Today I review the poorly received sequel to the much loved Black Butler. As maligned as this series is, I was challenged to defend my opinion of it. Day into night, sugar into salt, living to dead, and a hated show into a thought provoking review.
Title: Kuroshitsuji II (Black Butler II)
Original airing: July 2nd, 2010 to September 17th, 2010
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Duration: 24 minutes per episode
Genres: Action, Psychological, Suspense, Supernatural
Source: Original (characters by Yana Toboso), based on Kuroshitsuji manga.
Where I watched: Netflix (English dub and sub available)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
The stage of Kuroshitsuji II opens on the life of Alois Trancy, the young heir to the Trancy earldom. Though he is privileged now, such was not always the case for the hot-tempered boy. Kidnapped and forced into slavery at a young age, he was eventually rescued and returned home, only to have his beloved father pass away soon after.
However, there are certain individuals who doubt Alois’ story and legitimacy. And rightfully so, because things in the Trancy household are not as they appear, starting with Alois’ black-clad butler with supernatural abilities, Claude Faustus. Who exactly is the mysterious Claude, and what connection does he have with Alois?
Amid the web of lies and deceit running rampant in the mansion, the bond between Alois and Claude will be tested as hell itself arrives at their doorstep.
Though Black Butler wasn’t devoid of problems, I was excited to see that the series Black Butler II existed. I enjoyed Ciel and Sebastian’s story, despite the issues in characterization and thematic consistency, and the thought of seeing more had me eagerly pressing “play next” on my Netflix queue. Imagine my surprise, then, when the setup for Black Butler II, including the opening, featured nothing that I knew and loved about Black Butler. If you’re familiar with the series, you probably went through this long before I did.
Black Butler II is an very divisive work. Divisive not in the sense that it split the community between those that liked it and those that didn’t, but rather it alienated nearly everyone that enjoyed the original Black Butler series or manga. Despite the manga author having a hand in creating it, there was a great backlash among fans who saw the series as being far removed from the original material. To them, it was an attempt to cash in on a popular title with little regard for the fan’s feelings. With so much negativity around it, I felt I had a duty to explore this series and find out what all the fuss was about.
Some of you might have noticed that I’m considering this a separate series from Black Butler in terms of series count for my 2016 Anime Challenge. To you I say: cut me some slack! I have a demanding schedule as it is, and I did just review Tokyo Ghoul/Tokyo Ghoul √A as one series, didn’t I? Really though, I haven’t broken any of my rules. The two series are completed works on their own, even if the narrative technically continues from one to the other. That said, you may want to read my Black Butler review (and/or watch the show) before reading onward. Now that my conscience is clear, let’s proceed with the review!
Black Butler II opens with a painting of a group of frightened adolescent boys, half naked and positioned at the foothill of a jutting rock. At the top stands a grinning, horned creature wearing a plague doctor mask. The word “darkness” is echoed as the camera pans over the painting, then zooms out to focus on a naked, bruised boy. The scene cuts from the child to a spider feasting upon a butterfly. The young boy, Alois Trancy, narrates how the darkness is ensnaring him, drawing out every last drop of blood, slowly. He stands, crossing the floor. The spider grows closer, casting an eerie shadow on the ground behind him, as an unfamiliar voice speaks softly, “even so.” “Even so,” Alois affirms as he steps forward, “I choose this.”
In these brief few moments, the tone for the series is set. Astute viewers will notice the symbolism behind the minute long scene. The butterfly, in Japan, represent souls of the living and dead. They are also used to illustrate joy and longevity. Japanese folk tales claim a spider foretells a visit from a friend. In Japanese mythology, however, these creatures disguise themselves as friends to lure people into a false state of comfort before attacking. As Alois offers up his remaining days to this deceptive liberator, viewers see a familiar relationship forming between demon and master, but one that will be much more sinister than the original series.
Black Butler II begins at the end of the 19th century, following the story of a new ‘young master,’ Alois Trancy, and his demonic butler, Claude. The distinct lack of any mention of Ciel and Sebastian in the premise or in any of the advertising for the series beforehand led many to believe that their story was over in Black Butler. Indeed, much of the first episode leads the viewer to believe this is the case. The episode mostly shows the daily life of Alois and Claude, much the same way the Phantomhive daily life was explored in the opening of the first series, but the subjects are more perverse this time. Alois is undeniably cruel to everyone around him and his arrogant nature is showcased at every opportunity.
I will admit that I didn’t really know what to feel about the show at this point. Having picked it up soon after finishing Black Butler, I tried to mentally prepare myself for a series about the already unlikable Alois. As Black Butler II is a few years old at this point, I trust that I’m not spoiling anything by saying that my worries were soon relieved. The trailer for this series itself affirms that Ciel and Sebastian make a return. Not having known about this while I was watching, however, made Sebastian’s re-appearance all the more fantastic, and set up for a gripping rivalry.
