Black Butler Review: Season 1 & Book of Circus/Murder/Atlantic

Black Butler is a messy yet intriguing series that manages to do a lot better than some of its kin, even if it fumbles around in diverging from its source material before actually getting legitimately good and far darker in its intentions.

To recap, Ciel Phantomhive’s life was forever ruined. His parents killed, his manor burnt and then captured by the cult apparently responsible for it all. They also burn a mark into his skin just to make things extra torturous. Through some unclear circumstances, Ciel summons a demon and forms a contract with him.

Having this demon kill all the cultists and free him, the two proceed to have Ciel rebuild his life and take his place as head of the Phantomhive family, who serve as Queen Victoria’s Guard Dog over the underworld of crime. The demon serving as his butler, named Sebastian.

But what Ciel is really out for revenge against those who did this to him. Of course once this revenge is complete, Ciel will offer his payment to the demon which would be his soul.

 

Season 1

Season 1 of Black Butler is an odd beast for many a reason. As a cohesive whole, it works quite well but in the context of the franchise, it really doesn’t. Spoiler Warning, for those of you who care about how this season ends and all, even if it’s non-canon.

Attempting to mash up manga material with anime original plots is something this season does quite well. Mixing in certain original characters like Pluto the Hell Hound in canon episodes. So to speak, only episodes 1-6 and 13-15 are actually canon with everything else being completely original. The trouble is as I kept on watching is that checking out those sets of eps on their own doesn’t make much sense.

Their use of continuity to the anime original elements ends up being a detriment (such as the reason why there was bunch of people going crazy after ingesting curry that had something evil put into it by the main, and anime original villain). Otherwise, I’d say it’s all pretty good, if not a bit too much at times.

There’s tons of obvious pandering to certain types of fans and the character of Grell, as entertaining as she is, gets pushed into a comedic role despite being quite a threat once she’s revealed as a Grim Reaper.

Of course, letting this stuff go. Black Butler Season 1 on its own is fine. It opens and ends its story on a bittersweet but inevitable note of Sebastian consuming Ciel’s soul. It feels natural at the very least.

Shame Season 2 retconned it to keep the story going but eh, I skipped it.

Book of Circus

Now this is where things get good. And I mean really good. From here on out each instalment is referred to as a ‘Book’ rather than a season. Not only to help separate things from how Season 2 went but also as an indicator that they’re being more faithful to the manga, or rather books.

Opting to ignore everything from Season 1, save for the canon episodes with some flashbacks to readdress certain things like what happened to Soma and Agni after the Curry Arc and Ciel summoning Sebastian, only much more accurate to the manga’s portrayal (which means pushing towards to a certain fan theory).

On the Queen’s orders, Ciel and Sebastian must investigate a the Noah’s Ark Circus who have been tied with various child disappearances in every place they’ve visited. This of course requires them to go undercover with Sebastian blowing everyone away as usual.

Then everything goes to crap.

Comparatively speaking, compared to the canon episodes of Season 1 (non-canon, not so much), this is easily the darkest story arc of the story so far with plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting with a group of antagonists that are just that, antagonists. They’re not necessarily evil, just people trying to live their lives and do what they can to keep going on, even as their morals tell them otherwise.

It’s that sort of complexity that helps elevate this season and it’s 10 episode length makes things move at a brisk pace with no moment ever feeling boring or dull. By the end I was left flabbergasted by everything that went down and saw just how far Ciel was willing to go in his decisions.

Book of Murder

Dealing with the direct aftermath of Circus, the Queen tests Ciel’s loyalty by having him hold a party at his manor to honour a certain guest. With one of the Queen’s personal butlers, Charles Grey, being in attendance as well.

After inviting a certain group of people, including doctor and struggling writer Arthur Conan Doyle (yes you read that right), the party soon goes downhill. How you ask so obviously? The guest of honour is found dead and thus begins a murder mystery filled with tons of clues, locked doors and maybe even a thirteenth man who could be responsible for it all.

This arc is very good fun, it’s nowhere near as serious as Book of Circus ended up being but it still functions well in dealing with its aftermath and revelling in every murder mystery trope out there. For that I love it.

