Kuroshitsuji II (2010) Review
Originally published on MAL @ 22/7/2020
Black Butler II turned ten years old two weeks ago, which is quite surreal to think about considering how recent it feels. There's a rather peculiar phenomenon that happens in popular culture with time. It would seem that stuff that was popular ten years ago tends to age poorly, and yet 20 years later, we laud it as a retro classic. Given that, we must ask ourselves whether or not history will vindicate Black Butler II. Indeed, it wasn't the most critically acclaimed at the time of its release, and yet there was this rather notable subset of the fandom that tried to find the good in an extremely controversial second season. Even so, some would argue that this show's transgressions are so unforgivable that what little good this season accomplished would never be enough to justify all the nonsense viewers have to endure. I am one of those people.
My initial impressions of Black Butler II were not positive when I first watched it. Even if I try my damndest to forgive the show for its many transgressions, I can't find myself feeling anything except visceral disgust. Do not be fooled; there is no merit to be found here in Black Butler II. What little good that it manages to accomplish boils down to mere coincidence and aesthetics rather than any sincere attempt at telling a coherent story involving characters who have compelling narratives. I'd even go so far as to say that this show is the perfect example of a “cash grab sequel” considering how much shit the viewer has to wade through before finding anything remotely close to what the first season had to offer.
That's something I'd never imagine myself saying, much less in a long-form review. Though the 2008 anime is flawed to high heaven, I can at least respect the fact that it tried to branch out into newer concepts. While its ending wasn't satisfying for me, it felt like an airtight conclusion to the Faustian tragedy about a victim of circumstance and his pursuit for revenge. It's common knowledge by now that the 2008 anime ended with Sebastian about to devour Ciel's soul, how the fuck can anyone make a sequel to that? Unfortunately, I can't go into too much detail about that due to spoilers, but I will say this: the explanation feels like it was ripped straight from the depths of some shitty headcanon on Tumblr or FanFiction.net than Yana Toboso's mind.
While it was challenging to try and find anything about this show's marketing, the general assumption that one could make at the time its pilot aired was that this show would be about a new young master and a new demon butler. Of course, we all know that setup was a fake-out as the real story this season has to offer is a battle between old and new. The new young master Alois and his demonic servant in Claude are now locked in a struggle with Ciel and Sebastian as we watch this marvellous chess game unfold in real-time. At least, that's the best way that I can try to describe this sad facsimile of a plot positively.
The thing is that Black Butler II tries to set itself up as this grand battle of wits between eerily similar nobles where we can see just how far Ciel could have fallen were it not for the way his circumstances played out. It doesn't achieve that effect whatsoever and instead plays out more like a sadistic child psychopath bitching about why everyone hates him. Ciel wasn't the epitome of characterisation in the 2008 anime. However, it was still relatively easy to root for him considering how Ciel still had his moments of humanity shown (i.e. his affection for Lizzie, his acceptance of Soma and Agni, his bond with the servants of Phantomhive, etc.).
I want to give Alois the benefit of the doubt because I get no joy out of hating him. However, I cannot tolerate his presence on the screen for more than mere minutes at a time and no amount of great voice acting from the likes of Her Highness, Luci Christian can ever change that. Alois is quite literally Ciel if he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever and any attempt this show makes to paint Alois in a sympathetic light falls flat on its face when you take his actions during the anime into account. How the fuck can I feel any modicum of sympathy for a child who gouges out his maid's eye for a simple mistake?
What's more, is that the anime tries so… fucking… HARD to make the audience feel sympathy for Alois to the point where it just comes across as fucking stupid rather than compelling. I don't give a shit how tragic your character's backstory is; sympathy is earned rather than given. Ciel's actions in the anime and manga are indeed morally questionable at times. Again – he's still got those crucial moments where you can look past his Bruce Wayne facade and see a child who's ultimately a victim of circumstance. You want me to see the light in Alois? How about you portray him as something other than a sadistic, psychotic child with the telltale signs of histrionic personality disorder in the present day and present time?
