Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Black Butler: Book of Circus + Book of Murder
BD+DVD - Season 3 + OVAs
Come one, come all! The circus is in town! Young earl Ciel Phantomhive and his ever-mysterious butler Sebastian must infiltrate the big top incognito, after the Noah's Ark circus' arrival in London causes a series of Pied Piper-esque child-nappings across the city. The ringmaster, "Joker," seems like a nice enough guy, to say nothing of his friendly band of acrobats, knife-throwers, and animal tamers, but the macabre prosthetics attached to every performer in the camp still leave Ciel suspicious about what goes on in the circus after the stage lights dim. The carnival crew quickly adopt Ciel and Sebastian as two of their own, but when more gruesome details behind the case come to light, the Phantomhive heir must grapple with the demons of his past to escape this tent of terrors alive.
Unfortunately, Her Majesty the Queen is not pleased with the young earl's performance in resolving this case, so she sends a few elite butlers of her own to the Phantomhive manor for another test of Ciel's loyalty: he must host an extravagant dinner party for persons of interest amongst London's underground elite. It almost comes as no surprise when the celebration ends with a murder, but Ciel may have to solve this locked-room mystery on his own when the Queen's scheme leaves him without Sebastian's assistance. These two new chapters in Ciel Phantomhive's Faustian story are bound to change his life more than ever before.
Eight years, three seasons, and a dozen OVAs into its run, Black Butler sports a franchise history more transparently twisted than most, coming off equal parts passion and pandering to its faithful fanbase. (And if you're interested in avoiding spoilers for the show's first two seasons, you should skip this paragraph.) Its first season was clearly not produced with a continuation in mind, incorporating a couple arcs from the manga into a TV-original story that ended with cruel finality: Ciel realized the futility of his contract with Sebastian, saved London from a zombified version of its former queen, and chose to die without regretting the mistakes he had made, instead embracing the pain as Sebastian swallowed his soul. After the show became a massive hit with a then-relatively-untapped female consumer base, A-1 Pictures churned out a sequel so desperate for the fujoshi dollar that the end result backfired with critics and fans alike. Black Butler II sold itself as a new "cursed young noble acquires demonic servant" story starring new characters for only one episode before dragging Sebastian and Ciel back into the plot through a series of ludicrous retcons, campy padding, and cringe-inducing displays of too-sexual fanservice. Fans learned the hard way that Black Butler's bad romance subtext is best left subliminal, with writing strong enough to respect its own characters, and Black Butler II did not deliver.
Regardless, Black Butler's unique aesthetic continues to rake in revenue through licensed apparel, stage musicals, and the continually successful manga, so now that there's more material to adapt, A-1 Pictures has wisely returned to the franchise's roots and resumed animating the manga's story completely straight. Calling this continuation "season three" seems totally inaccurate, but Black Butler's history as an anime series is so convoluted that it's hard to know what else to call it. ("Season 1.5, which overwrites half of season 1 and all of season 2" is a mouthful.) The new "Book of (Blank)" naming convention is a smart decision going forward, since Book of Murder was released as a two-hour OVA and next year's "Book of the Atlantic" will be a theatrical film. Black Butler's anime adaptation is now being molded into different forms to best accommodate its rabid niche audience, which is probably for the best. If you've loved Black Butler for this long, you'll probably be hot on the trail of new adaptations no matter how often their release format changes.
So with all that confusion behind us, what does this "Book of (Blank)" future mean for the quality of Black Butler's anime? Well, from a production perspective, this future looks dreary. Perhaps with the knowledge that fans will purchase it anyway, A-1 Pictures has continually scaled the animation quality of Black Butler down over the years, and large swaths of these two Books are stiff, flat, and can barely be bothered to move at all. Gone are the rich low-contrast colors and detailed flourishes in the background of this fantastical Victorian London, and even the show's haunting grand-scale musical score has been downgraded to a more stock-library orchestral sound. There are still moments of musical beauty in the story (Book of Circus relies heavily on a tender rendition of "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son"), and visual-kei group SID returns to camp up the OP, but Black Butler isn't the lush auditory experience it used to be.
At least Black Butler's overall art design remains as captivating as ever. Many other anime have attempted the dragged-up gothic romance dream after Black Butler, but it remains the king and queen of its original aesthetic, always steering its gorgeous costumes and anglophile reference pastiche around the stereotypical "too much" pitfalls to safely land on "just right" instead. Even when the animation doesn't do it justice, the artistry of Black Butler's ideas shines through enough to hold your attention. Then again, as Black Butler finally pulls away from anime-original ideas and embraces its source material, it may no longer need those rhinestone-and-velvet distractions to keep viewers locked into the story. If you come into Book of Circus or Book of Murder expecting the campy fanservice diversions that peppered the first two seasons, you'll be in for one hell of a wake-up call.
