Too Bad You're Beautiful

I dump short stories, poetry, long-form reviews, and random streams of consciousness here.

My son recently told my wife and I about his first crush. Understandably, my wife was gushing as she was saying our little boy was finally growing up. With that said, my son was a bit put off by his mother sobbing so melodramatically over something that might not even manifest into a real relationship. God only knows how many idle crushes I had before I got into my first relationship. My wife hasn't been able to shut the fuck up at the dinner table about whether or not Sarah reciprocated his feelings, so I feel like now's as good a time as any to have a man-to-man talk with Keith. I walk upstairs to Keith's room and I knock on the door.

“Come in!”

“Hey Keith, got a minute?”

“Sure. I was gonna turn off my Xbox anyway because I kept getting ganked.” I grab a seat on the chair by his desk. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice his binder open and there are hearts sketched into the margins of his notes. Oh Lord, he's at that phase. I let out a deep sigh and turn myself to face him.

“So... I see you really like this girl, huh?”

“Oh come on, Dad!” he groaned as he put his Xbox controller on the nightstand next to his bed. “I get enough of that spiel from Mom, do you really have to join in?”

“Relax, Keith. I'm not here to prod you about whether or not she's dating you yet.” I get up to shut the door and lock it behind me. “I just wanna talk to you about this stuff like an adult. I locked the door so that your mother can't barge in here and butt into the conversation.”

“That still doesn't stop her from listening at the goddamn door.”

“Keith, I promise you that I'll talk to your mother about respecting your privacy. Believe me, my parents pulled the same shit on me and I couldn't stand it either.”

He opens up his backpack and pulls out a bag of Cheetos. He offers me one and I gladly accept; I'm a sucker for Flamin' Hot even though they give me heartburn nowadays. We sit in silence for a few minutes as he's munching on his chips, but I don't prod him to talk about his crush. If anything, I want him to have the first word because it'll make him feel a bit more comfortable.

“You really ain't leaving until I spill the beans, huh?”

“Oh please, what kind of father/son relationship do you think we have?” I chuckled as I grab his binder and hand it back to him. “You know, I can recall a time when I used to sketch hearts and scrawl my crush's name on the margins of my notebook when I was your age.”

“And lemme guess, Mom turned out to be your crush the whole time and she said yes after I asked her out, huh?” His sarcasm is biting, but I laugh it off as I roll the chair closer to him so that we're both about a foot across from one another.

“Promise me you won't tell your mother what I'm about to tell you,” I said with a hushed voice; not quite a whisper but low enough so that it sounds like mumbling if my wife is listening from the door. I extend my pinky out to him, to which he wraps his pinky around mine.

“I promise, Dad.”

“Your mother wasn't my first love, not even by a long shot. I met her in our freshman year of college, but I can tell you that she wasn't my first crush, not even my first relationship.”

“Holy fucking shit,” he whispered as his eyes widened with shock. “But Mom always told me that you were her first and only boyfriend.”

“Yeah... there's a reason why I don't tell her anything about my life before college,” I chuckled before recomposing myself. “Don't get me wrong, I love your mother to death but I'd be lying through my teeth if I said that she was the only woman I ever had a crush on.”

“So... who was your first crush? If you tell me, I'll tell you everything about Sarah.”

“Only if you promise me that anything I tell you stays between us. I know you always complain about how your mother doesn't respect your privacy, and I'll only respect yours if you respect mine.” I extend my hand out for a handshake that Keith reciprocated. “Capisce?”

“Capisce.” He repositions himself in his bed so that he's more comfortable. Similarly, I lean the chair back a little bit so that I'm not hunched over.

“My first crush was in 10th grade: a Mexican girl named Crystal. We shared the same homeroom and sat at the same table. Funny thing is that I didn't really have a crush on her at first; she was more like an acquaintance than a friend, or even a crush for that matter.”

“So what got you to like her in the first place?”

“Honestly? It was how approachable and friendly she was to me at the time. I was bullied hard in high school and didn't really have many friends,” I sighed before taking another Cheeto out of his bag. “I remember when she stuck up for me when I was about to get my ass kicked by some SOB. That was the moment when I “imprinted” on her, so-to-speak.” Keith chuckles to himself briefly before handing me a napkin from his backpack to wipe the Cheeto dust off my fingers. I feel like I struck a chord with him, to which I let out a slight smile. “What's so funny?”

“Nah, it's just your story kinda reminds me of mine so far. I dunno how it'll end though, so please continue.”

“You have no idea how much that act of kindness meant to me. Like... I can't even come up with words to describe it. I was an antisocial loser in high school and yet she still made the effort to defend me when no one else would. How else was I supposed to react at the time? I knew that I liked her right then and there, but here's the rub: I was too much of a chickenshit coward to tell her that.” Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that he sighed and started squirming a little. “Long story short, I kinda became her shadow. Wherever she went whenever we didn't share a class, I tagged along. Of course, her friends hated my guts because they thought I was a stalker. I mean... they weren't wrong upon retrospect, I'll tell you that much.”

“So... why did you keep chasing after her if her friends hated you and you admitted to being kinda stalkerish?” I sighed and leaned forward so that my face was right next to his ear. I take great care to whisper so that my wife can't potentially overhear this.

“Because she was the only person who noticed me and didn't treat me like shit. Social isolation does weird things to a kid when you're growing up. When I “imprinted” on her, I developed this weird sense of tunnel vision where all I could think about was her. Looking back? It was pretty fucking unhealthy and scary at the same time. Of course, I wouldn't have listened to you if you told me that when I was your age.”

Keith and I sit in awkward silence for a few seconds before he takes a water bottle out of his backpack. After taking a swig, he passes me the bottle to take a sip. All this talk about the past combined with the Cheetos I ate is giving me heartburn, so the water helps abate that somewhat.

“Uh... I think you might be getting to it, but I wanna know: how did it end?”

“Not well, to say the goddamn least. If your mother ever tries to dress you up on Valentine's Day and gives you a plastic rose to hand her, do yourself a favour and don't fucking do that shit. I did all that stuff of my own volition and I fessed up to her on Valentine's Day of that school year... thing is, I put her on the spot and when she said “no,” I ran out of the cafeteria embarrassed. What I didn't realise is that she got a lot of shit for curving me because I made such a grand gesture out of it, and so she got really fucking cold to me in homeroom after the fact. Even after I apologised to her, she remained distant and we weren't really “friends” after the fact.”

“Oh my God... that's... that's so fucking sad, dude.” Keith reaches out to give me a hug and I'm awestruck at this. He hasn't voluntarily hugged me since before he started high school. “Is there more?”

