Black Butler: Complete Season 2
I must admit, I was a little surprised to see a second season of Black Butler appear. Not that the first season wasn't very good, the series managing to put a very original, to say nothing of uniquely Japanese anime-style spin on classic Victorian horror fiction and real historical events. And, as the opening of the second season shows, there are surely plenty more adventures to be explored in this rich genre. No, the reason that a second season comes as a surprise is that the original story just seemed to come to a natural and very affecting conclusion at the end of the Season One, with no suggestion that there was any likelihood or indeed - since the young Lord Ciel Phantomhive's Faustian contract with his demon butler Sebastian had reached payback time - even any possibility of a follow-up.
It should be remembered however that Sebastian is, as it so often puts it himself, one hell of a butler, so it's shouldn't be surprising that the demon might have had similar contracts over the years, or indeed that there may be other such contracts in force with others of his kind. There is, we've discovered, more than one grim reaper in this world after all. And, as Black Butler Season Two opens up with a familiar feel to it, it seems that there are certainly plenty of other decadent nobles prepared to engage the rather unique and specialised services that someone like Sebastian Michaelis can provide. Anyone who has watched the first season will notice however that there is something a little bit different about the opening episode of Season Two. The young noble, Alois Trancy, son of the rather disgusting Earl Trancy, has a mysterious background and seems to be just a little bit twisted and perverse himself. The butler that has accompanied him on his return to the Trancy estate moreover, certainly looks like Sebastian and has all the necessary attributes to acquit himself as "one hell of a butler", but he wears spectacles, is called Claude Faustus, doesn't quite sound the same and has a rather more obvious sense of evil about him than our familiar seemingly unflappable Black Butler.
Those matters are clarified to some extent by the surprising reappearance of the young master Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian himself in episode two and the interchangeability of identities proves to be significant to what later develops. The notion of two villainous noble households with similar arrangements, backed-up by staff with their own specialised abilities, is given an interesting spin also by the fact of them both being on call to the Royal Family, Phantomhive's position as the Queen's Guard Dog matched here by Trancy's position as the Spider, presumably to carry out darker commissions, if that were even possible after some of the extreme events of Season 1. The first half of the series seems about to bear out this premise and provide some additional adventures within its London Victorian setting relating to the appearance of mythical white stags, burning women and even a whodunit on a train - again all tied into the literary, mythological and the technological innovations of the period, but the end of the first arc reveals that it's actually the nature of the pacts and a certain rivalry between the two households that are to dominate the latter half of the Season Two.
It's understandable that the series would want to bring back both its principal characters rather than starting from scratch with an entirely new contract between a noble and his demon butler, but the means by which Ciel is "revived", his memory of the completion of his contract lost, his friends and servants playing along with the scheme of not revealing anything, does seem a little contrived. What's worse is that the reason for bringing Ciel back never becomes entirely clear, or at least not to me, although I could have missed something. Also, the aspects that made the first season successful and so enjoyable - the way it cleverly tied everything together at the end and pulled a few surprises out of the bag - cannot be replicated here. There are a few early attempts at reviving the light-hearted and colourful camp tone through characters like Lady Elizabeth, Viscount Druitt and Grell, but by and large, these extravagant figures are marginalised as they no longer really fit into the much darker tone that had been established by the end of the previous season.
And Season Two is indeed considerably darker in tone. If the elements that made the first season fun and entertaining are almost entirely absent, there is at least some compensation in how Black Butler Season Two is a much more consistent horror series. What makes it work so well is the actual deepening of characterisation and mythology of the Black Butler, through both Sebastian and Claude. It's more than the nature of their superpowers or their abilities to be a super-servant, and rather more than just a contract to win a soul but rather the nature of the relationship that they have with their charges that is just as important and it's the whole aspect of souls, the taking of souls and what that means that becomes the central theme of the Second Season. Also in favour of the new season, the animation from the A1-Pictures studio in many ways surpasses the work on the previous season, rising to meet the challenges of the darker content. It loses the realism of the Victorian setting and instead operates mostly within fantastical settings of a metaphorical maze of the mind and an island of death (modeled on Arnold Boecklin's painting Isle of Death), looking fabulous and well-animated throughout.
