ASIAN FILM - Article
14:34 - 31st March 2015, by NEO Staff

The Gentleman’s Gentleman

Good help is so hard to find. Some people will pay an arm and a leg for quality service. In the case of Kiyoharu Genpo, the cost of acquiring the loyalty of butler extraordinaire Sebastian was one immortal soul.

Black Butler is based upon the best selling manga by Yana Toboso that has shifted over 18 million copies worldwide. Producer Shinzo Matsuhashi, the driving force behind the live action film, felt two directors would be required to realise Black Butler on the screen. The first man for the job, Kentaro Otani, has credits that include the excellent live action adaptation of shoujo favourite Nana. He was placed in charge of directing the actors. Simultaneously, Keiichi Sato, best known for his work on anime including KARAS and Tiger & Bunny, directed the visual effects and oversaw the film’s design. “The two-director system allows us to cover all the elements of the movie from various angles, and ensures that we miss nothing,” says Otani. “It makes it easier for us to think of the project from a more comprehensive perspective.”

One Hell Of A Butler

The new film makes several major changes to the details of Yana Toboso’s tale. The manga is set in Victorian England and the lead character is a young boy called Ciel Phantomhive, who makes a Faustian pact with a demon called Sebastian – in return for Ciel’s soul, Sebastian will help the lad track down the people who murdered his parents. Together, boy and butler work as agents of the crown, tackling criminals and supernatural menaces in the dark shadows of London.

However, the movie is set in the near future in a world split between east and west. Ciel has become Shiori Genpo, a teenage girl pretending to be a boy and calling herself Kiyoharu. By day, Kiyoharu is the head of Funtom Company, but she is secretly an agent of the Queen of the West, acting as one of her Watchdogs, and with her lethal manservant Sebastian she is ordered to investigate a series of bizarre murders.

“If the film were set in the nineteenth century in the UK, it would be impossible for Japanese actors to play the characters,” says producer Matsuhashi, who only considered one person suitable to play Sebastian – Hiro Mizushima – who was in the live action version of Beck in 2010. To cut a suitably striking figure as the demonic butler, Mizushima undertook a strict training and diet regime, both to prepare for the film’s action scenes and to make his face and figure as lean and severe as possible.

“Not only did Mizushima make no mistakes during the shooting of the action scenes, but every movement he made during those scenes was suffused with the character of Sebastian. Whoever watches the movie will think him graceful and beautiful – I was most impressed,” says action director Takahito Ouchi.

To capture Sebastian’s otherworldliness, Mizushima avoided blinking during takes. “I felt that this was a person who communicated more with his eyes than with words,” he says. “I wanted to give meaning to even the smallest flicker of his eyes.”

Boys And Girls

Ayame Goriki, who plays Kiyoharu, has some experience in live action adaptations – in 2013 she played Jun The Swan in the Gatchaman movie. “Ciel in the comic is a beautiful handsome boy. There is no way I can imitate him. But I have tried to pay attention to his clothing and his mannerisms,” she says. But despite her efforts, there’s no mistaking Kiyoharu for a boy – not much of a surprise, given that Goriki is a model as well as an actress.

The decision to make the character Japanese rather than English makes sense for a Japanese domestic production, but swapping a pre-pubescent boy for an attractive young woman may well have been to avoid the more unsavoury aspects of the original story. The boundaries of what is acceptable can be stretched more easily in a medium like manga, created with pen and paper, rather than a film, created with real, live human beings. Sebastian is positively predatory in his hunger for Ciel in the manga and anime, where his dialogue is littered with innuendo. The climax of the original, when Sebastian finally collects on his deal with Ciel, is downright creepy, but in the movie it becomes less troublesome to portray a man drawn to an attractive woman than to a young boy. Manga purists may not approve of the change, but it is hard to imagine a film that faithfully replicates the manga ever making it to the screen without a cloud of controversy.

Service With Style

Yana Toboso’s manga and Toshiya Shinohara’s anime drip with gothic shadows and Victorian refinement, but the movie’s art director Hiroyasu Koizumi developed a concept of what he calls “no sense of nationality, no sense of period,” reflecting the fact that the country where the adventure takes place is never explicitly named. “It was difficult since the setting was different, but we gave great consideration to how much the original comic’s gothic essence should be included, and how much this should be adjusted,” says Koizumi.

Stylist Takashi Tokunaga created the wardrobes for Kiyoharu and Sebastian. “We wanted to stay close to the world of the original comic-book while at the same time recognizing that the movie was an entirely new construct,” he says. “We gave careful consideration to the fact that Sebastian is a butler, and to the unique position that Kiyoharu occupies. The concept we alighted on is both classic and modern. Shiori resolved to live as a man. Using as our guide the world of the English gentleman, Ciel, as portrayed in the original comic, we perfected our clothing.”

“It was imperative to have clothing that fitted my bodyline exactly,” says Mizushima, who didn’t want his new lean physique to go to waste. “Both in my role as a butler, and when fighting, I wanted to appear graceful whenever I do action scenes or serve my master.”
Experience service with style and deadly grace for yourself when Black Butler comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on 23 February from Warner Home Entertainment.

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