“Well, she transferred schools and I still kept getting bullied in my junior and senior years. I dated a girl named Jenny for a bit in my senior year, but that's a story for a different time.” I cleared my throat and got up to stretch so that my leg wouldn't fall asleep on me. “Now it's your turn. What's your deal with Sarah?”

“Well... I guess you can say I'm in the same boat you were in. Only, I'm not really getting bullied and I haven't really thought about fessing up to her.”

“Why is that?”

“Mostly because every time I think about it, I get so afraid that she'll reject me. I've tried twice to talk to her, but every time I just get cold feet and blurt out something completely random. I think she knows that I have a crush on her, but I just can't bring myself to say it to her face. It's aggravating, honestly...” I reach out and put my hand on Keith's shoulder.

“So let me ask you this: do you think of her as a friend, first and foremost?”

“Yes, but I don't want her to stop being my friend if I tell her that I like her, y'know?”

“Okay, so here's an idea. Give me a sheet of paper and I'll write down exactly what you should tell her.”

“Come on Dad, don't tell me that you're gonna be my ghostwriter.”

“No, I'm not telling you to text this to her now. I'm writing this shit down so that you'll remember what to say when the time comes for you to properly tell her how you feel, now hand me a piece of paper.”

Keith hands me a piece of paper and a pen from his backpack. I roll the chair over to his desk so that I can have a surface to lean on while I'm writing. I take care to make sure my handwriting is legible enough so that he doesn't say the wrong thing entirely. After a few minutes, I hand him the note that I wrote. I urge him to read it.

“Hey Sarah, I know this is kinda random but I just wanted to let you know that I have a crush on you. I'm not expecting you to feel the same way and if you don't, that's 100% okay. You're my friend first and foremost, and nothing will ever change that...” He sits in silence for a bit before looking up at me. “Dad, do you really think this will work? I mean... it's kind of a lie because I want her to like me back.“I

“Okay, but what do you want more? Do you want her to be your friend for the foreseeable future or were you only ever interested in her because you wanted her to be your girlfriend?” He raises his finger to say something, but he starts stuttering before he could form a cogent sentence. “Lemme put it to you like this: there's a 50/50 shot of her liking you back no matter what. If she likes you, then fucking great! Bring her over to the house, we'll treat you both to dinner, make a whole day out of it. If she doesn't like you back, well it'll suck at first but at least this way, you still maintain a meaningful friendship. Also, if she has some cute friends of her own, maybe she can set you up if shit doesn't work out between you two.”

We both chuckled at that little quip. Keith puts the note away in his folder. As I'm about to walk out of the room, Keith gets out of his bed and gives me a hug from behind. I turn around and hug him back.

“Wanna go downstairs for dinner? Your mother's making some new chicken recipe that she got off a YouTube video.”

“Sure, let's go!”

I know I worry deeply about whether or not I'm fucking up my son the same way my parents fucked me up as a kid, but it's moments like this that make it all rewarding. I hope he doesn't get his heart broken, but that's part and parcel for the world of romance. Hopefully, I gave him the tools to not be a fucking socially inept dingus like I was back then.

My nights have been so cold for so long. Not just literally I haven't been feeling so brotherly in a long time. The distance, the bitter cold It's something I've grown accustomed to For better or worse Tonight, I feel something faintly familiar Though it's a largely foreign sensation I feel... warmth

It's unbearable at first It's suffocating, and I can't seem to get cool enough So I try to distance myself until suddenly I find myself in the cold again. Ah yes... the intense, unflinching, unrelenting cold I should be comfortable again, right? But now... I find myself yearning for the warmth's presence.

I spent all this time trying to get away When I'm finally free from the warmth, I'm not happy Why? Why couldn't I learn to appreciate the warmth? Things will be different now, right? No

Several times over, I've tried to sneak a tiny ember But I keep finding calderas that burn out if I try to sneak a single ember The infernos of passion, the fires of friendship The calderas of trust They all burn me when I wander too close Yet now, I can't live without their presence

The frigid tundras I've resided in for so long They've kept me warm too if I bury myself deep in the snow But now I want to wander in the open And not succumb to frostbite or hypothermia The problem is that the alternative isn't much better

If I stay in the tundra, I inevitably freeze to death If I stay by the caldera, I inevitably burn to death Finding a balance seems impossible Solitude isn't the answer, but neither is companionship I'm tempted to give up hope, but there's a silver lining

A hand reaches out to me in the cold darkness A warm hand, but not burning A hand that's cool, but not frigid I reach out to grab it and they lift me up Suddenly, I'm overcome by light This shining radiance is comforting as it overtakes me When it's no longer blinding, I find myself shocked by what I found

I'm no longer stuck drifting between tundra and caldera I'm in a peaceful meadow surrounded by flowers and grassland The warmth of the sun and the cold of the moon are gentle The life around me isn't burning or freezing to death There's nothing for me to bury myself under Nor is there anything here that would raze my flesh Instead, I'm free to wander as I please.

Eventually, I find a settlement on the horizon Its people are jovial, their faces kind There's a deep-seated fear of mine that these steppes Will morph into another tundra or another caldera But for now, I'm at peace as I finally have a place to call home

Sleep seldom comes easy to me. I never had a healthy sleep schedule for as long as I can remember. As a child, I stayed awake at night to watch Futurama, Family Guy, and InuYasha (among other such programmes). This is a pattern that I maintained well into my adolescence as I opted to stay up to watch stuff on my phone and computer at night. Sadly, the foundations for dysfunctional adulthood had to come from somewhere. The shitty habits that I formed as a kid and as a teenager now haunt me well into my adulthood, where I'm still struggling to undo the damage that a decade and change of neglect have caused. Of course, this rant isn't supposed to highlight all of my dysfunctions; today's diatribe is all about my issues with sleeping.

The pandemic hasn't made things any easier. If anything, the constant paranoia and lockdowns have only aggravated my problems sleeping. After all, what's the point of maintaining a semi-consistent sleep schedule if I'm going to get laid off in a couple of months and collect unemployment regardless? As the world started to open up, I realised that this manner of thinking was fundamentally unsustainable. Sure, I could go back to working overnights at some godforsaken hellhole of a warehouse again and make really good money with mandatory overtime to boot. However, I always felt like I could do better than that. As the headlines of labour shortages kept piling up, I realised that I was in a reasonably leveraged position to negotiate my wages. Sooner or later, that opportunity would pass me by, and I'd be a fool to pass it up. I need to get onto a reasonable sleep schedule to capitalise on this labour shortage appropriately.

