When it comes down to programmes that I enjoy but have a hard time defending, few can come anywhere close to the position that Kuroshitsuji has on my list. There really is a lot that I enjoy about the programme, but there's also a good deal of stuff about it that just gets under my skin. Considering the fact that this is a show that receives no shortage of praise and criticism, I feel that someone should try and give a semi-impartial review of the series and explain why they like it in the first place. With that said, let's get on with it.
The biggest reason as to why I enjoy Kuroshitsuji is the fact that it's a supernatural mystery drama. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a supernatural programme that isn't action-oriented or comedy-centric? I've also got a soft spot for mystery drama and I also love the time period that the story takes place in. I've always had a thing for history and the rampant hypocrisy that went on during the Victorian period never ceases to capture my fancy. Furthermore, it's actually quite capable of keeping me hooked when it's giving me some involving plot. Of course, you can't really tell that it's a supernatural mystery drama that does all this stuff at first glance.
The most glaring problem that Kuroshitsuji has by far is the fact that A-1 Pictures does not know how to employ levity properly, which is most prevalent in the first 15 episodes. Furthermore, it opts for the worst kind of levity possible: chibi-style visual gags like the kind that Ultimate Spider-Man and Teen Titans use. Of course, I'd say that it's closer to Ultimate Spider-Man, given that all the levity ends up making it difficult to take the story seriously in the first place. Some people like to attribute this to the source material, but the manga itself is quite tame when referring to its usage of levity, but A-1 Pictures in their infinite wisdom decided to ruin a good thing. I understand that Kuroshitsuji is a shonen series by the end of it all, but is dark humour too sophisticated for a shonen audience? Come on...
While we're on the subject, the second biggest problem that Kuroshitsuji has is the yaoi/shota subtext. Even though Yana Toboso has written several yaoi mangas prior to writing Kuroshitsuji and that fact does reflect itself to a certain degree in the manga, any sort of yaoi/shota elements present in the source material were always intended to be used in a comedic context and weren't meant to be taken seriously in the slightest. Yes, you also have some official artwork of Ciel, Sebastian, et al but that shit don't contribute to the story so I ignore it! Unfortunately, A-1 Pictures in their infinite wisdom saw that there were a lot of Kuro fans who were into that shit and decided to dial up the yaoi/shota subtext between Ciel and Sebastian to an uncomfortably disturbing degree (it got to a point where I genuinely contemplated dropping the show).
Contrary to popular belief, Kuroshitsuji has a sizeable portion of its fanbase that *ISN'T* into slash in the slightest. I am a heterosexual male who absolutely despises paedophilia but I also happen to be an avid fan of the manga. Whilst the yaoi/shota moments that are present in the manga end up making me face-palm, they're short enough to the point where I can just look past them and pretend that it never happened. That's not the case at all when it comes down to the adaptation, since it felt like A-1 Pictures was playing this shit straight rather than for laughs. If I were to take a shot for every time there was a *serious* moment between Ciel and Sebastian which felt like A-1 Pictures was catering to the SebaCiel shippers, I'd probably succumb to cirrhosis. Okay, that's hyperbole but it's still a major problem that remains throughout the run of the programme.
Now, another problem that Kuroshitsuji has when it comes down to the execution is the fact that it... gets... BORING. Seriously, this is supposed to be a supernatural mystery drama about a 13-year-old boy exacting revenge against those who've wronged him whilst losing everything precious to him in the process, right? Well, the first four episodes don't really paint this show to be like such. Instead, they just make this programme feel more like a slice-of-life comedy taking place in Victorian England. Okay, Episode 2 - "His Butler, Strongest" is kind of an exception but the point still stands. These episodes aren't bad by any means, but they certainly did get tedious for me. I just come into this show expecting serious plot, and I end up getting flawed storytelling. Well, it does get better but with a caveat attached to it.
Unlike other popular shonen mangas such as One Piece which are published on a weekly basis, Kuroshitsuji is a monthly publication. As such, there was a limited amount of material to work with for the adaptation. Instead of giving this show a 1-cour run like it probably should've had from the get-go, A-1 Pictures decided to just fork the adaptation off from the source material after Episode 15 and then end on a completely different note. With that said, it should be noted that A-1 Pictures wasn't exactly the most faithful to the source material until that point and that there were many alterations present in what they did adapt.
