Black Butler: Collection 2 Review

If it doesn’t break any new ground or expand much further beyond its initial premise, its opening episodes seeming to being mainly just a variation on the Victorian horror themes established in the earlier half, the second collection of Black Butler containing the entire second half of the full 24-episode series does nonetheless manage to bring its central storyline to a satisfactory conclusion that is consistent with the themes developed in the first half. As you might expect then, there is some amount of humour with some of the characters along the way, a little more local colour of Victorian London, and – considering the Faustian nature of the relationship between the young Earl Ciel Phantomhive and his charming but sinister butler, Sebastian – there’s ultimately a bloody and violent price to be paid for the arrangement by way of a conclusion. All that, yes, and maybe just a little bit more in the way of surprises and revelations…

The second half of the series opens with a few episodes that take in some other aspects of the historical period relating to the British colonisation of India, but the horror story based around these episodes – where a Bengal Prince, Soma and his guard Agni are looking for a missing servant girl – is very much a variation on several earlier stories of girls being kidnapped and used for occult purposes. As well as having a humorous side, with Sebastian’s culinary skills being tested in a Curry Festival, the story nonetheless does manage to bring in Indian religion and mysticism well, expanding the series’ view of the Victorian world beyond London and into the supernatural realm. With the series also extending its reach to the 1900 World Fair in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower has just been constructed, there is however more to use of these fin de siècle historical than just opening up the story a little outside the confines of Phantomhive manor.

While there are one or two seemingly unrelated episodes involving the ghosts of the two princes murdered in the Tower of London, a religious cult in possession of a Doomsday book that does indeed reveal the fate of the world on Judgement Day, and crime incidents based around Chinese opium dens in the East End of London, the series signals its intention to deal principally with the Ciel and Sebastian backstory from the outset of the second half. The closing episodes of Black Butler manage in this way to cleverly manoeuvre those disparate events into the fabric of a much bigger conflict between the forces of good and evil than that of a young noble’s pact with the devil, where – since where there are demons there are also angels – the significance of the turn-of-the-century setting proves to be the occasion for purification and new beginnings. And, inevitably – if it doesn’t exactly involve an Ark – it’s nonetheless going to be a purification of Biblical proportions.

Having introduced what seemed like throwaway characters for comic relief in the first half then, Black Butler manages to pull a few surprises by showing that nearly all of them all have their roles to play in the ultimate fate of humanity. The Undertaker, Inspector Abberline, the Grim Reapers, even Grell – surely one of the campest characters ever committed to anime – all reappear and take their sides in the coming battle. We even find out in Episode 21 – ‘His Butler, Engaging Servants’ why the serving staff of Phantomhive manor are so incompetent, and let’s just say that they weren’t selected for their domestic skills…

There are however what feels like some missteps along the way. The “cinematic record” concept of recording the events of a life on 35mm celluloid film does seems to me to be an absurd, antiquated and impractical means of celestial record-keeping, but it does of course tie in with the birth of cinema around this time period. Some might find Grell a bit hard to take, but personally, I found his over-the-top character hilarious, providing – along with Elizabeth – a little more balance, colour and dynamic to a series that could otherwise have been a very dry indeed, particularly with animation that is for the most part fairly static in nature. On balance however, while it doesn’t go anywhere particularly new, Black Butler manages to have fun with its Victorian gothic-horror setting, creating intriguing character relationships and, in the end, managing to see them through to a strong conclusion that even manages to be somewhat touching.

Black Butler: Collection 2 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD only, collecting the second 12 episodes of the entire 24-episode series (with an additional two bonus episodes) on a 2-DVD set. The set is Region 2 encoded and is in PAL format. The quality of most anime series released on DVD now – certainly those I’ve seen recently produced for Manga Entertainment by Funimation – look so good that it’s hard to imagine they could look much better in High Definition. The image is clear, colourful and stable in movement, with no significant issues detectable to the average human eye.

The available audio tracks are Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track and English Dolby Digital 5.1. As I suggested in my previous review, the English dub is well done and culturally more appropriate, so it’s certainly a valid choice. Even if some of the accents are a bit dubious, it fits in well with the character of the series. The American voice-actors also get the chance in these episodes to try out their Indian, Italian and French accents, to varying levels of success (amusingly dreadful) – a distinction I’m sure you wouldn’t get from listening to the Japanese soundtrack. The original Japanese track however is there if you want that option. Optional English subtitles for the Japanese track are yellow and are literal, but reasonably translated for colloquial and period terms.

Extras include a bonus episode, His Butler, Performer a standalone episode outside of the main storyline, where the Phantomhive/Funtom employees and their associates put on a charity performance of Hamlet, a play with resonances to Ciel’s situation. It’s a fairly average knockabout episode. Watch out however for the post-credits sequence and the new series trailed in the fake “next episode” trailer. Commentaries are provided by the American production team for Episodes 16 and 21. The usual textless Opening and Closing credits are included.

There’s nothing in the concluding 12 episodes of Black Butler that will really surprise the viewer, but it manages to work well within its gothic-horror genre, striking a good balance between historical accuracy and pure genre entertainment. Even if it plays around with the period and deliberately introduces a few anachronisms, considerable effort has clearly been made to research the period in a way that captures the flavour of Victorian London that is in line with other fictional representations, but the real strength of the series is in the way that it draws significant historical events and characters together into a much vaster rip-roaring horror adventure. 24 episodes appears to be about the right length for the series then, which collectively proves to be worthwhile anime entertainment.

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