At the start of this month, I quit smoking pot altogether for many reasons. This isn't the journal entry to discuss that, but one of the reasons why I maintained my pot habit in the first place was because it's one of the few substances I could consistently take that helped me get some facsimile of sleep. Of course, relying on a substance to sleep is never the healthy option. I've tried melatonin gummies in college, and it was a bitch and a half to wean myself off of them. Similarly, ZzzQuil was another “non-habit forming” sleep aid that (anecdotally anyway) failed to live up to the marketing campaign. Please make no mistake: these substances weren't physiologically addictive to me; it was more psychological than anything else. I've tried “holistic remedies” like chamomile tea, hot milk, and so on, but they didn't do anything for me either; they didn't even give me the illusion that it was helping.

I thought all was lost until I came across an advertisement for the Calm app one night while I was doomscrolling through Instagram at 3 AM. I've certainly used the Calm app before, but that was when I was trying my hand at mindfulness meditations back in 2019 before letting the app sit on my phone and collect virtual dust. I always knew that Calm had sleep aids like bedtime stories, soundscapes, and guided sleep meditations. However, I never paid it much heed. In my jaded and cynical mind, the idea of a phone app helping me fall asleep seemed laughable. The reviews for the app also felt way too optimistic for my taste; after all, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Little did I realise that “probably” doesn't necessarily equate to “always.”

I still have no idea what possessed me to try the Calm app again after all this time. Perhaps it was misguided hope, or maybe it was sheer morbid curiosity. Regardless, my insomnia wasn't going away any time soon, and nothing of substance was happening on any of the apps or websites I frequent. If nothing else, I could always get rid of the app if it didn't work for me. I already exhausted my free trial back in 2019, and I came out of it underwhelmed. I didn't have the money to shell out for a paid subscription that I'd most likely forget about until it auto-renewed on my credit card. This time, I had to make do with the free option. Surprisingly enough? The free option was quite robust. Sure, the overwhelming majority of sleep stories, soundscapes, and music were hidden behind the paywall but honestly? I still had plenty of options at my disposal. One story stuck out to me: The Kingdom in the Sky, as narrated by Idris Elba.

Okay, now you have my attention. Idris Elba is genuinely one of my all-time favourite actors/celebrities. I never would've expected to see him on an app like this. I fired up the sleep story, jacked my phone's volume up to 50% so that I could hear the tale properly while trying to sleep on my side, and began to listen to it intently. Funnily enough, I've always adored the sound of Elba's voice, but I never realised just how good a narrator he is until now. I can't tell you a single thing about the story whatsoever beyond it taking place in South Africa (or some other neighbouring country). I will say this: Elba's delivery was fucking immaculate. Within 5 minutes, I felt my eyes metaphorically glued shut. Within 10 minutes, I felt my lips sealed as I was starting to drift off. The next thing I knew, I was awake at 09:00; not necessarily “rejuvenated,” but I still felt better waking up this time around than I usually do.

I'm still dumbfounded about this happening. I started writing this journal entry at 10:00 AM, and it's almost noon as I'm writing these last few sentences. I don't necessarily think I'll be making a habit of using Calm to fall asleep regularly, but I will concede that looks are deceiving. My initial experience with apps like Calm and Headspace was relatively lukewarm, so I assumed that mindfulness apps weren't for me. Honestly, I'm glad that I still kept Calm around on my phone despite making it a point to get rid of Headspace. Still, I'm not too fond of Tamara Leavitt's voice, so I don't think I'll be doing guided meditations any time soon. Regardless of my hangups with mindfulness, the sleep side of Calm is undoubtedly worth investigating. Perhaps I'll fall asleep to one of Erik Braa's stories this time around (assuming that they're not behind the paywall). You win this time, App Store!

I hate being a man sometimes “Ew, not interested.” “I'm flattered but you're not my type.” Am I still in anyone's league, or am I overripe?

That's when we first met. Do you remember that day? You came so late in my life, that all you found Was a lot of sorrow, loneliness, and pain in my heart. So much of it that you knew not where to start.

It was through you that I discovered a new reason: To keep marching forward with every season. It was no surprise to me that I fell in love But you're the raptor and I'm the dove.

Part of me always knew it was never meant to be. How could a woman like you love a dork like me? You visited me so often in my dreams That I went through paper by the ream

At night, you guide my path like the glow of the full moon But deep inside, I know that chasing you will lead to my doom. I loved you like Layla did Majnun But I knew you'd never love me enough to make me your groom.

Even if I was doomed to end up like Qays I still prayed for your love on these wet, dreary days. My friends tell me that I'm a madman possessed They're not wrong, but I paid no heed to their protests.

There's no place for me in your heart as we continue this dance But damn it, at least give me the opportunity to make one. To hold you in my arms, to bask in your light like the morning sun Even if you held me in your talons, I'd relish the chance.

A madman possessed, what am I now? Am I a man or am I a shackled cow? Your affections are worse than blow At least with coke, I reap what I sow.

The day passes and the night arrives I eagerly await your messages, like the liquor I imbibe I know that chasing you will mean that I'll die But I'll do anything to maintain this beautiful lie.

Of all the weekly JUMP mangas that have come and gone over the last two decades, One Piece remains an oddball in that it has quite literally outlived all of them. What's even weirder is that it has also maintained a consistent release schedule since it was first published in 1997, outpacing many of its contemporaries who've long since gone on numerous hiatuses like Hunter x Hunter, D.Gray-man, and even Berserk. One Piece also remains as the last surviving member of the “Big 3” shonen mangas that dominated the whole of the 2000s and the first half of the 2010s. Even if you've dismissed One Piece in the past, Eiichiro Oda's dedication to his magnum opus is truly something to be admired.

However, its reputation as an overly-long and convoluted manga isn't entirely unwarranted. The storytelling relies on each arc to make its own mark on the overall worldbuilding. While this approach has its benefits, it often comes at the cost of making each turn feel inconsequential when it ends. After all, our beloved Straw Hats are only gonna be staying on one particular island until the Log Pose resets. Why should we even bother getting invested if we know that they're gonna be moving to the next island anyway?

As sympathetic as I am to people who think that way, I disagree with that mentality. Yes, the overall progress toward Gol D. Rogers' long lost treasure does feel inconsequential at times. Even so, each arc still makes its own impact on the larger story being told. Characters introduced in some of the story's weaker arcs (i.e. Shanks, Vivi, Monkey D. Dragon) return in later arcs where they have a far more profound impact on the story at hand. This also applies to concepts brought up in earlier parts of the manga's run as Oda expands upon stuff like the World Government, the Grand Line, the politics between the Four Kings, and their interactions with other pirate troupes (among other such things).