On the plus side, the final nine episodes were where the show actually took itself seriously whilst dropping most of the shenanigans. Furthermore, the ideas and whatnot that they actually brought up were fairly interesting to say the least. Also, I have to give A-1 Pictures props for at least having the decency to end the show before it got too unnecessarily convoluted. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have a show that has a solid conclusion rather than a show that spends week after week in a filler arc until it can resume adapting chapters. On the subject of the ending, it certainly wasn't a grand finale but at least I can safely say that it ended... you know, until Kuroshitsuji II came into the picture and shit all over that (among other things).
Of course, if you think these episodes don't make any sense or suffer from some rather noticeable writing problems, I don't blame you. The biggest problem that these episodes have is the fact that they try to accomplish far too much in the time that it was given (in other words, they're pretty damn rushed). I mean, I wouldn't mind it if A-1 Pictures at least extended the runtime of this anime-original second half to 15-18 episodes so that things could run at a coherent pace, but I guess it's too late to change that now. Hindsight's a bitch, ain't it? Sure, the damage was done by the time that this show started taking itself seriously but hey! At least it got its shit together!
From a characterisation standpoint, Kuroshitsuji is rather flawed. Whilst the manga has been publishing for roughly eight years and has 100+ chapters as of 25/12/14, the anime came out in 2008 when there were only 24-25 chapters available to adapt at that point in time. As such, Ciel and Sebastian (among others) remain the same throughout the bulk of the programme's run. This is quite unfortunate, as I quite like Ciel as a character and the manga does bring up some rather interesting questions about him. Here, he's more or less a generic broody protagonist who needs to stop trying so hard to be like Bruce Wayne but with an eye patch.
Despite my numerous complaints with Ciel's characterisation, I have almost no complaints about our butler to the core, Sebas-chan. Simply put, I absolutely adore Sebastian and I'll admit to having fangirled over him more than once (seriously though, who hasn't?!). I can't bring myself to hate him since he's got a charm similar to Alucard from Hellsing (in the sense that they're both badass servant characters). A lot of people like to give Sebas-chan crap since he's damn near infallible, but you know what? I don't really care. He's a DAEMON butler. He's not bound to the same rules that govern humanity, and it's not like he's without personality either. I just can't get enough of his quips and his snark. Plus, there's always something hypnotising about watching a butler killing goons with silverware whilst complaining that dinner will be late if he doesn't hurry up. Really, my only complaint is the fact that he remains static throughout the run of the programme but then again... he's kinda like that in the manga too.
As for the side characters like the other Phantomhive servants, Lizzie, Madame Red, Lau, Ran-Mao, and the like... they don't really get a lot of screen time outside of being comedic relief. Well, some characters like Madame Red and Lau end up getting their roles expanded as the series progresses but the fact that they were comedic relief for the bulk of their appearances kinda made it hard to take them seriously once their time to shine in the sun came. It really is a shame that A-1 Pictures didn't allow for more time to pass before adapting Kuroshitsuji because characters like Mey-Rin, Finni, Bard, Tanaka, and Lizzie actually ended up becoming favourites of mine later on in the manga's run. Well... I guess that doesn't stop Mey-Rin and Finni from being so adorable that it hurts, but I digress.
When you get right down to it, A-1 Pictures might not be the best when it comes down to telling a story or giving us some good characters. But there's one area that they never cease to impress me with, and that's with their visual department. As much as I despise some of their OTHER works (*cough* Sword Art Online *cough*), there's no denying that each time A-1 Pictures works on a show, the visuals will be much better than what they previously worked on. That's seriously saying something, because the visuals here in the first season of Black Butler (which came out in 2008 no less) are absolutely gorgeous.
What I really love about the art direction is the large amount of detail put into the backgrounds along with the colour palette. Unfortunately, the art direction and the animation don't really come into full bloom until Episode 16-onward when the show begins to take itself seriously. Everything before then is still really awesome stuff to look at, but the art/animation really shine whenever this show is taking itself seriously and is trying to feed us some involving plot. That really doesn't happen all that often in the first 15 episodes. With that said, the art/animation also shines whenever it drops the super serious, high-detailed stuff and goes into the less-detailed, comedy sketch stuff in a vein similar to Teen Titans. Whilst I'm not particularly fond of the comedic relief used in this show, at least I can say that the visual gags are well-animated and pretty to look at.
As for the animation on its own, well it's solid stuff. A good deal of the animation is limited to stills and talking heads but worry not for this is a drama show with some action thrown into the mix! The action sequences in this show are roughly similar to that of Wolf's Rain and Fullmetal Alchemist (2003): a lot of stuff happening in the foreground, not that much going on in the background. In fact, the high point of the action sequences are mostly going to be Sebastian stopping bullets before they leave the pistol along with Sebastian throwing silverware at random goons in the most epic ways possible. Of course, that's only fitting since Sebas-chan is one hell of a butler.