Black Butler: Complete Season Two is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD only, the full series of 12 episodes on two dual-layer discs, with a third disc containing 6 OVA episodes. The set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Released on DVD only in the UK, the quality is nonetheless superb and really, could hardly be much better even if it were in High Defintion. The 16:9 anamorphic widescreen transfer is beautifully stable, the image is clean, sharp, brightly coloured, with excellent definition, unbroken lines, and movements flow smoothly with no interlacing. Audio tracks are in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0. The choice is up to the listener, but the quality of both is excellent. Personally, I was happy with the English dub on this one, particularly for J. Michael Tatum's superb voicing of Sebastian, the English feeling more authentic to the setting. Even if some of the other accents are a little bit odd, the characterisation is great and feels fully in the spirit of the anime. Subtitles are available if you choose the original Japanese track however, and are a horrible bright yellow that does nothing but clash with the animation's colour schemes. All the more reason to go with the English dub.
On Disc One and Two, for the actual series itself, there are commentary tracks by the US English-language producers for Episode 1 and 12. There is however a full disc worth of extra OVA material - six additional Black Butler episodes - on Disc Three. These consist mostly of throwaway filler material that has fun with the characters in situations outside of the season time-lines, but they are really of limited interest. They are however all exceptionally well animated and one or two of them at least prove to be worth your time. Considering the period, the setting and the series' interest in classic English literature, it was probably inevitable that 'Alice in Wonderland' would be parodied at some stage. In the two-part Ciel in Wonderland the cast unsurprisingly fit rather well with the Wonderland character roles (albeit with a few bizarre twists), but although it does look great, this nightmarish nonsense becomes very tedious over two full episodes. Welcome to the Phantomhives has some fun using a first-person perspective, when a guest is brought to visit by Lady Elizabeth. It looks like being a set-up for a behind-the-scenes episode, but actually turns into a nice little crime adventure set around the time of Season One. The Making of Black Butler II however is indeed just such a behind-the-scenes parody, the actors playing themselves, reuniting for the second season and bringing their own personal issues to the "filming", with plenty of outtakes. It's not as much fun as you would think, although it does get delightfully absurd. By far the best thing here is The Thread of the Spider's Story, a delightfully eerie and enigmatic little piece that views everyday life in the Trancy household from different perspectives and really adds depth to the characterisation of Alois and sympathy for his predicament. The Story of Will the Reaper is also surprisingly good, viewing Will and Grell in their early days as Reapers, and showing some background of how the whole strange reaping system works. Disc Three also contains a Commentary for one of the OVA episodes, English dubbing Outtakes, a Trailer for Season 1 and a Trailer for Season 2. I normally find Textless Credits worse than useless, but I quite enjoyed watching the beautiful uncluttered animated sequences for the three Textless Songs in this series.
I missed some of the light-hearted innovation and the unique spin on the Victorian horror-mystery that was there in the first season of Black Butler, and was sorry to see some of those fun characters that enlivened it reduced to minor figures by the change of circumstances in Season 2. Concentrating however on the dark horror that lay within the premise of decadent nobles under contract to powerful demons serving them in the form of butlers, there is still plenty to recommend Black Butler Season Two, which if it isn't quite as diverse as Season One, is at least relatively more consistent in tone. Twelve episodes is about right for this season - although this time, there is certainly a new opening for subsequent seasons - but the DVD package rounds this out with an additional six OVA episodes, which have some strong points even if these are mostly rather throwaway items. The quality of the animation from the reliable A1-Pictures studio goes from strength to strength, and the DVD specifications are excellent, so although the Second Season proves to be excess to requirements, fans might just be glad to see this series continue, and a third season may even hold some new promise.