ASIAN FILM - Review
15:00 - 18th April 2015, by David West

Black Butler

Yana Toboso’s hit manga comes to life courtesy of co-directors Kentaro Otani and Keiichi Sato, but the voyage from page to screen has led to several major changes in the material. Unlike the anime adaptation, which was very faithful to its source in plot and tone, the live action movie plays fast and loose with Toboso’s creation. Where the original is set in a gothic imagining of Victorian England, the movie takes place in an unnamed eastern nation – obviously Japan even if no one says so – in the near future. The world has split into east and west, and the powerful Queen of the West has agents known as Watchdogs embedded around the globe. One of these is Kiyohara Genpou (Ayame Goriki), the 17 year old heir to the Funtom Company who is rarely seen without faithful butler Sebastian Michaelis (Hiro Mizushima). When an ambassador dies in gruesome circumstances – spontaneously becoming mummified – Kiyohara is ordered to investigate, and the trail points to a secret organisation operating in the shadows.

The protagonist of the manga is Ciel Phantomhive, a pre-pubescent boy. Here he has been replaced by a young woman, although Kiyohara is posing as a man due to the arcane inheritance rules of the Genpou family – but no one is ever going to mistake model and actress Ayame Goriki for a chap. Presumably switching the character’s gender and adding years to her age is to avoid the more unsavoury aspects of the original story. Sebastian is a demon who has made a deal with Kiyohara – in exchange for helping her find those responsible for the murder of her parents, Sebastian will claim her immortal soul.

In the manga and anime, Sebastian has a very predatory personality when it comes to Ciel, their every exchange dripping with innuendo and menace as he anticipates the day he finally collects on their Faustian pact. That is all lost here. The central relationship between Kiyohara and Sebastian has some fractious moments, but it is a much more wholesome dynamic without the sexual frisson of the anime. Hiro Mizushima performs his action scenes well, but his long, messy hair seems a poor design choice at odds with the idea of Sebastian being perfectly groomed and unflappable. Ayame Goriki is emotionally flat as Kiyohara, and never sets the necessary sparks flying in the scenes with her demonic butler.

The design work in the anime put its own spin on Victorian England that, while historically dubious, was at least full of Gothic architectural flourishes and looming shadows. The futuristic backdrop of this movie, however, is bright colours – which leads to a duller visual experience. Furthermore, the plot relies too heavily on Sebastian’s otherworldly abilities. Whenever Kiyohara needs information, Sebastian practically hands it to her on a platter. And of course when she braves the villain’s lair, she predictably leaves him behind. Why? Merely so the weak screenplay can create some sense of menace without her black-clad Superman being there to instantly mop the floor with the bad guys.

Black Butler makes so many changes to its source material that Otani and Sato might have been better off starting from scratch with a new concept rather than messing around with such a popular manga.
SCORE: 2.5/5
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