Another thing to note about the art/animation are the OP/EDs. You know how half-way through the season, the OP/ED change for no apparent reason in some shows, with new animation and a new song? Well the OP's animation changes at Episode 16, but they just use the second half of the OP song. Now, this isn't the first time I've seen an anime use the second half of a song for the OP (Trinity Blood did something similar), but this is the first time I've seen an anime use new animation for the second half of the song. It's the little things like this that make me smile. The 1st ED is shows a regular day in the life of Sebastian in chibi form while the 2nd ED is mostly stills of Ciel and Sebastian set over a more sombre tune. I'm more fond of the 1st ED, but the 2nd ED actually fits the show becoming more serious toward the end of its run and the song doesn't conflict horribly with any dramatic moments! I give props for that.
Art/animation ain't the only thing that Kuroshitsuji has down because the OST for Black Butler across both seasons and Book of Circus is some downright amazing stuff. It fits in amazingly well with the time period that this show takes place in, with most of the BGM being stuff like slow jazz tracks and baroque violin/cello stuff you'd hear at a ballroom. What's more interesting is the fact that there's also quite a few super serious/ominous tracks that would play whenever Ciel and Sebastian are having a moment, my personal favourite being "Si Deus Me Relinquit" (Latin for "If God Has Forsaken Me"). I'd like to explain what it sounds like, but you should do yourself a favour and listen to it. The OP track, "Monochrome Kiss" by SID along with both ED tracks are highly addictive to listen to as well. Fun fact: the first ED track, "I'm Alive" by Becca is actually an American rock song, if I'm not mistaken.
As for the English dub, well... I've got rather mixed feelings about it. You see, unlike the Hellsing/Hellsing Ultimate dubs where actual people of British descent were hired to do the voice acting... the dub just uses American actors like Brina Palencia, J. Michael Tatum, Monica Rial, etc. and has them do their own take on a British accent. Now, Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum as Ciel and Sebastian respectively do an excellent job with the roles they've been given. You can still tell that they're faking an accent, but at least they're trying. Everyone else... not so much. The biggest problem I have with the dub is that some characters just speak normally but with the accent and others like the Phantomhive servants have Cockney accents which I find rather irritating. Monica Rial's work as Mey-Rin especially irritates me, but the Japanese VA is like that in the original I can't hold TOO much against her.
Another thing that I take umbrage with is the fact that there are two... Indian characters in the show, and yet they're not voiced by amateur Indian VAs with a proper understanding of the English language. Funimation just had Christopher Ayres and Patrick Seitz go about their lines but with horribly exaggerated Indian accents. Why do I take umbrage with this? Well... fun fact about me: I'm Punjabi, and Punjab is a part of India! One of the things that I hate is whenever there's an Indian character on-screen, and they have a horribly exaggerated accent. Seriously, would it kill Funimation to just hire Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan to just do the voice acting for these two characters?
Now, it's not like the dub is complete shit because that's far from the truth The ADR crew also did a great job of making sure the dialogue fit the mouth movements while making sure that the actors/actresses gave a good performance. I'm also guessing that the accents were used as a way of giving *some* semblance of authenticity. At the same time, I just die a little inside every time I hear Christopher Ayres, Patrick Seitz, or Monica Rial give their take on a horrible accent imitation. If anything, this dub is similar to the Kanon (2006) dub: the dub itself is solid stuff, but there's just that tiny little detail that just makes me want to make myself taller.
With all that baggage out of the way, let's wrap this up. Black Butler on the whole is just "good." It's not a masterpiece like some of the overzealous fans like to claim it is, but it's also not shit like some of the others on here would like for you to believe. Now, reviews on the whole are a very subjective thing so obviously there's going to be a lot of areas that people disagree on. But at the same time, there are shows on the market that are a hell of a lot more painful to watch than this. If you want shit, don't turn to Kuroshitsuji. Turn to Sword Art Online. Just watch the first episode of Black Butler if you've got 20 minutes to spare. If you like what you see, keep going. If you don't, drop it altogether. It's just that simple. Alternatively, you can just watch the first 15 episodes and then move over to the infinitely superior Kuroshitsuji: Book of Circus. That works too. I also highly recommend reading the manga, as it's one hell of a good read.