I don't give a rat's ass if Alois was abused and defiled like Ciel nor do I give a shit about his background as some impoverished child; shitty people, in general, don't deserve our sympathy. Alois's entire motive boils down to an obsession with what Ciel has that he doesn't have. Indeed, this feud between Ciel and Alois gets even more ridiculous when Claude decides to take an interest in Ciel after tasting his blood. Get this: Alois is such an irksome shitstain that his demonic servant who is contractually obligated to serve him leaves for the superior protagonist. That's how you know you're an utter failure as a person.
There is an argument that I've seen some people make that Alois was an excellent villain specifically because he got you to hate him and in a vacuum, I can understand that logic. The problem with this train of thought is that merely hating a villain doesn't automatically make them compelling. Wrestling heels evoke the ire of the audience on purpose, but there's a clear distinction between a heel like Randy Orton and a heel like X-Pac. Hell, I'd wager that Alois isn't even in the same league as X-Pac. He's more like Roman Reigns in that the larger audience hates him and yet A-1 Pictures decides to pull a Vince McMahon and continue pushing Alois despite the sheer volume of disapproval.
What makes all of this even more disgusting is how far A-1 Pictures tries to go with its pandering. I stated before that I'm grateful for Yana Toboso deciding against making Black Butler into a BL manga. Now, we get into the part of this review that goes into great lengths about why. The fan service in Black Butler was uncomfortable, but it never got downright nauseating like its cash-grab sequel does. Hell, put the two shows side by side, and you can make an argument that the first season was tasteful with how it handled its fan service. Again, that's a statement I never thought I'd say out loud, but here we are.
Alois's backstory involves him getting exploited sexually by the former Earl Trancy. If you think that's bad enough, we get treated to several flashback scenes where we see Alois seducing him in excruciating detail right down to the ugly bastard sucking his toes. We get treated to countless views of Sebastian pandering to Grell's lust for him by striking poses while she takes photos of him beating up the bishonen triplets. Speaking of which, we get treated to many scenes of these mute triplets who exist for two reasons: padding out Alois's servant lineup and also fan service for all the fujoshis who couldn't get enough BL material from the first season. You know, because why bother telling a compelling story when you can amp up the number of pretty boys in your narrative and have the fujoshis buy the BDs in droves? Don't think they're the only ones who get in on all the pandering either, because Hannah exists specifically to cater to perverts who lust after a one-eyed maid with huge tits.
It gets to a point where Claude is the only character introduced that I can find myself rooting for in some manner. Why? Because he reacts precisely in the way that I would if I got beckoned by a child psychopath. I'd just put in the bare minimum necessary to get the kid to shut up and ditch him when I get the first chance. Ordinarily, I'd take umbrage with Claude's lack of charm or charisma. However, that would imply that all demons in the Black Butler universe are exactly like Sebastian. Is it that much of a stretch to assume that demons can have different personalities and aesthetics? Plus, Jason Douglas does a fantastic job voicing him, so I can't find myself being too hard on him.
What baffled me when I was watching this was how I saw so many comments on KissAnime deriding Claude for not caring about Alois, but I feel like we're missing out on one crucial detail here: Claude is an expletive demon! His only vested interest is in Alois's soul, not Alois himself. That's also the reason why Sebastian went through so much trouble to reclaim Ciel after Claude kidnaps him! This utterly stupid fandom seems to forget that demons view humans as food and nothing more. Sebastian and Claude didn't fight for Ciel's love; they were effectively fighting over who gets the last slice of pizza! The only reason why Sebastian ever act in a remotely paternal manner to Ciel in the first place was due to Sebastian's dedication to the butler aesthetic. Claude had no such commitment to any aesthetic, so it makes sense that he'd act in a vein similar to other demons.
I've seen other reviews of this show saying that they liked how it cut back on the gag comedy that plagued the first season. What's more, those same reviews praised this season for being darker and taking risks that the first season didn't. Like I said in my analysis of the first season: it's pretty fucking dangerous to romanticise risk-taking. Why? Because it leads to people accepting abject rubbish as genuine quality when all it's doing is being edgy for edginess's sake without any care for storytelling or characterisation. To be fair here, it's not like the manga was devoid of edge, but there's an obvious distinction to be made here.
