Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 1st 2012
Black Butler Season 2 Complete Set [Limited Edition]
Blu-Ray + DVD
Sebastian apparently ate Ciel's soul at the end of season one, yet somehow Ciel's still alive and kicking, living it up with what's left of his circle of friends. As if nothing ever happened. How is that possible? Well, it has something to do with a blonde adolescent sadist named Alois and his bespectacled butler Claude Faustus. Claude, like Sebastian, is no normal butler, and his staff of creepy servants are no normal servants. Somehow they're mixed up in the saving of Ciel's soul (and the interrupting of Sebastian's long-awaited meal), but it's certainly not out of the kindness of their hearts. Hearts that Sebastian will be ripping out if he has his way.
The second season of Black Butler is shorter than the first by about half, which is really just a cosmetic issue, but it's smaller in important ways too: smaller in scale, smaller in imagination, smaller in ambition, smaller in interest. It's still a decent piece of entertainment, but this is not the same series that once killed the Queen, burned London to cinders and had angels build a suspension bridge from zombies.
It's not without its own qualities though. Screenwriter Mari Okada put a surprising amount of thought into the plot. Not the first part of it so much. That part is all one-off adventures during which Ciel chases arsonists and kidnappers and gets caught up in floods and on runaway trains. It's pretty much pure fluff, or as pure as fluff about bombs and class friction and human immolation can be. Later episodes, however, start to weave a continuous story, a patient tale of lies and counter-lies, schemes and betrayal and other good stuff. A little too patient if you count the fluff episodes—the series takes until episode five to explain how the new season can even exist after season one's ending. It makes up for it though with an increasingly involved plot whose later turns are well-planned enough and unexpected enough to qualify as clever.
At least clever enough that their unveiling explains some previously inexplicable actions, particularly those of Alois's disturbingly subservient maid Hannah. They're also clever enough to turn Claude and Alois's clone-like similarity to Sebastian and Ciel into a plot point and to flip Alois from victimizer to victim. The latter is particularly important as Alois is the first half's worst mistake, a giggling psychopath whose mere presence befouls whichever episode has the misfortune to feature him. By suffering through a few plot twists so nasty that even he doesn't deserve them (as well as having his awful past fleshed out) he achieves a sort of pity-fueled pathos. After which his scenes aren't nearly as insufferable. Some of them are even touching—in a discomfiting kind of way.
The problem is that while Okada put thought into the plot, she apparently didn't put much enthusiasm in. Even the non-canon parts of the first season had their own grotesque audacity, destroying cities and devising holy beings whose sanctimony was more evil than the soul-devouring shenanigans of its demons. There were sickening crimes against god and nature, battles atop the Eiffel Tower, and all manner of gleeful blasphemy and pointed amorality. While you can appreciate the skill that went into maneuvering events to deliver this season's fan-friendly twist ending, you never feel that sense of anything-goes excitement. The show has brains but it lacks imagination.
The lack of imagination extends to the series' look. Certain things are constant across the two seasons, like Minako Shiba's smooth take on Yana Toboso's delectable male designs: striking young Ciel, sleekly sexy Sebastian and his insinuating smile, stern, yellow-eyed Claude and even sterner William, the grim reaper with technicolor green eyes and much-fussed-with spectacles. Alois may be hateful little monster, but he's a good-looking, attractively colored little monster. There's also the background artistry, which remains fantastic: detailed, period-appropriate, almost universally beautiful. On the aural side, Taku Iwasaki's score sustains its quality, particularly when spooky ambience or demonic action are called for.
But certain things are also different (or more strongly emphasized). The half of the series consumed by various forms of one-off silliness places an emphasis on the show's peculiarly campy brand of humor, which wouldn't necessarily be bad if the humor itself worked (it doesn't, at least not frequently) and if it didn't take the focus away from slick demonic action, dank Victorian atmosphere, inventive gothic horrors and the other things that made the first season fun. When the series does get a chance to fire up its imagination, the camp flavor carries over into its inventions. Instead of Queen Victoria homonculized with her husband's rotting corpse we get a climactic quiz game (no joke) and triplets who fight with outsized versions of their household tools and constantly line up to get skewered like servant sishkebabs. Which is fun, but not quite the same.
And the guys (and gals) at A-1 Pictures seem to know it. They just can't seem to summon up the energy that they applied to the first season. There are moments—say, when Sebastian shatters a dam with his fist or stops a train with his bare hands—when visual invention and raw animation prowess win the day, but even more when bland compositions, expedient motions, and cut corners rule. It never looks less than good, but it rarely looks more either.
In a more humor-centered series, the wild accents used in Funimation's dub aren't such a liability. It doesn't hurt a joke as much as it hurts a heartfelt monologue or a threatening speech when it sounds like a Kwik-E Mart operator is delivering it. It still takes some getting used to though. It may be some time before you stop cringing whenever someone bellows like a cockney chimneysweep. But if you can get over it, it's a good, solid dub: faithfully cast, professionally acted, and reasonably respectful in its scripting.
For fans of the dub, Funimation presents three episode-long commentary tracks: for episode 1 (with Luci Christian and Jason Douglas), episode 12 (Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum) and OVA 3 (Ian Sinclair). They're best when the chemistry is good, which is to say when Palencia and Tatum are goofing around. There's also an outtake reel starring Palencia's spectacularly foul mouth, along with the usual clean OPs and EDs and trailers and such.
There are all manner of disappointments in Black Butler II: Anything in the negative parts of the preceding paragraphs for instance; or the amnesia trick it uses to "reset" Ciel's life; or the timid way Mari Okada uses Yana Toboso's characters (most are introduced, allowed to do their shtick for a bit and then booted aside for the rest of the series). Even so, it could have been worse. For instance, it could have been the OVA.
The OVA consists of six episodes that range in quality from duller than Lawrence Welk's corpse (a Phantomhive ball presented as a romance role-playing game) to marginally more fun than Leslie Nielsen's (a "behind the scenes" episode during which we meet the "actors" behind the characters). Some have their moments—the deadly serious turn that Ciel's two-episode lark in Wonderland takes; the horror of the behind-the-scenes episode's end product—but oases aside, the OVA's six-episode run is pretty much one big desert universally parched of entertainment value. It's exactly what could have happened to the series had Mari Okada and her various collaborators not stepped in to weave something intelligent and substantial from its last few episodes. Thank goodness they did. Still, only dyed-in-the-wool fans will want to spring for this set. Everyone else can get away with just watching it once through.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Well-thought-out ending; some humorous highlights; occasionally matches season one for disturbing content.
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