Created by Yana Toboso for the purpose of the second anime series, the newly introduced pair of characters start the story with a something of a vendetta against Ciel and Sebastian. To quickly catch up, Sebastian was not actually able to consume Ciel’s soul at the end of Black Butler. At his own master’s behest, Claude stole Ciel’s soul out from under Sebastian as part of a vengeful plot. Alois believed, after all, that Sebastian was to blame for a terrible occurrence in his life and he wished to make the demon butler pay. It’s not something that makes a whole lot of sense for viewers of the first series, but it’s enough to get the story going.
What made matters worse for Sebastian is that Ciel, upon recovering his soul, was unable to remember much of what happened to him. All that basting and flavoring that Sebastian carefully went through to season Ciel’s soul to the pinnacle of gourmet demon food by providing it with sweet revenge was gone. What was he to do then? Allow his master to live a peaceful life from now on and continue to see to his needs as one hell of a butler? Such a thing assumes far too much kindness from a demon. Sebastian instead decides to give Ciel a new vengeance to fulfill, and he knew just the spiteful little noble to make into their new target.
Alois and Ciel soon get pulled into a rivalry as fierce as the one between Claude and Sebastian. The story goes to great lengths to show the parallels between these characters and uses their similarities as an important plot element. A properly flavored soul is a great temptation for these demons and this series creates some compelling drama to show the lengths that each one is willing to go to in order to get one.
What sets Black Butler II apart is just how thematically dark it is compared to the first series. The series contrasts with the lighter tone of the first Black Butler by showing blatant sexual abuse, featuring acts of depravity, and delivering a rather cruel fate to some of its characters . Most of the comic relief is gone, though there are some amusing scenes. Whereas Ciel’s high nosed attitude was used in an endearing way before, Alois’ spoiled nature induces contempt. But where the series fails in creating charm, it does excel in its consistency. This is a dark tale about demons and doomed fates. It’s exactly what the first series set itself up as, but actually delivers on that premise this time.
It isn’t all gloom and doom though. There are some lighthearted episodes that are tinted with just enough danger to keep things interesting. Ciel’s missing memories allow for a brief foray into the more adventure mystery type tales that the first Black Butler started with. The train episode, especially, was an enjoyable one. It sets itself up in a seemingly predictable (yet interesting) path as far as mystery stories go, teasing a shift in Ciel’s ability to rely on others, but reminds you by the end the way Ciel and Sebastian truly work.
The challenge for this series, however, is in providing a completely sensible progression. Just as the introduction starts off flimsy, the plot seems to take conveniences where needed in order to move in the direction it wishes to go. People who are picky about this sort of thing will find annoyances with the way the story proceeds at times as it does take some logical leaps. With that said, the conclusion is bound to surprise, if not for the roundabout and confusing way that the story arrives there.
Black Butler II is known best for the two new anime-only characters created for this series: Alois Trancy and Claude Faustus. Acting as foils for Ciel and Sebastian in a variety of ways, they provide the vast majority of plot direction and antagonism for the ‘main’ characters. Perhaps empathizing with the original duo, this new pair is reviled by some of the Black Butler fan base and not particularly liked by a large part of the rest. Despite Yana Toboso’s support and help in creating them, they struggle to be as popular as Ciel and Sebastian.
There are a number of reasons this could be the case, but the easiest to guess at is the personality of these characters. As I said before, Alois is arrogant and cruel. He is also manipulative, self serving, and sadistic. Touting some of the worst traits of humanity, Alois does portray some more empathetic traits as well. Fear, loneliness, and even love are a few of the emotions that lie just beneath the surface of this surprisingly complex character. Going through the abuses that Alois has faced, it’s little wonder that he turned out to be abusive himself; especially without a caring hand to help him heal and understand what he’s gone though.
Like Ciel, Alois met with a great misfortune prior to meeting his butler. The key difference was the duration and gravity of that misfortune. The first series doesn’t explain exactly how long Ciel suffered at the hands of kidnappers or the magnitude of what he endured. We know only that he lost his parents and was near death when he promised his soul to Sebastian. Alois, on the other hand, is shown to have suffered from early childhood. Ciel’s attachments to his parents was lightly explored, but it wasn’t anything so deep that he wasn’t willing to give up his chance at joining them in the afterlife. In contrast, Alois attachment to the one soul who he ever felt love and loyalty towards is featured quite strongly. He thus becomes driven by his solitude more strongly than his need for revenge, chasing after that feeling of loyalty he once knew even from the most unlikely of sources.
