form and identity of Sebastian Michaelis, a devilishly perfect butler . . . This is a over-the-top version of 19th century London, full of bizarre extravagant supernatural characters, equally bizarre human ones, grotesque crimes, and the whole story is overlaid by the constant theme of Sebastian yearning to devour his master's soul whilst playing the role of the impeccable servant. And yes, it's stuffed full of outrageous impossibilities and anachronisms, but it's cleverly-written with plenty of unexpected plot-twists, and within its own world it all makes perfect sense . . .
'Black Butler' has a large and devoted following (in Japan there are stage versions, and even a planned musical) so of course it was only a matter of time before someone thought to do a live action film . . . And here it is . . .
The first and most obvious issue is that the setting has been changed - from Victorian England to a sort of present day location in an un-named country that is almost-but-not-quite Japan. I suppose there are practical reasons for this - a lack of English actors with both the linguistic and acting skills to hold down major roles, and probably the cost of re-creating the amazing and complex world of the anime - but it still felt awkward, the two worlds didn't really fit comfortably together and a lot of explanation was required to tell how the Phantomhive family re-located and changed its name. Then the teenage boy Ciel has been replaced by a girl, who thanks to a complicated plot-device still has to dress as a boy (in a Victorian aristocratic style, of course) and she is a few years older than Ciel was. Again, I can see that there were practical reasons for this - a male demon lusting after the soul of a young boy was fairly near the edge of acceptability in the anime, in live-action it might have been a bit too much. But still, if two of the fundamental parts of the story have to be changed at the outset, there's the question of whether it was worth making the film at all . . .
Well, it could have worked. It looked good, and some favourite characters turned up in new and interesting ways - I loved the Undertaker's steampunk/visual kei makeover . . . .
. . . . although to anyone who doesn't know the anime or the manga, that scene would have seemed totally bewildering. Other characters were absent (I was longing throughout the film for Grell to put in an appearance, but he stayed away!) and others are barely recognisable, although I enjoyed spotting the various references to the original.
And then there was the plot, and the scriptwriting . . . This was the main problem with the film. As I mentioned, the original version was cleverly-written and tightly-plotted - this version could have done with a couple more drafts to sort out the problems with the script. Why was Sebastian always being sent away to do other things when our hero was about to embark on something potentially perilous? Presumably so the demon could then dash back to carry out a dramatic last-minute rescue! Then there was a fatal drug that took effect at random but convenient times depending on how much dialogue and action was required beforehand, and until the very last minute, nobody seemed particularly bothered by the fact that a Very Large Bomb was about to go off . . . And then there was the whole issue of a mysterious event described in the subtitles as the 'exorcism' (I couldn't catch the Japanese term that was used). Exactly what it was, or what was being exorcised, was never explained - it was described as a Big International Event, with all sorts of World Leaders and important people attending for reasons that were never made clear, and it was shown as what appeared to be a Roman Catholic church service with a multi-racial, multi-age congregation - essentially, it was just one big clunky plot-device designed to provide something for the aforementioned Very Large Bomb to threaten . . .
So to conclude - a much-loved manga & anime, shoe-horned into an unconvincing new setting, with a few enjoyable parts, and plot-holes big enough to sink the Cutty Sark . . . If you've never encountered 'Black Butler' before, the film might not make much sense. If you're already a fan, you'll want to see this as a novelty, and then go straight back to the original!