The earlier arcs also profoundly impact the characterisation of our beloved Straw Hats. While it's often easy to dismiss them as one-note archetypes, they're anything but. Using Zoro as an example, he was introduced as an unrepentant bounty hunter who used Luffy to escape captivity. However, the course of his travels with the Straw Hats showed us a side of him that we never would've expected. He's still a reserved vagabond with no sense of direction, don't get me wrong. However, he's still the de-facto First Mate of the Straw Hats for a reason. His unwavering loyalty and dedication to the Straw Hats, combined with his excellent skill in swordsmanship, make him a valued ally and the one who'll usually save the others just in the nick of time. You know... unless he gets lost again, but that's beside the point!

Even Usopp, the Straw Hat that I've seen countless people (including fans) make fun of, gets this type of treatment. Yes, he's a liar and a coward. Even so, Usopp provides a much-needed element of humanity to the crew as a whole. It's so easy for shonen protagonists to be reckless and accomplish feats that nobody else can (look no further than Luffy if you want an example). Usopp is a stark contrast to the typical shonen protagonist in that he's bitterly aware of his own limitations. His cowardice, his falsehoods, his denial, they all reflect someone who's clearly out of his element, yet he continues to push forward. Why? Because he loves his friends far too much ever to abandon them. If there's ever a period of hardship that our crew goes through, Usopp is generally the first one to react. What's more, he's not above chastising Luffy for his stupidity despite also being the first to partake in said shenanigans. He provides a much-needed contrast to Zoro and Robin's seriousness and Luffy's airheaded recklessness.

The supporting cast and arc-specific characters are also intense, as they all have their own motivations and desires. This isn't even getting into how complex these characters' relationships can be. Using Shanks and Whitebeard as an example, they're two of the Four Kings, a quartet of pirates who command their own crew and have undisputed rulership over their own territories. While the Four Kings generally prefer to keep out of each other's ways unless they absolutely must, Shanks and Whitebeard are a bit of an exception in this regard. They were both rivals on Gol D. Rogers' pirate crew, so they exhibit some distaste for each other. However, they both have this mutual respect due to their past relationship as crewmates. Shanks even goes out of his way to warn Whitebeard of impending danger, despite knowing full well that Whitebeard's bravado and recklessness would make his warnings fall on deaf ears. Doubtless to say that One Piece truly is a cut above the rest when it comes down to its overall storytelling and characterisation despite some hiccups here and there.

In terms of artwork, One Piece is peculiar in that it maintains a far more cartoonish style than many of its contemporaries. Unfortunately, this does lead to countless people dismissing the manga as some childish work of fiction. Don't get me wrong; it is published in Weekly Shonen Jump for a reason. Even so, I wouldn't necessarily call the art style childish in the slightest because it adds this rather vivacious charm that other shonen mangas don't have.

One Piece, at its core, is all about adventure in a world that's quite dissonant from the one that we, as real people, live in. We have devil fruits, islands that can be cloaked in perpetual snow or tropics, and the resulting flora and fauna from such a setting. A more subdued and realistic art style similar to Bleach or Naruto wouldn't fit the outlandish nature of the story that Eiichiro Oda is trying to tell us. Would you be able to take a shapeshifting reindeer or a talking skeleton with an obsession for panties seriously if it looked more like 20th Century Boys? I don't think so.

What's even weirder about the artwork of One Piece is that it maintains quite a consistent track record for quality despite being a weekly release. Don't get me wrong; Oda is no Inio Asano, Kentaro Miura, or Takehiko Inoue. However, the fact that Oda can continuously draw incredible scenery that makes sense within this bizarre universe he created is genuinely commendable. Take notes, Togashi!

Now we come to the most subjective part of this review: my personal enjoyment of the manga. I've been keeping up with One Piece on and off ever since I was in the 4th grade. I wouldn't have bothered writing this up if I didn't love this manga. However, there are a few caveats that I'd like to add to that statement. For all the praise that I can lavish on One Piece, it is by far the most obtuse manga I've ever come across.

I don't mean obtuse in that it's overly complicated. Instead, I'm referring to the sheer volume of chapters that come out weekly. This manga started publishing when I was a toddler, and it's nearly at the 1,000 chapter mark. Combine that with just how much detail Eiichiro Oda packs into his stories, and you have a recipe for the ultimate test of endurance for even the most seasoned manga enthusiast.

Mind you, I'm in my mid-20s at this point, yet I've barely managed to crack the 500 chapter threshold. One Piece is a manga that truly is engaging in every sense of the word, but the sheer volume of content can be quite draining to binge through when you know that there's so much of the story that you've yet to touch upon. As a person who loves to theory-craft as I'm reading a publishing work, this is quite the dealbreaker for me. After all, why should I even bother coming up with my own theories if there's a genuine possibility that I'll be proven wrong if I continue reading?

With that said, theory-crafting isn't the only reason why I'd even enjoy a publishing work in the first place. From Oda's charming art style that manages to convey the sheer absurdity of what happens while also taking it seriously to the fantastic work Oda's done with characterisation, there are plenty of reasons why I still hold a deep attachment to One Piece. Even at its stupidest and most juvenile moments, One Piece still manages to surpass the threshold for quality with such enthusiasm to the point where I have no choice but to grit my teeth and bear through it all, be it good, bad, or ugly.

This is by no means a comprehensive review of One Piece. I lack the time, the energy, and the desire even to tackle such a feat. Plus, better men than I have already addressed the subject countless times over. This review is meant for the casual reader who's come across One Piece at some point in time. The prospective reader was tempted to give One Piece a chance only to get put off by the sheer length of this work. While One Piece is a far cry from the likes of the Epic of Gilgamesh, it truly is an epic told in manga form. Make no mistake: it's a daunting task to read this manga, but you'll be greatly rewarded if you decide to pick it up and power through.

One Piece stands tall among its contemporaries as the most ambitious shonen manga ever written. When countless titans like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and Bleach fell prey to arc fatigue and ultimately ended on a lukewarm note, One Piece stood above them as it continued its march forward. Even lesser-known mangas that were still loved ended up either getting cancelled due to poor sales like Psyren or were left to rot on indefinite hiatus before resuming publishing at quarterly intervals like D.Gray-man. Even Hunter x Hunter, the supposed “champion” of mature shonen storytelling, falls prey to Togashi's sheer inability to finish a work that isn't Yu Yu Hakusho. Given all of that context, it's no wonder why One Piece's fanbase is so fervent in its admiration for Eiichiro Oda's superhuman work ethic.

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.