The one who thus provides Alois the ally he so desperately wished for is the demon Claude Faustus. While he is portrayed as much like Sebastian in appearance and attentiveness, there are stark differences between the two butlers. As I mentioned in my previous review, Sebastian’s dark nature is almost forgotten beneath his charismatic and jovial persona. Claude, on the other hand, is more often portrayed as cold and clinical as he approaches his service to Alois with much less enthusiasm. Even an early attempt at bringing some levity to his character, though visually and musically entertaining, felt forced and strange. The series attempts to add more quirkiness to him as it goes along, but for the most part the impression one gets from Claude is that he is is even more manipulative than Alois and shows little regard for anyone, his master included, in going after what he wants. As an opponent for Sebastian he lacks a lot of the likability that someone like Grell had, but he does prove far more effective at getting under his skin.
With these differences in characterization, it stands to reason that the master/butler relationship is different as well. In reading Yana Toboso’s blog translations, the key factor here is the underlying feeling each human master has toward their demon servant. The series indeed does a good job of showing Alois’ dependence and ‘addiction’ to Claude, whereas Ciel understands the nature of demons and rejects them accordingly. Alois tries to use Claude to fill the hole in his heart, while Ciel doesn’t dare let Sebastian soothe away his pain, lest he forget who he is.
The other supporting characters leave much to be desired yet again. Ciel’s staff are their usual selves, with little to showcase the exceptional skills they were revealed to have in the first series. Alois’ quartet of servants, in the form of Hannah and a set of triplets, are yet another example of his life mirroring Ciels. But while Ciel’s servants are loyal to a fault, Alois’ own reflect the darker nature of his life. Though they follow his and Claude’s every command, their agendas do not necessarily coincide with their master’s.
The animation in this series seems to be a small step up from the first Black Butler, while not adding anything notably different. Action scenes appear to be more fluid though, as the animation confidently depicts movement and unique abilities even when you might expect it to have difficulty keeping up.
Alois’ motifs are represented mostly with secondary colors: purple, green, and orange. It’s a simplistic but effective way to show antagonism though color scheme by contrasting with the primary color scheme most associated with ‘good guys.’ This method is most commonly seen in the Joker of Batman fame, but works well with Alois too. Just like the Joker, he is frivolous, unpredictable, and dangerous.
The late Victorian style is still very prevalent, though much of this story does not take place in the city of London.While the familiar sightings of Tower Bridge or Scotland yard are missing, the Trancy mansion and small glimpses of the city keep the theme in tact while giving us something fresh as well. The mansion setting also houses a number of other interesting features which provide for compelling visual spectacles.
Bird and Kagayaku Sora are both slow and sentimental. The latter is most reminiscent of the excellent Lacrimosa from the first series, and is used only in 2 episodes to signify the end of a certain character arc. While the quick tempo and aggressive beat in SHIVER are somewhat uncharacteristic of the series’ tone, this opening most caught my attention as it’s both exciting and symbolic. I don’t know the band very well, but their sound reminds me of the Luna Sea songs I listened to years ago (you get a gold star if you know what I mean).
Arguably though, its most interesting feature has to do with the double visuals that the studio prepared. As I stated in the intro, the opening of the first episode featured only Alois and Claude in an effort to draw out the series’ hoax. Only after it was revealed that Ciel had returned did it feature images of him and Sebastian as well. Their parallel relationships are shown nicely, including the segment I provided an image for in the Characters section.
As this series was a continuation of the original I watched on Netflix, I watched the entirety of this one as English dub as well. Brina Palencia and J Michael Tatum reprise their roles as Ciel and Sebastian, but joining them are Luci Christian as Alois and Jason Douglass as Claude. Luci has a massively extensive resume, and her performance here is most like Wrath from Fullmetal Alchemist (2003). Douglass also has a ton of work under his belt, and his Claude is more like a cold version of Father Wordsworth from Trinity Blood.
It may be hard to to sell this series to someone who had fallen in love with the original, and even moreso for fans of the manga. I haven’t read it myself, nor have I seen anything from Book of Circus (which is where the manga continues after the curry arc from the first series), so I can’t accurately speak on the tone of the series past those points. Still, it seems like Black Butler II has very little of the humor or silliness that some of the ‘canonical’ stories do. I understand well enough the futility of wanting a series to progress in line with personal preferences but as I stated earlier when talking about the tone, I think the consistently dark direction that the writers decided to follow really made the series all the more compelling. Whereas I could take several breaks with the first series, I found myself constantly wanting to see where this one was going.
The second half of the original Black Butler attempted to go a more serious route too, but with a villain that seemed a little too abstract. Making the antagonists hit such personal nerves this time around created a drama that reflected the pain that the characters were going through. Angela’s torturous whipping from the first series doesn’t even come close to what Claude and Alois inflicted on Sebastian in Black Butler II. The former because of his intrinsic understanding of what unhinges a hungry demon the most, and the latter because of his cunning ploy to shift from the butterfly caught in a web to becoming the spider itself.
