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Black Butler: Book of Circus
Episodes 1-7

by Rose Bridges,

It's an exciting summer to be a fangirl, and no small part of that is the return of fujoshi and Anglophile horror favorite Black Butler. The show took a long and winding road to get here, from its faithful (until the ending), solid first season to its bizarre, shipper-pandering second season, and it's earned legions of fans along the way. Four years later, the anime is back to its roots: the original manga, adapting the next arc where the first season left off. "Book of Circus" is one of the most popular arcs among Black Butler manga readers, so the fans couldn't be happier.

Part of the issue of having a built-in fanbase is that it makes it tempting to sit back and take it easy. After all, the fans will watch it no matter how good it is, right? With a lower budget, Black Butler: Book of Circus takes a significant drop in quality, at least as far as the technical aspects go. While it was never exactly state-of-the-art, the animation definitely isn't up to that first season's level, such as more frequent and noticeable off-model shots, and some standing around where there should be motion (like with the circus tiger that cat-lover Sebastian fawns over). Also, the musical score isn't nearly as inspired as it was in earlier seasons, likely due to a change in composers. While the circus moments allow for plenty of fun musical choices – whimsical fiddling and of course, careening organs – the dramatic moments outside the Big Top prefer more predictable battle music, rather than the menacing choirs and operatic arias that made these moments in the earlier seasons so gripping. When it does mimic the previous style, it sounds deflated by comparison.

The material, though, is a step up – at least, from the fanficcy second season. Ciel's latest caper as the "Queen's Guard Dog" brings him to a traveling circus full of amputees, whose performances always coincide with the disappearances of local children. Ciel and Sebastian must go undercover by joining the "Noah's Ark Circus" themselves, which leads to plenty of situational comedy, especially when it's revealed that reaper and previous adversary William T. Spears has also come along to pursue his own business. Sebastian and William butt heads when they're forced to room together, and even Ciel gets his own comic moments as he clumsily learns how the other half lives – while trying not to reveal that all these chores and drudgery are new for him. We even get a moment of Sebastian seducing a woman for information in episode 6, although it's played much more dramatically than the infamous "nun scene" in the first season. And yet, there's still plenty of intrigue amongst the silliness: How and why is the Noah's Ark Circus abducting children? When will Ciel and Sebastian find the information they need? And just what is William up to, anyway? The only drawback writing-wise is the show's bizarre decision to start it off with a typical first-season episode as an "introduction" for new viewers, even though only the faithful would tune in for this installment. Otherwise, this season is full of Black Butler's signature mix of the camp and the sinister, which will keep its fans hooked, even if the presentation often leaves something to be desired.

Plus, the show's direction has a lot more going for it than the other technical aspects of the series. It uses lighting well, contrasting the darker scenes outside the tent to the more fanciful circus antics and – eventually – the hypnotic visions the kidnapped children experience when the caravan comes their way. One example is in the middle of episode 4, when as the Circus members brutally fight off policemen who caught them in the act, the little girl they're capturing imagines the circus members playing Whack-A-Mole with giant teddy bears. The alley is marked by dark shadows and sharp contrasts; the little girl's visions, though, are bright pink and full of light. The music works well here, too, adding to the feeling of a colorful fantasyland conjured by a Pied Piper. The last couple of episodes have some similar moments, like Ciel's flashbacks (which are portrayed like an old film reel.) As he slowly uncovers the truth about what the Circus is up to, it becomes clear why fans were so eager to see this arc animated. So even though the quality isn't consistent across the board, the creators know when to pull out all the stops.

All in all, Black Butler: Book of Circus doesn't have much to offer those who aren't already enamored with the series, but it's a fun, solid return to form for the show's fans. The Circus saga belongs with the best arcs of the first season, and if you found yourself longing for them during the mess of Black Butler II, here's your chance.

Grade: B-

Black Butler: Book of Circus is currently streaming on Funimation.

Rose Bridges lives in Boston, MA and has written about anime and many other topics for LGBT news site Autostraddle.com and her own blog.You can follow her on Twitter at @composerose.

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