To myself, aged 16:

I'm not sure how this letter can ever reach you. In the present day, the technology for time travel doesn't exist, nor does it look like it'll ever be on the horizon in my lifetime. If by some strange miracle you get this letter, then I'd advise you to read it through to the end. At this point in time, I'm in my mid-20s. Having lived through so much, I wanted to give you some insight into your future struggles, anxieties, and ultimately, what you can do in your present to hopefully lead a better life than the one that I currently live. This isn't to say that the present isn't all doom and gloom, but there are things I wish I had done 10 years prior that could've made my life significantly easier today.

If this letter reaches you at the exact time frame that I think it will, you will likely be in your first relationship. I won't spoil how events turn out for you, as some things are better left experienced. However, I will say that despite the euphoria, the long nights that you spend with her talking about God knows whatever until 4AM, and all those other happy experiences, you will experience turmoil. Some of this is because of circumstances beyond your control and some of it is self-inflicted due to bad decisions. While I can't help you with the circumstances beyond your control, I can help you with avoiding bad decisions.

First and foremost, your girlfriend is her own person. Romantic affection is nice, as is the respite she provides you from the lunacy that you have to deal with on a daily basis. However, you should always remember that she doesn't exist solely to make you feel better. She has her own struggles, desires, aspirations, and such that you'd do well to remember. The dates at your house are nice, but don't be such a coward: visit her house every so often, ask her about how her latest personal project is turning out, develop a vested interest in her hobbies so that you have more to talk about, that kind of thing. Yes, she validates your obscure interests despite not fully understanding them, but don't you ever forget to do the same for her.

If you notice that there's something different from the status quo, be proactive and take the initiative to see what's going on. Don't just wallow in your comfort zone because she makes it easy for you to avoid accountability for your actions. If she's abnormally silent, if she's passive-aggressive, if she's ghosting you, or anything to that effect, be direct. I know how neurotic and anxious you get when you don't know what's going on, so tell her this up front. Even a simple message like “I can't read your mind, please tell me what's going on” could make all the difference.

With that said, there will also be times where you can't help her no matter how badly you want to. There will also be times where she just wants a moment to herself, and that's perfectly fine. You hate it when you get smothered with attention when all you want is a moment of silence, so it's only fair to give her that space when she needs it. Obviously, you have no way of knowing beforehand what she wants so don't be afraid to ask. Again, even a simple message like “Do you need some space?” can make all the difference.

No relationship is ever devoid of conflict, so there will undoubtedly be things I'm not covering that I'll only remember after I sent this letter out. With that in mind, this isn't meant to be an all-encompassing guide on how to maintain your relationship. It's easy to look back from a lens of hindsight and say “I should've done this,” but you have no way of knowing that in the heat of the moment. As a final bit of relationship advice, remember to give her the benefit of the doubt and never assume the worst has come to pass. So long as you maintain open, honest, and judgement-free methods of communication, you'll be fine.

Moving away from your relationship, let's focus on your school life. The only thing I can really say is to stop being so flippant with how you handle your future. School work is boring, it's tedious, and it's fucking stupid at times; we both know this. However, it's still something you need to do. Do you really want to be like me and graduate high school in September instead of June with all your friends? Do you really want to waste your evenings and weekends doing credit recovery courses for all the shit that you cut class for? Remember: every action has a consequence and while you can't immediately see that consequence coming, you'd do well to remember that your past actions will bite you square in the ass when you least expect it.

It's easy to cut classes that are boring for you, but you have resources at your disposal to make your life easier for a reason. Be proactive and speak to your Resource Room teacher, sign up for after school peer tutoring, do something other than cut those classes that you're struggling with. If your girlfriend has a firm grasp over something you're struggling with, again, ask her for help. Don't let your pride stop you from getting help that you need when you're secretly struggling. Similarly, don't be the toxic friend who encourages his other friends to cut class with him. As boring as it may sound, being a good lad now will go a long way later.

As the last bit of advice that I want to give you for your school life, please, for the love of God, develop some self-respect. Don't put on a facade of being “too good” for something while you're desperate for the validation of your peers. Surprising though it may seem, you'll make a lot of friends that will invariably stay in your life in one way or another while you're an adult. You're an eccentric person, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; in fact, your eccentricities may very well be the reason why some people enjoy your company. However, there's a fine line between genuine appreciation of one's differences and outright malicious intent. Use your best judgement and go with your gut feeling. If you feel like some people are making fun of you behind your back, be direct about it and move on with your life. If you feel like something might be fun but incredibly inconvenient, go along with it anyway because the best memories are the ones that were made unintentionally.

Finally, I want to talk to you about your goals and aspirations. At this point in your life, you'll likely have a huge interest in the world of software engineering, Linux system administration, computer networking, and so much more. You might not realise it yet, but so much stuff that we now rely on in the “modern” world that I live in is fundamentally tied to the technology that you have a vested interest in today. Don't you ever give up on that passion; it can definitely take you places that you never would've imagined going in your wildest dreams. Talk to your guidance counsellor about it, learn about what options you have at that point in your life to see how you can have that passion realised, and look into colleges that can help you reach that fullest potential.

With all of that said, one of the most important lessons of adulthood is that life is messy and full of forks in the road. In my case, my own life circumstances prevented me from pursuing a career path in IT/comp-sci/whatever. However, one of the things that I learned as an adult is that there will always be new opportunities available for every fork in the road that you go down. Even if IT doesn't work out for you, there will still be other opportunities that you can pursue. The real key to success in any field that you wish to pursue is commitment and consistency; two things that we both know that you're currently lacking right now. As long as you put your mind to it along with your best foot forward, you'll be fine (or at least, I'd like to think that you will; I have no clue how your future will turn out after receiving this letter).

There's so much more that I want to advise you about, and yet I know for a fact that I would never be able to touch upon the minutiae of every little thing that comes to mind. Ultimately, I know that those are the big three things that are on your mind whether you're conscious of it or not. Perhaps this letter is an exercise in futility, because I already lived through everything you're currently going through and I know exactly how my life turned out. With that said, I'm hoping that if you ever come across this letter, you'll take what I'm telling you to heart and use it to make meaningful, lasting change in your life.

Your future is ultimately your own to make. I already chose my path in life, and I've got no choice but to keep on trudging forward. This isn't to say that I regret all the choices that I made, as there are experiences that I would never want to forget even if I had the chance to do things differently. With that said, I wouldn't have written this long-winded thesis if I didn't care about helping you avoid the same pitfalls that I fell into. I know your pride keeps you from reaching out for help when you need it, so I'm hoping that having a future self reach out to you will make the barrier break.