This revival of Black Butler is overwhelmingly better-written than the series has ever been before. The show's bizarre tone combination of vaudevillian follies and Dickensian tragedy has been difficult to balance in the past, but it's now obvious that original manga author Yana Toboso was always better at imbuing her style with power than the various writers tasked with adapting her writing in the past. Seasons one and two sometimes stumbled by making their darker material too indulgent or even optimistic, romanticizing Ciel's situation by brightening the story's gallows humor a few shades too many. By contrast, season three sticks to the original script, blending laughter and horror by committing to them both completely. Ciel's time in the circus goes from just another errand as the Queen's guard dog to a brutal illustration of his increasingly hopeless situation, and the case's final shocking scene changes his character more poignantly than any of the more climactic revelations from his anime-original adventures. Book of Murder continues this trend, even though most of it is taken up with meandering murder mystery minutiae. Each chapter's conclusion blends thoughtful character development into Ciel's ongoing contract with Sebastian, instead of trying to bludgeon the audience into emotional submission or simply shrug off the stormclouds with gags or manservice like previous seasons. Going from anime-original Black Butler to manga Black Butler is kind of like going from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Cabaret, and this shift makes a great argument for why fans still care about these characters after years have passed and the fujoshi market has been flooded with other options. There's a surprising amount of bite to Ciel's and Sebastian's evolving relationship, and both of these chapters offer viewers a more complex and cynical worldview to digest than either of the first two seasons at their very "darkest."
Toboso's manga writing is an unforgettable cut above the Black Butler anime fans may be used to, but these new chapters still take advantage of a couple adaptive improvements in presentation. Because this is our first time returning to Black Butler's world in several years, the adaptive writers have done their best to squeeze everyone in the franchise's enormous cast into the adventure, from obvious favorites like Grell Sutcliff to coy cameos like Edward Abberline to remind us that this is a different continuity from the first season (where Eddie did not make it). Trying to find bit roles for characters unimportant to the plot can be a disastrous pace-killing decision, but Book of Circus (and Murder) do an impeccable job of sliding everyone in seamlessly, not only giving them all something useful to do, but allowing them to shine doing it. These little easter eggs definitely give fans who might be considering a manga-only collection more incentive to continue adding the anime to their shelves book by book.
Funimation's English dub for the first season was divisive for its use of outlandish European accents for every character, but mostly overcame the ambitious choice thanks to the enthusiasm and talent of its cast. The dub's return continues this trend with several LA-area actors like Matthew Mercer and Michael Sinterniklaas filling in new roles with their own British brogues. Much like the show underneath it, the dub's dedication to its own confident tone keeps the cartoonishly phony accents from derailing the experience and manage to transform it into something immersive. The admirable degree of research and forethought that went into the casting and performances also helps, as seen by the clever decision to give Mercer's Joker both a more natural lower-class British accent and a flowery-yet-faker Irish voice for trying to charm the crowds, or the specific Scottish-English blend necessary for Taliesen Jaffe's "Mr. Doyle" in Book of Murder. Standouts include the return of Barry Yandell and Daniel Fredrick as beleaguered grim reapers Will Spears and Grell, along with a heartbreaking performance from Mikaela Krantz as the circus's "Doll." Love or hate its wacky inflections, it's clear that a ton of love and care went into this dub's creation, and the release's only notable extras, a series of episode commentaries, illustrate this with some in-depth dialect chat and earnest discussion on the themes of the series.
Black Butler's anime may never again be as visually arresting as it once was, but for fans still invested in the story of Ciel and his monstrous manservant, these releases can't be recommended enough. In fact, if there's any downside to the grim tonal shift this manga-faithful revival presents, it might be its refusal to indulge the cuteness and comedy that earlier seasons often fell back on. There are no jokes about squeezing Ciel into a corset or bizarrely flirtatious asides to fuel fanfiction at the cost of a more compelling relationship between damned souls. This version of Black Butler is more committed to its Faustian ideas than the fluffier hybrid of fangirl pandering it gets pigeonholed into, discarding the escapism of its time period for a more sober look at the history it pulls from. Only time will tell if this bleaker story is what Black Butler fanatics really want from their Victorian fantasy, but it's definitely made the anime appointment viewing again after all these years.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : B+
+ A welcome return to the original manga's tone and story, every character in the large cast gets their moment to shine, Book of Circus is Black Butler's strongest material yet, Book of Murder acts as a satisfying coda, great voicework in both languages
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