Whenever we get a look back at Ciel's time with the cult shortly after Vincent and Rachel Phantomhive get murdered, the manga treats these moments with absolute seriousness. Sebastian even says that Ciel was calling out for help “in sorrow, in anger, in despair, and terror” and that “he spits out curses that fall like flames from his tongue.” We don't see Sebastian as a knight in shining armour rescuing his uke like so many awful drawings on DeviantART, Tumblr, and Pixiv make him out to be. Instead, we get a picture of a predator masking his prey drive with a Faustian contract. Sebastian does save Ciel from the cult, but not without reminding him that his soul is forfeit when the time comes. If Ciel ever has a traumatic flashback to the cult, Sebastian comforts him just enough to bring him back to sanity (or he'll opt to scare him out of it in the recent chapters). It's not because of any vested interest in Ciel beyond the contract. It never was, and it never will be.
If Black Butler II were to recreate this type of scene, it would instead feature Alois crying out for Claude never to abandon him while he's wearing boa, hot pants, and no shirt. Oh and don't forget to throw in some flashbacks of Alois's hilariously oppressive past to garner more sympathy and some shots of Hannah staring at him wistfully while the triplets stand there doing nothing. If it still seems a little too sterile for you, why not throw in some shots of the old Earl Trancy and his harem of underage boys along with Alois's quest to usurp the Earl? That'll surely make the audience root for Alois. You might think I'm exaggerating here, but that's literally how all of these “dark” moments play out in the context of the show.
Moving away from all that ranting about the story and Alois's numerous transgressions, let's talk about the other characters. While Ciel and Sebastian make a return in this season, their involvement in this season feels forced beyond all belief. All our beloved Bassy wants to do is eat his dinner in peace, but A-1 Pictures couldn't even afford him that luxury. Still, there was a part of me that was happy to hear Brina Palencia say “This is an order!” only for J. Michael Tatum to follow it up by saying “Yes, my lord.” Given that, I guess that's one positive point in this show's favour.
Unfortunately, that positive is immediately followed up by another negative in that the remainder of the returning cast has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Lau even makes a return despite visibly dying toward the end of the first season, so it's not like A-1 Pictures even cared about consistency. Perhaps most insulting is how Fred Abberline now has a twin brother... who looks and behaves precisely as Fred does in the manga, right down to the moustache. Mind you, Episode 20 of the first season explicitly stated that Fred lost his entire family when he was young. Where was the twin all this time? Directly from some coked-up executive's anus, perhaps. I think the best part about the twin is that he completely undermines Fred sacrificing his life to save Ciel from impending danger. Thank you, A-1 Pictures for completely ruining one of the few poignant scenes from the first season. We don't need compelling narratives involving characters we care about; we want more BL fan service! But, I digress because I've been blathering far too long about this. Let's take a look at some of the more superficial aspects of this show. Maybe then, I won't have so much venom to spare.
Due to the shorter season, there was a much higher animation budget which pays off quite well this time around. There's much more action in this season which admittedly is a refreshing change of pace considering how slow the first season was. Even more surprising is how fluid these action scenes are. It was quite a marvellous sight to witness Sebastian throwing tableware at random goons in the first season, but now we get full-on brawls between Sebastian and Claude.
Still, there are quite a few inconsistencies with the animation that isn't as apparent in the first season. The CG horse carriages returned, as did the CG teapots. What's more, they've come back in droves. Let's play a drinking game: take a shot every time you see some conspicuous CG in the show. The first one to die of cirrhosis won't have to suffer for the rest of the show's run. Thankfully, that's the worst I have to say about the animation. There aren't any instances of the animators going off-model that I could make out while watching the show, so that's a plus.
Unfortunately, the audio has taken somewhat of a downgrade from the first season. There is no iconic song like “Si Deus Me Relinquit” from the first season in Black Butler II. The only iconic track from the OST in this season is the OP, ironically enough. “Shiver” by the Gazette is a decent song. It does pop up in my head every so often, but it's not the type of song I'd actively seek. Still, upbeat J-Rock songs are always okay in my book. The dubbing this time around is also much more tolerable, though that could be due to the lack of exaggerated Cockney accents from the likes of the Phantomhive servants. I just wish that Funimation didn't waste Her Highness, Luci Christian's talents on such an awful character, but that's a comparatively minor gripe in the scheme of things.