Sincerely, One of your possible futures from the year 2021.

Looking back from a place of hindsight, the internet has been both a blessing and a curse for me. Growing up as a fairly maladapted kid-turned-teenager, the internet provided me with a bastion of comfort during my adolescence. This isn't even getting into the sheer volume of close friends I made that I've gone on to meet IRL at some point. On the other hand, my very attachment to the internet as an outlet for my frustrations that I couldn't do anything about IRL meant that it became a newfound source of anxiety for me. I remember all the school nights where I stayed up to some obscene hour getting into flame wars in comments sections, forums, and other such places so vividly. Even worse, there were events that took place in those same online communities that would probably raise an alarming number of red flags if I were to look back at them as an adult.

The long-term consequences of online communities have yet to be studied in a proper, academic fashion (to my knowledge, anyway). However, I'm hoping that this long-winded diatribe on my experiences with a specific online community in the past would serve as a “case study” of sorts. I understand that my experiences aren't indicative of what everyone else went through. There are people just like me who've spent obscene amounts of time on the internet, and they went on to become fairly well-adjusted members of society in one way or another. This diatribe also isn't meant to disparage specific online communities either; it's solely meant to be a thorough analysis of my experiences. I don't mean to get so defensive this early into a post, but I just want to cover my bases.

When I got my first computer in the summer of 2007, I used it for two things: homework and RuneScape. In those days, the RuneScape “community” was in relative infancy. Sure, you had older teenagers and adults that were playing the game since 2001-2005 but the vast majority of the player base at that point in time were roughly my age (12-13 years old). If I wasn't playing RuneScape, I was watching PvP compilations made by the likes of legendary players to my preteen eyes, the most important of which was an Eastern European teenager (at the time) named Kids Ranqe. Kids Ranqe (aka Soz Owned/Sv3rige) was effectively a demigod that every intrepid PKer wanted to emulate because he was the first person (to my knowledge) that ever made a perfect “pure” character (as in, a character with maxed combat stats, but having only 1 Defence).

It's hard to underscore just how much of an achievement that was back in the day because modern RuneScape players have access to a plethora of resources documenting the most efficient ways to create specialised character builds. Back in 2005-2007, the only information we had access to was through word of mouth, fansites, forums, and poorly-made YouTube videos with that nostalgic “Unregistered Hypercam 2” logo. Seeing this teenager pour literal hours every single day just training his account for PvP, the videos that documented his journey set to mid-2000s emo music, and the “pwnage” that his maxed pure was able to dish out was something that literally everyone I knew tried and failed miserably at emulating (myself included).

It was precisely that level of idolisation from a bunch of kids much younger than he was at the time that propelled him to RuneScape stardom. There were countless videos on YouTube at the time that literally just showed him doing “normal” things that any other player would do... like buying supplies at Edgeville bank for his next PKing trip. Looking back, it's kind of surreal and even a little scary how much we were willing to gain his approval in any fashion we could. When his account got hacked and his bank was wiped, there were literally thousands of players who swarmed around him that were willing to donate stuff to him to get his account off the ground again. Seeing that level of generosity from the RuneScape community these days is practically unheard of.

Eventually, Kids Ranqe ended up quitting RuneScape altogether for one reason or another and his demigod status would slowly fade away into a fond memory for the vast majority of us players. The shift in RuneScape content on YouTube would also shift away from PvP-based videos to machinima sketches made by the likes of Excl, Dark Arm3, and Tehnoobshow. This shift in content, away from PvP coupled with the fact that many of the original Kids Ranqe videos that were uploaded ended up getting taken down due to copyright violations would only further serve to make his memory fade away faster. That is... until mid-2011.

In 2011, Jagex made the decision to bring back PvP-enabled Wilderness and free trade. This brought back a surge of PKers who quit the game otherwise that wanted to see if they still had the old black magic. Kids Ranqe (now Soz Owned) was one of those players. He saw a brief resurgence in popularity, but it was ultimately short-lived. The new PK videos weren't as well-received due to a number of different factors (i.e. overall power creep making older PKing methods inefficient, the music being starkly different compared to the mid-2000s emo that we were all familiar with, etc.). More than anything else though, Kids Ranqe himself admitted that the “new” Wildy just wasn't “fun” anymore. He stopped making RuneScape videos altogether in 2011, instead opting to focus on his personal channel that was geared toward his music blog. Considering how I had no interest in RuneScape but I the music blog caught my fancy, I made the conscious decision to join his IRC channel. This was the start of me entering a really deep rabbit hole that I'm not sure I ever wanted to go down, upon retrospect.

I'll never forget the day I first sat down in IRC with the demigod that made so much of my early adolescence enthralling. Despite being an obviously starstruck fan, he was incredibly welcoming to me and was more than willing to explain what he's been up to since his glory days of yesteryear. Sv3rige (no longer wanting anything to do with the Kids Ranqe/Soz Owned handles) had long since abandoned video games like RuneScape and Counterstrike because his life took several drastic turns. He moved away from his home country of Latvia several years prior over to the UK looking for work, and then eventually settled in Germany. During those times, he ended up developing an interest in music, cinema, photography, and esoteric conspiracy theories.

The IRC channel was also full of other people roughly my age at the time (16-17), most of us having met Sv3rige either through RuneScape or Counterstrike. We all went through struggles that he'd already gone through, so in many ways, he was like this older brother that we looked up to. We got some pretty cool underground music to listen to, foreign language film recommendations that we'd torrent to watch, and we'd spend hours talking about all kinds of things. Admittedly, they were more into the conspiracy stuff than I was at the time, but I'd be lying through my teeth if I said I didn't buy into any of it.

Between 2011-2014, Sv3rige would go on to make many videos about conspiracy theories, his views on life, how much video games and the internet in general are a waste of time, all the while still working on making music mixes to download on his blog. We'd all partake in those discussions as well, giving our own takes on the subjects at hand. As I was about to graduate high school, Sv3rige's videos about life started to resonate with me more and more as I became overwhelmed with anxiety over my future. I, like many other people in our little circle of friends, was pretty fucking disenfranchised at the thought of working a 9-5 for the rest of my life. Alternative lifestyles, like the one that Sv3rige led in Europe seemed like this exotic alternative where I could actually be happy.

Of course, my life ended up taking a drastic turn of its own. I was starting to focus more on my own life because I was in a relationship at that point in time and my life in college was gradually becoming more intense. As I got more wrapped up in my own reality, my internet life took a backseat. Most of the people that I actively talked to back then added me on Facebook, so it's not like we ever fell out of contact. Sv3rige on the other hand, had no social media to speak of so I eventually lost contact with him. Sure, there was the content on his YouTube channel that I could interact with but honestly? I was getting kind of sick of how much he meandered through his videos. Once I started working part-time while going to school, that more or less put a stop to any sort of free time I'd have to even bother engaging with his content in the first place.

