Wednesday, 5 November 2014

黒執事・サーカスの書/ Kuroshitsuji: Saakasu no Sho / Black Butler: Book of Circus

Well, at the end of the second season of Kuroshitsuji, which I really didn’t like, I considered the anime finished. There were the strange OVAs, but they were mostly gag side-stories. How could the anime continue? It showed us the inevitable end of the pact between a boy and a demon, and that was the best thing about it.

Meanwhile, the manga continued and got rather better. What a shame, I said, that the anime writers went off on their dreadful tangent about Alois rather than following the manga to its best arc, that revolving around the Noah’s Ark Circus.

Well, the property is still a hot one after all these years. That combination of pretty man/grumpy child paedophilia is still irresistible to the fujoshi and there is after all plenty of manga material yet – though I have to say that apart from Lizzy kicking butt in it, I can’t remember much at all about the arc that follows this one. So A-1 Pictures decided to just shrug off continuity and backstory and plunge into an adaptation of the arc as a stand-alone piece. We can just say that it took place at some point before the end of season 2, right? Honestly, that was probably the best thing they could have done.

I don’t really like Kuroshitsuji, but this arc is as good as it gets. A strong premise, what is effectively Ciel’s backstory finally made plain, and then a morally ambiguous ending where there really aren’t any good guys – this works well. The lack of a strong villain – the antagonist essentially being a crazy, feeble old man – creates a hole filled by the notion that the bad guy is, in fact, Ciel himself. With his demon sidekick, of course.

The set-up is a clever one for the kind of dress-up escapades that this sort of fanbase loves. Ciel, still the ‘Queen’s watchdog’ (despite her having so many incredibly strong people around her who should be able to take care of any business), is sent to investigate the disappearances of children near a circus. To gather information, Ciel and Sebastian pose as performers and thanks to Sebastian’s skills, manage to be accepted. Ciel, meanwhile, is pretty useless, and is very cute taken down a notch or two, teased by the others and striking up a friendship with his kind-hearted roommate. Nicknamed ‘Black’ and ‘Smile’, they get to know the rest of the peculiar cast – including ringmaster Joker, cross-dressing tightrope walker Doll, anachronistically-named trapeze artists Peter and Wendy and my favourite, animal tamer Snake, who has named his numerous serpents after prominent Victorian and pre-Victorian writers: Bronte, Keats, Wordsworth and both Oscar and Wilde. Quite pleasingly, Snake is also not involved in the main conspiracy – and so can appear again later.

‘Black’ strikes up a rivalry with ‘Suit’, a shinigami named William T. Spears who has also infiltrated the circus – indicating to Ciel and co that they’re on the right track – and after a while they find the clues they need to uncover the truth: the circus folk, while good-hearted, are eternally indebted to a rich old man who saved them from street life. However, they do his bidding, kidnapping children for his entertainment. Driven mad by having seen Ciel as a child, as well as his father (whose form Sebastian adopted when he manifested), and realizing he will never be as beautiful as they are, this crazy old man has children put through such suffering their minds break, then has them perform deadly circus tricks, dying horribly while he laughs. Because of his obsession with Ciel, he has also exactly replicated the room where Ciel first made his pact: an old operating theatre-style ritual chamber, with an altar where he was to be sacrificed by mysterious shady occultists, that favourite of Victorian books about demons. Incensed, Godzilla stomps on Bambi, and Ciel is merciless – even with the surviving children, who he considers broken beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the circus members storm the Phantomhive manor, intending to threaten Ciel so he will be easily controlled. However, the staff members are finally able to show how truly formidable – and frightening – they are. This is one of the highlights of the series, and I’d probably rather watch an anime about the exploits of those three than one about Ciel. The shinigami show up to mop up the mess, though their presence is largely extraneous and rather sillier than the rest of the arc, especially with one of them wielding a lawnmower. But I can overlook that, and the comic relief just about works.

As a narrative arc, it has its faults – mainly with the antagonist not really having been much of a threat and very little being at stake to Ciel himself – but overall it’s excellent as part of a larger narrative. It gives Ciel a huge amount more depth, showing him being hapless, being vulnerable, being authoritative and being tyrannical. It shows his dark past and the dark present that has resulted. It fleshes out his staff’s stories and makes them more formidable. But most crucially, it sets up a group of enemies who are very likeable – while they do things they can’t be forgiven for, they have been conditioned from a very young age and have very little choice in their actions. 

The anime will continue – first of all with two OVAs entitled ‘Book of Murder’. If they maintain this quality, I might actually start to like Kuroshitsuji.

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