The Black Butler franchise has had an interesting history to say the least; the still on-going manga spawned an anime adaptation in back in 2009 which lasted 24 episodes, and, rather unusually for the genre, provided a very satisfying conclusion that left no room for a sequel. However, in 2010 it got one anyway; at first glance, it seemed to be a whole new earl and demonic butler dynamic but was actually a continuation of the previous series, ending in a controversial manner that divided many fans. A live action film, that took the concept even further by setting it in modern times, was released in 2014 and again was met with mixed results. Later that year however, an all-new anime series was released that went in an unusual direction; instead of continuing with its own anime canon, they decided to adapt the much-loved Book of Circus arc from the original manga. Making this series effectively take place midst Season One of the anime, allowed fans of the manga to jump right into the action, and those who weren’t overly fond of the latter half of the anime’s direction to get back to basics, as it were.
Ciel Phantomhive is the head of the Phantomhive family, its namesake toy company and Queen Victoria’s personal guard dog, who’s tasked to take care of unruly cases that are dragged up from London’s Underworld. His latest task is to investigate the Noah’s Ark Circus that has recently rolled into town, as several cases of missing children across the country have been linked to said circus but with no witnesses to confirm. With his ‘one hell of a butler’, Sebastian, at his side, the pair must go undercover to find out what the circus is up to, and find the missing children.
If you’re an anime-only Black Butler fan; the Book of Circus arc takes place quite early on in Ciel’s story, notably Volumes 6 to 8 of the original manga and after their adventures with Prince Soma and the curry escapade. Although towards the end, the arc seems to rewrite things that contradict the anime in places, it also gives its own book-ends, so allows you to mentally place it into the anime continuity or ‘head canon’ should you feel so inclined. Why this particular arc is a favourite with manga fans and was adapted by the anime team becomes clear as the story develops; at first it comes across as just a fun, somewhat silly distraction with colourful visuals and acrobatic gags that naturally evolve out of the circus environment, however as the mystery builds and slowly unfolds into a story much darker than anticipated, it becomes clear why this arc stands out. The anime is merely 10 episodes long but the running time is well spent in building the mystery, adding layers to the new circus characters and giving the cast we already know and love a chance to be pushed outside their comfort zones. Black Butler has always been a series that can juggle comedy and darkness very effectively, so the imagery seesawing between circus performances leading to unexpected child murders is handled well, with Ciel being pushed to his limits in several ways from having to do his own cooking and cleaning whilst undercover, to facing the darkest episodes of his past towards the end. The arc also allows Ciel to be more proactive than he often isn’t in the original anime series with him having to work out on his own how to gather information and get out of tight situations, as well as coming to terms with his own mortality. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, there is the always delightful Sebastian who continues to steal every scene he’s in, especially in the first half where his demonic skills prove to be a perfect fit for a carnival. But in the latter half he takes a back seat when needed for Ciel’s development or to give the new cast the time the audience needs to get to know them and sympathise with their plight. The arc as a whole is well written and neatly ties up at the end, and although the ending isn’t a particularly happy one, it’s time worth spent with the characters already well established and loved by the audience.
Despite being a continuation of a series, and taking an arc that’s set many volumes into the original manga, the series does try its best to accommodate for new fans or at the very least already-made Black Butler fans that may have been away for a while and need a reminder of who’s who. We’re re-introduced to the reapers, the undertaker, who Ciel and his butler are, even the Indian prince Soma and his servant Agni are given a quick summary of their backstory despite only being there for comedy. The first episode also tries to compress the vibe of the opening chapters of the manga by having everything seem like a normal Victorian upper-class household, with a last-minute devilish reveal just as an enemy tries to take Ciel out. Of course, being only one episode isn’t as effective, but it does try at the very least.
If you just glance at the stills, you’ll find that the series seems to look very much like it did before, however the quality has taken a slight dip since we last saw these characters. Although not that noticeable at first, you will see eventually the production team taking more shortcuts than previously with static imagery, oddly proportioned faces and minimal movement in talk-heavy scenes. Also, the 3D horses are some of the worst I’ve ever come across in a visual medium; I’ve seen more convincing animals in Sega Mega Drive games. However, all can be forgiven due to the stunning opening animation; not only does it sport a great song (‘Enamel’) by the same band (SID) who provided the opening for the first season, but it’s a stunning display of properly utilized 3D and 2D animation blend; the first part plays out like a 3D picture pop-up book, then leads into the gorgeous cinema cell strip visuals and old film filters. It’s definitely the best looking opening that the series has provided so far, and that’s quite a feat! The ending is also a pretty offering, with Akira’s ‘Aoki Tsuki Michite’ being a nice accompaniment to the soundtrack.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include commentaries for Episodes 4 and 10 and a few trailers, sadly the 2 OVA episodes covering the Book of Murder manga arc aren’t included in the set. A real shame since the second season set contained many lovely OVAs and extras, so Season 3 feels very lacking in that respect.
To be frank, we did not need a new Black Butler anime; the original series told its story well and the previous attempt to continue past the solid conclusion was not the brightest idea, despite how you may feel about the second season itself. However, adapting an arc that could easily be sliced into the original run, and allowing it to just be a brief fulfilling romp with your favourite characters, is a clever idea that can allow different fans to take what they want from it – whether it be an anime re-write or a fun distraction. I admit I didn’t realise until I started watching it that I actually missed Black Butler, and this 10-episode series is the perfect slice of entertaining characters, supernatural antics, eye-pleasing aesthetics and devilishly good dark turns. Not to be missed if you’re a fan.