The friends that I met through Sv3rige and I set up a Facebook group chat to stay in contact with one another, so we continued doing our own thing. We'd share music recommendations, talk about what foreign language films we watched, happenings in their parts of the world, and the occasional nod to a conspiracy theory that we still vaguely bought into. Surprising though it may seem, most of our conversations didn't involve Sv3rige at all. Rather, we took what we learned from him and applied it to our own lives. We were getting wrapped up in our own lives, but we still enjoyed the “new” genres of music and cinema that we were introduced to through him. We still vaguely bought into some conspiracy theories like the Illuminati, but we didn't obsess over it like we used to. I suppose the reason why this happened in the first place is because we were all growing up in one way or another; we weren't (as) impressionable as we once were, so we were capable of forming our own opinions on the world around us. Plus, they had ambitions for their own lives that flew directly in the face of the lifestyle that Sv3rige led. Some of them wanted to go to university, others decided to work so that they could move out of their families' houses, and others still wanted to carve out their own path in life by any means necessary.

If we did talk about Sv3rige, it would often involve the sheer lunacy that he would later go on to spout. In late 2016-early 2017, his content would take a shift away from discussing conspiracies and general life musings to outright antagonistic videos against veganism along with his newfound obsession involving raw meat. That was a drastic shift in the style of content that he was making, and virtually none of us had any idea where it came from. We knew that he was very rigid in his stances when it came down to where he got his information from. Any remotely popular news outlet or scientific journals that he came across were dismissed as Illuminati propaganda, so “alternative” news and journals, interviews from discredited scientists, among other such things were what he frequently consumed. At the time, we just dismissed it as something he'd grow out of (or at least, I'd like to think that's what the consensus was).

But no, that obsession with “alternative” media ended up fostering the vast majority of his lunacy that would come from that point forward. Aside from the nutritional stuff, he'd also go on to make videos about how the earth was flat, how he was superior to RuneScape players due to his “awareness” of the truth and why he'll never play again, and of course... sungazing. No, I'm not joking about that last one; it was something we actively discussed back when we were still in contact with him. Granted, I love me a good sunrise like any other person does. However, Sv3rige took it to a whole new level by actively making videos where he'd sit down and stare at the sun.

As time went on, Sv3rige's lunacy ended up becoming common knowledge around the older members of the RuneScape community. So he more or less became a meme, rather than a figure that everyone else once idolised. While this was happening, he'd go on to generate a following of flat earth believers and raw meat enthusiasts who just so happened to have a massive hate boner toward vegans. He'd later go on to make a Patreon account where the people who bought into his doctrines more closely could actively fund his lifestyle. The irony behind this isn't lost on me, because Sv3rige used to espouse the idea that the internet, in general, was a waste of time and that there's a whole world out there worth experiencing. My friends that I met through him took that advice to heart, so we all tried to advance with our own lives without letting the internet and video games consume us. However, we never would've anticipated that he'd go this far into the metaphorical abyss.

However, that's not where this rabbit hole ends. No, it gets much worse. In 2019, Metro published an article about him as he made a spectacle of himself in the UK while eating a raw pig's head that delved into his past in Latvia. Sv3rige, real name Gatis Lagzdins, wasn't just a lunatic who makes a spectacle of himself at vegan gatherings; he was an attempted serial killer. In 2006, shortly before the apex of his RuneScape glory days, Gatis (then 16 years old) attempted a mass stabbing spree against his classmates in high school.  His name was anonymised in reports at the time, but considering how high-profile he's become in recent years, that shroud of anonymity ended up collapsing in on itself.

To say that I was shocked would be a gross understatement; it was like finding out the older brother figure you once looked up to was an irredeemable monster. The rabbit hole went even deeper, as there were countless Reddit threads and YouTube videos made about him that explored the deeper implications of the videos that he made, his past, his obsession with Eric Harris and Dylan Kleebold, among countless other things that I was completely unaware of at the time. I've already spent too much time writing this entry, so I'll leave the research up to you.

So here we are, at the crux of this long-winded diatribe about an insane Latvian man that I once looked up to. It was because of this man that I developed a love of late 80s/early 90s hardcore punk music. It was because of this man that I developed a vested interest in learning Persian, as he was the person who introduced me to Abbas Kiarostami (an Iranian film director that I still love and mourn to this day). My skepticism toward the mainstream media was engendered in no small part by this man. Granted, I can't attribute all of my quirks and interests to Gatis; I'm my own person, after all. However, there's no denying that in one way or another, Gatis was a huge influence in my life and it's a fact that I still struggle with to this day.

Granted, my story isn't necessarily the worst to ever come out of an online community. I wasn't indoctrinated into some weird sex cult like William Control and Onision tried to do with their fans. I wasn't groomed, I wasn't radicalised into a belief system that I wouldn't have considered joining beforehand, nor was I ever in a position where I got blackmailed and was coerced into doing something that I didn't want any part of. With that in mind, I shudder at the broader implications of my interactions with Gatis way back when. I wasn't necessarily that young when I first started interacting with him, but there was a time when my belief system was heavily influenced by this man because I was an impressionable teenager seeking validation from one of my childhood idols. Sure, I grew out of it as did many other people that I knew through him, but Gatis still has a following of dedicated true believers that buy into way worse shit than what we were getting into. I could go on, but I think you get my point.

When I hear all these stories about the horrors of certain online communities (i.e. grooming allegations, indoctrination, doxing, bullying, etc), I get viscerally angry because I was once an impressionable child on the internet who desperately sought validation from the people that I idolised. Conversely, I'm wrought with the grim realisation that this type of thing could happen to my own children (if I ever decide to have kids, that is). It's so surreal to think that I've gone through an experience like this and that there was so much going on behind the scenes that I was blissfully unaware of at that point in time. I still shudder to think what could've happened if I had actually made it into Gatis's inner circle during the apex of his glory days in RuneScape. There are times when I wonder if there was anything we could've done to snap him out of his idiocy, but then I remember that he was well into his 20s by the time that I started interacting with him.