Without giving anything away, the ending is cruel. Just like so many others, I grew quite fond of Ciel and Sebastian in their adventures together. While it was clear from the very beginning of the first series that there would be no happy ending for Ciel, it’s difficult to feel satisfied when no one ends up with quite what they wanted. The theme becomes reminiscent of classic horror, avoiding the blood and screaming for a more nuanced approach to the terrible ways obsession can go wrong. Just like it was for fans of Light in Death Note, it can be a tough ending for those that fell in love with these characters.
There are those that criticize the more extreme elements of this series given how far it goes with some of its ideas. While the romantic subtext between Ciel and Sebastian in the first series was a selling point for some fans, the more unsavory treatment of Alois is often (and rightly so) met with revulsion. While the people who express these opinions are not always one in the same, it seems like some may find the playful treatment of such subjects exciting but back away when the series makes it a little too real. It certainly helps if the viewer can be open minded when approaching these more mature concepts. Not to the point of acceptance, but to better understand the value they add to the story.
Summary and Recommendations
Black Butler II is a decidedly darker take on the master/butler relationship that was explored in the first series. By introducing a pair of similar, but more twisted, characters, the series draws many parallels between the relationships in order to build a story that is both compelling and tragic. The story lacks a lot of the more lighthearted aspects of the first Black Butler, but allows for some more dramatic character work.
Because of their similarities, Alois and Claude make great foils for Ciel and Sebastian. Their struggles feel more personal as a result, and provide Sebastian with challenges that he can’t easily solve. By using all the strange rules that govern demon contracts to maximum effect it provides a fresh and interesting story.
While there is nothing particularly new or exciting about the animation, it is a step up from the previous Black Butler and shows the studio’s confidence in this title. Sound similarly shares familiar themes but with the addition of some very gifted voice talent to the pool, and a couple of new songs that echo the show’s vibe, it continues to accent the unique atmosphere of the series very well.
Unashamedly darker, this sequel blatantly hints toward pedophilia and child abuse, and as such may not be suitable for viewers sensitive to the subject. As far as endings go, this one can be a little difficult for fans to process. It’s an unexpected turn, lacking the logical conclusion that the first series portrayed, but provides some poetic justice when the theme of the overall story is considered.
Watch if you:
Wanted a darker theme than the first series
Like the psychological aspect of a twisted mirror image
Can appreciate a tragic horror story
Don’t watch if you:
Are highly disturbed by sexual abuse
Liked Black Butler primarily for its humor
Prefer the manga
Surprisingly getting a small bump up from its predecessor, my rating for this series comes in at 4 out of 5 Alois Trancys.
I can’t really avoid spoilers this time when talking about my final thoughts. If you haven’t seen the series and are interested in doing so, please do check it out before reading onward.
One thing that particularly struck me about this series is how it doesn’t let the fact that Sebastian and Claude are self serving demons go unnoticed. It was easy to see that Claude’s loyalty to his master was never a permanent thing, no matter how much Alois wanted it to be. While Ciel understood Sebastian’s motives clearly enough, the first Black Butler teases the viewer into thinking that there is something more to their relationship. Like I said in my review of that series, Sebastian’s arc could have ended with him growing to love Ciel (not romantically) enough to save him, but that series made it clear that a demon would always be a demon.
Except that this series did exactly what some might have hoped Sebastian would have done in the original, only they did it with another character. Claude coldly betrays Alois because he found something tastier. Sebastian secretly plots with Claude just so he can re-flavor his own master’s soul, regardless of the pain it would put Ciel through. But dear, patient, ridiculously drawn Hannah is the one that actually shows humanity in all this. Forever changed by Luca’s love for his brother, she weathered Alois’ abuse and Claude’s scheming just so she could reunite them. It was the most merciful thing that could be done for Alois’ pitiable soul, and the price for that mercy was paid by the most unrepentant characters of the series: Sebastian and Claude.
I am sad for Sebastian because the series made him such a likable character. I’m sad for Ciel because he’ll never have have the rest that his tortured soul deserved. But at the end of the day one shouldn’t expect a story about demons to go well. Black Butler didn’t have to make Sebastian a being of evil. He could have just been an exceptional butler like Walter from Hellsing. In going this direction, they provide the possibility for terrible things to happen, and I’m at least glad that Yana Toboso and the other writers took a bold step in exploring what they could do with the theme.
Much as I liked it, I’m getting a little weary of supernatural series at this point, but it’s not time for a break yet. My next review covers a series which explores light and darkness and how it all relates to fate, while carrying a much brighter tone than Black Butler.
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