This manga and anime series are a recent obsession of mine (though it took me a while before I really became interested in it. Part of the problem was various anachronisms present in both anime and manga that I found to be slightly frustrating). Kuroshitsuji is a dark and darkly funny adventure/supernatural/mystery series by Yana Toboso. It falls into the category of “kid makes contract with devil (or other supernatural critter) and Stuff Happens.” It also falls into the categories of “kid with more responsibility than any sane person would give to a twelve year old boy,” and “scary genius kid.”
The setting of the story is in Victorian England (though a Victorian England with supernatural and steampunk elements). Our Protagonist is one Ciel Phantomhive, a young boy who has been through horrors devastating enough to drive ordinary people right over the edge. (Ciel is not an ordinary person, and I think you could make an argument that he never was an “ordinary person.”) Members of Ciel’s family had served the Crown for generations by acting as a combination of crimelord (keeping control of the “darker elements” of society, particularly the aristocracy) and special investigator. Enemies of Ciel’s father murdered his parents, and kidnapped Ciel, torturing him and eventually using him as a human sacrifice. Enter the “black butler” of the title, a demon “accidentally summoned” by Ciel, who offers him a contract in exchange for Ciel’s soul.
Since he figures he’s all ready been through hell, Ciel accepts.
Ciel’s quest is to get revenge on the people who destroyed his life (it’s a major plot point of the series–he’s not avenging his father’s death, he’s avenging the destruction of his own life). The demon, named “Sebastian Michaelis” by Ciel, acts as his “power,” doing most of the legwork involved in investigating and disposing of various criminals. It’s never really explained by the text why Queen Victoria is willing to assign a twelve year old boy various dangerous criminal cases, or why the other “evil nobles” Ciel is in charge of allow him to be in charge in the first place. (On the other hand, he is a scary child genius. It’s pretty clear in both the manga and the anime that even without Sebastian, Ciel would be a pretty formidable opponent.)
The first anime series (there’s a second Black Butler series in production as of this review) veers off course just after the “Jack the Ripper” storyline. The only sign of the “Circus” storyline from the manga is an odd side trip involving girls turned into Chatty Cathy dolls. The anime was my gateway to liking the manga series, and ends with a very sad note that should have made a second season impossible. (Unless you create an entirely different butler/master pair, which is what they did, apparently.) The contract is completed and Sebastian takes Ciel down the river to a picturesque little island, and presumably eats his soul. The manga is ongoing, and doesn’t include the very strange “angel” plotline where an angel has gone batshit insane and is trying to purify the world by attempting to destroy it. Instead there is a plot line involving a circus and a crazy guy who has apparently been stalking Ciel since he was eight or so.
A Short List of Characters
Earl Ciel Phantomhive: Our Protagonist (note that I don’t say “hero”) the Kid With the Leash Ciel started out as a very sweet little boy for the scion of crime lords and “evil noblemen.” Unfortunately Ciel got the gold ticket to hell for his tenth birthday–his parents were murdered, his home was destroyed and he was subjected to various kinds of abuse that culminated in being sacrificed to unknown and probably diabolical powers. Unfortunately (for the people at the party) the diabolical forces decided Ciel was shiny, and his soul would be tasty after a little more preparation. Ciel is a very driven character who doesn’t smile very often (and when he does, you kind of wish he’d stop, because it’s usually an evil, evil smirk). Despite his at times eerily adult attitudes, he has moments of childish behavior, and has a definite sweet tooth.
Sebastian Michaelis: Sebastian is “one hell of a butler.”(Which isn’t surprising since he’s a demon.) Easily able to do the impossible he is the perfect servant and primary support system for Ciel. He is a loyal and capable individual who has a strong conviction in his own aesthetic sense, which is the closest a demon can come to having anything resembling morals. (He might intend to eat Ciel, but Ciel will be cared for in the mean time.) He makes things “easier” for Ciel, while at the same time pushing him into making the hard decisions. Something that turns out to be a theme with Sebastian is his habit of finding people who are at the end of their ropes and giving them a new (better) life.
Finian: Finian’s stated job is gardener. He is a very “young” innocent seeming young man who is incredibly clumsy and is actually a terrible gardener with a habit of destroying things–usually by accident. What his actual job is to protect the Phantomhive estate. He is incredibly, unnaturally strong and spent most of his life being experimented on by unknown persons until Sebastian rescued him. He is unshakably loyal and would do literally anything for Ciel and Sebastian.
Bardroy: Bardroy’s stated job is cook. He is not actually able to cook, but that’s his stated job. He tends to blow things up, sometimes on accident and sometimes on purpose. He is very good with artillery and his previous profession was soldier–Sebastian recruited him literally on the battlefield. His real actual job is to defend the house. Which he does very, very well.
Maylene: Maylene is the maid. She is incredibly clumsy and apparently half-blind even with her glasses on. Like her fellow servants, appearances can be deceiving. Maylene’s previous job was “sniper” and without her glasses, she has excellent aim. Sebastian apparently recruited her while she was on the job. (In the anime, she was about to kill an unknown person, in the manga, she was apparently making an attempt on Ciel.) Also like her fellow servants, she is absolutely loyal to Ciel, and her real job is to defend the house.
Tanaka: Tanaka…Sebastian respects him a great deal. (Sebastian, who you’ll remember, is a who knows how old demon butler.) Tanaka at times seems like a foolish, slightly senile old man, but during his more lucid moments, he’s a formidable individual of great loyalty and intelligence. He is apparently the only remaining/surviving member of the old household staff and was the previous butler for the Phantomhive household. (He’s currently the steward.)
Angelina Barnett (Madame Red): Angelina Barnett is Ciel’s aunt. She apparently adores him, and considers him something like a son, though she also secretly resents him for having survived when her sister and her sister’s husband had died. She is also apparently one of the “evil nobles.” She goes insane and starts killing her patients, prostitutes who had gone to her for abortions, and becomes half of “Jack the Ripper.”
Grell Sutcliffe: Madame Red’s transgender butler–though what she actually is, is a “death god.” Unlike most death-gods, who judge whether a person should continue living, Grell just likes to kill people. She is a very flamboyant character whose “scythe” is a chainsaw. (She was demoted to safety scissors after her adventures as half of “Jack the Ripper.”)
Lau: Lau is either incredibly inscrutable or incredibly annoying. Your opinion may vary. He is the president of a Chinese trading company, and a leader of the “Shanghai Mafia.” He has a habit offering seemingly helpful information or implying he knows something when in fact he doesn’t actually know, he was only guessing.
Prince Soma: Soma is a spoiled, arrogant brat, though at bottom he is a good person. He comes to England in hopes of finding a young woman who acted as his nanny when he was a child, under the impression that she was “kidnapped.” (Actually, she was something of a social climber, married an Englishman, and ran away–she didn’t like Soma very much either.) After encountering Ciel and Sebastian he had his eyes opened to the more annoying aspects of his behavior, though is still happily oblivious to the fact that Ciel hates being hugged and will snarl like a rabid badger when someone is “too familiar” with him.
Agni: Agni was a criminal that Soma saved from execution. Because of this, Agni decided that Soma’s compassion was a sign of divine holiness (instead of oblivious innocence) and dedicated his life to serving Soma. Because of his conviction that Soma is divinity, he is able to work incredible feats on par with Sebastian’s abilities. (He is also the only one who can get Bard, Maylene and Finnian to do their jobs correctly.)