I had such unbridled enjoyment following along as new information is revealed one after another and the moment you think you’ve figured out something another reveal throws you for a loop. Even if the eventual solution and conclusion can feel obvious looking back on it all, there’s fun to be had on the journey there.

The format of this instalment being 2 hour long OVA episodes can feel a bit off at times though and it definitely feels a bit slow at times, whether it was deliberate for the story or not. I did appreciate the details regarding Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle’s life as Arthur gets wrapped up in it all, like learning of the martial art of Baritsu or referencing his writing of historical novels. Little details like those are so good.

Book of the Atlantic

Lastly, we have the newest instalment and the very first film too (putting aside that live action film no-one speaks of). I watched the movie on the opening day for its Australian theatrical release on June 15. It was subbed only, which I had no problem with, even having seen everything beforehand dubbed (and America’s theatrical release at the same time included a dub too, kind of a shame things weren’t timed a little better but eh). Though that’s all beside the point.

Once again Ciel and Sebastian are doing some investigating, this time based around the mysterious Aurora Society and their human experimentation. Their latest meeting taking place on the luxurious ship named the Campania. Going there under the pretense of a small vacation as Ciel’s fiance Lizzy is also there with her family for a real trip, things seem to going swimmingly.

That is until Ciel and Sebastian, in disguise, attend the Aurora Society meeting and witness as the doctor Rian Stoker shows off his attempt to bring humanity ‘perfect salvation’ by resurrecting the dead. Inevitably it all goes completely wrong and the reanimated corpse proceeds to kill and eat the flesh of everyone in their reach.

Thus we now have Titanic with zombies.

Book of the Atlantic does what it does best with gusto, confidently moving along the main plot of the series with no hesitation in sight as new revelations are made about certain characters that make us rethink all their previous appearances. Mixed in with some stunningly cool fight choreography, between killing off zombies or Sebastian going at it with the Grim Reapers Grell and Ronald. It’s stylishly awesome.

On the negative side, the CG is at its worst here. Working best when showing off the various large locations inside of the ship but using it to animate background crowds and zombies is when it feels incredibly glaring. The previous instalments in the series have had their share of CG at points, the most noticeable being when they’re used to animate horse ridden carriages but were otherwise pretty sparingly used. The only time I could say the CG was used perfectly here was (spoilers abound, highlight it) at the start of the lengthy flashback of how Ciel and Sebastian first began their contract as we see Sebastian in his demon form approaching the injured Ciel. This demonic appearance being used in CG, which only helps to strengthen how otherworldly he is, mixed with the uncanny valley.(spoilers end here)

There are also two major flashback sequences that happen during pivotal points in the film that go on for a little longer than I expected considering what was going on in present time. Though I forgive it this way as they both present a ton of important and interesting information that really helps to form the characters they’re based around and adds some extra details to previously known stuff as well.

The movie’s pacing is pretty well done outside of those two flashbacks, moving along in its 1 hour and 40 minute run time without forgetting anything majorly important while still keeping me invested in what’s happening.

The explanation for the zombies also makes a ton of sense within this universe and the continued worldbuilding with the Grim Reapers also adds on nicely atop everything else.

The English Dub

The English dub has some merit worth talking about, the choice to give all its characters accents relating in some way to their background is always a mixed one but Black Butler’s dub does it rather well. I’d say its due to the strength of the cast and crew and their admitted love for the material they get to work with (this remains the only anime series Ian Sinclair continues to ADR direct for and Grell’s actor Daniel Frederick has barely done any other dubs outside of this one). Likewise, J. Michael Tatum and Brina Palencia’s Sebastian and Ciel are pitch perfect and their chemistry, no matter the scene is incredible.

All that said, it’s a fantastic dub across each instalment and some of the casting for the new/one-off characters is incredibly great as well (Book of Circus’s use of out-of-towners Matthew Mercer and Michael Sinterniklaas as Joker and Dagger was fantastic, especially in how Matt switches Joker’s accent when he’s performing and in private).


All in all, Black Butler has been a fun experience, from its mixed start to its continuing rise in quality as we see how much darker and interesting its stories can get. If you can get past the goofier and pandering aspects (like that weird running gag about the servant Tanaka always appearing in a tiny form when he’s out of energy), you’re in for a devilish time.

 

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