Now we get to my favourite part of this review: enjoyment. It should be apparent that I fucking hated watching this show. Even when I first watched it back in 2014, I didn't care too much for it. However, I wasn't quite able to vocalise how I felt because my thoughts were far too abstract for me to piece together. Coming back to Black Butler II six years later has given me the capacity to precisely vocalise the sheer contempt that I feel toward this failed abortion of a cash-grab sequel. Unfortunately, this came at the cost of my entertainment. To date, this is the only A-1 Pictures show I've ever watched that I didn't enjoy in any capacity whatsoever. Not even in that ironic “so bad it's good” way.
So many people say that this season had potential. Do not be fooled; there was never any potential to be had with this awful show. Its very premise relies on breaking an airtight conclusion from the previous season. Even worse, it amplifies all the worst aspects of the first season from the fan service to the sheer volume of uncomfortable BL subtext between Alois and Claude or Ciel and Sebastian. Hell, there are even some moments where A-1 Pictures tries to shoehorn some subtext between Ciel and Alois too. The only way Black Butler II could've ever been good is if A-1 Pictures decided to adapt the Circus arc of the manga. We didn't even get that for a good four years after this travesty aired.
The whole time I was watching this, I couldn't help but ask myself one question: “why am I not watching Black Butler: Book of Circus?” In so many ways, that is the superior sequel. I'm not even trying to be a manga purist at this rate. I'm all for a show deviating from its source material if the creators of the programme are willing to put in the effort to develop their stories and characters. However, A-1 Pictures had no intention whatsoever of giving us any of that. This show isn't an attempt at genuine quality; this is the finished product that we receive when coked-up executives try to cater to the lowest common denominator. That's pretty fucking insulting when you consider just how rich and deep the manga's lore is.
While all of this drama was going on in the world of the anime, the manga was flourishing. Do you want to see Sebastian challenged in his duties as the Earl of Phantomhive's butler? You don't have to watch this season to witness Sebastian struggle. We get treated to countless moments where Sebastian isn't so peerless after all. He didn't even know how to treat Ciel's asthma when he had an attack during the Circus arc. Sebastian's superhuman endurance also gets pushed to its limits during the Luxury Liner arc as he tries to protect the young master from danger approaching him at all sides. All of this was happening during the time that Black Butler II was airing. Imagine being one of the poor sods who watched this season and came out of it pissed, instead of being one of the people who had the luxury of enjoying a proper story from start to finish.
Should you watch this show? Absolutely fucking not. Even if you're sceptical of my praise to the manga, there are still other shows in this particular genre that are worth watching. Pandora Hearts started airing the year before Black Butler II came out and while I do have my grievances with the series as a whole, it's a far more satisfying experience from start to finish than Black Butler II is. Alternatively, you can turn to Karneval and get a similarly brief show that makes some modicum of sense. In a landscape where shows of genuine quality exist, there is no reason whatsoever as to why you should give this season a chance.
Finally, I have a little message I want to give to this incredibly bizarre fandom that I begrudgingly associate with due to my love of the series as a whole. If you thoroughly enjoyed Black Butler II, if you liked Alois, Claude, Hannah, or any of the other characters that this show introduced, or what have you: that is 100% okay. However, you should do us all a favour and not conflate your sense of enjoyment with actual quality. While it is true that anime is an art form, there is a baseline for what does and doesn't work within the context of a particular show. Black Butler II has so many holes in its writing that it plugs with fan service to the point where people have gone out of their way to write fan fiction, not to mention the full-on roleplays on websites like Tumblr. I can't even begin to fathom why anyone would even bother with that. It's not the duty of us as fans to fix the mistakes that the writers made. Your headcanon won't change the fact that this show sucked so hard that you had to resort to making headcanons in the first place. Similarly, you may be able to roleplay as Hannah or Alois without making either character insufferable; even so, that won't change the fact that their characterisations were so mind-numbingly awful in the show itself.
Black Butler II is a blight upon the franchise and isn't worthy of the Phantomhive name whatsoever. Not even those admittedly hilarious bloopers or the OVAs can justify this abomination's existence. If you don't opt to heed my warnings, don't be surprised if you come out just as crestfallen as I am.