I know that Gatis is too far gone at this point. He was a deeply disturbed teenager who'd grow up and become a deeply disturbed adult. Yet despite these grim realisations, I still have fond memories of the times I spent with him and our little circle of friends. Everyone else that I met through Gatis has more or less decided to cut him off, so there is a silver lining amid all the darkness. Would I say that I regret any of it? Eh, kinda? I regret ever looking up to a man like him in the first place, but I don't regret the people that I met through him. I also don't regret the music, movies, and travel recommendations either. Even so, there's a high likelihood that I probably won't be visiting Latvia any time soon. Not until I can fully make peace with the fact that I once looked up to one of their most prolific internet personalities.

Obscured by a veil of feathers, a boy floating above a sacrificial altar is warned by a crow that if he rejects the faith even once, the gates of Heaven will forever stay closed to him. The boy responds by saying that if he was truly among the faithful in the first place, he never would’ve summoned the crow. The two parties then make a contract and the screen fades to black so that the intro can start playing. Immediately after the intro however, we’re treated to the same child waking up for the morning and a tall, handsome man in a jet black suit as his enigmatic butler performing his duties. After the title card pops up, we’re then treated to the comedic antics of his other servants styled like it was ripped straight out of Fullmetal Alchemist.

The above paragraph sums up the first 5 minutes of the first episode of this show. If that doesn’t sound particularly appealing to you, well… I don’t blame you. The 2008 Black Butler anime is many things and being a master of mood whiplash is one of them. When the whole Black Butler hype train came around here stateside back in 2010 when Funimation licensed the anime, I honestly wasn’t even that interested to begin with. I was all about Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece at that point in time and so a show about some kid with an eyepatch and his hypercompetent demon butler didn’t really catch my eye.

When I did give this show a chance in mid-2014 just a few months before Book of Circus came out, I came out of this particular anime feeling rather… hollow. There were bits and pieces of a truly amazing story to be found, but I had to dig through mountains of bullshit just to even find it in the first place. The very beginning of the pilot episode implied that this entire anime would be a Faustian tragedy and well… it is on some measure, but the finished product that we ended up getting seemed to try so many different things and just failed miserably at all of them.

Obviously in the current year, I’ve long since watched every single Black Butler anime ever released, caught up to the manga, and indeed, have written reviews of some of the Black Butler instalments that I’ve read or watched. Still, the 2008 series sticks out in my mind the most because A-1 Pictures still intends for this anime to be the starting point for newcomers to the franchise. That’s actually pretty fucking baffling when you consider how little of this anime actually follows the manga.

Officially, we’re expected to watch up to episode 15 and then start watching everything from Book of Circus onward. HOWEVER, only episodes 2-6 and 13-15 are actually necessary to comprehend everything from Book of Circus going forward. Everything else is well… filler! Okay, it’s not actually filler since the rest of those episodes tie in with the second half of this anime but uh… why would you want to watch it? Rhetorical question of course because there actually are many reasons to watch the second half of this show. But those reasons have a pretty fucking huge warning label over them: don’t expect anything that makes sense.

Originally when I first watched this anime without any prior context on the manga, on the upcoming adaptations, or any of that other stuff, I kinda liked it. Upon retrospect, that was because the anime decided to stop the stupid gag comedy and actually try taking itself seriously. The problem here of course was that the show started taking itself seriously far too late into its run and because of that, a lot of the plot felt like it was strung along until the 24 episode mark where it just ends. I still felt that way at the time, but I felt like I had to give the show credit for actually going out and doing its own thing. I mean, a lot of shows nowadays are terrible because they try to play it so safe and then end up becoming faceless, mediocre garbage. I certainly respect an artist that actually tries to take risks, especially in an industry where profit margins were already low to begin with.

While I still maintain that position on some level, I’ve also come to realise that it’s dangerous to romanticise risk-taking because of the fact that disastrous results from failed gambles often ruin the overall integrity of the project in question. Even if a project is successful with most of the risks that they take, the few that do fail become especially noticeable. I absolutely adore the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime and the risks that show took did pay off to me, but there were some parts that ultimately fell extremely flat because the gamble they took didn’t pay off.

Unfortunately, A-1 Pictures didn’t have the tact of Bones in this regard. One of the most irksome parts of Black Butler is how heavy-handed the show is with its fanservice. It’s no secret that Black Butler has a huge fujoshi fanbase and it’s also no secret that Yana Toboso originally intended to make Black Butler a yaoi series before deciding against it. If this anime is any indication of what Black Butler would’ve been like as a yaoi series, I’m fucking grateful that Toboso decided against it.

The most uncomfortable aspect of this show for me is the amount of yaoi subtext that A-1 Pictures added to Ciel and Sebastian’s relationship. It was like that when I first started watching it and it’s still that way a good 6 years after the fact. Surprising though it may seem, the manga actually didn’t have much in the way of subtext between Ciel and Sebastian. In fact, it actually went through great pains to show the exact opposite. Their relationship in the manga is actually one of grudgingly mutual respect.

Ciel’s horrifying past led to him losing any faith he had left in God and his apostasy led to Sebastian being beckoned. It’s explicitly stated that the kinds of people who summon demons aren’t always like Ciel, so of course Sebastian is interested. The terms of the contract are stacked against Sebastian in that he must never lie, he must have unquestioning loyalty to Ciel, and that he must always protect him no matter what. What’s more is that Ciel’s contract seal is on his eye and it’s stated that in Episode 4 that the more visible the seal is, the stronger the contract is. Ciel knows that Sebastian will act like a monkey’s paw if his orders aren’t explicit enough, and yet he has security in the fact that Sebastian’s extremely good at his job, won’t ever betray him, and won’t ever lie to him.

These would ordinarily be terrible terms for a demon to live under, but Sebastian did so anyway. From his perspective, a once-innocent child was willing to sell his soul to a demon to live. You don’t don’t often find masters like that, so that’s one point for him to stay. Next, Ciel’s fundamental distrust of others allowed him to see through any potential demonic trickery on Sebastian’s part. Given how the typical Faustian protagonist is some dumbass who trades away his soul for something stupid like money, power, sex, or what have you, it’s no surprise to think that Sebastian would be interested in dealing with a master who has some degree of foresight. Finally, we have the fact that Ciel’s duties as the Earl of Phantomhive regularly exposes him to the absolute worst that humanity has to offer. Mind you, Ciel is a child and he hasn’t come out of every encounter completely unscathed. From a demon’s point-of-view, such trauma at a young age only for more to follow as he gets older is effectively the same as his own dinner cooking itself.

In short: Ciel and Sebastian have to put a great amount of trust in one another due to the nature of their contract. Their relationship isn’t devoid of conflict since Sebastian acts like a monkey’s paw and Ciel doesn’t always have the best temper despite usually maintaining a level head. Even if the contract didn’t exist in the picture, there’s a mutual respect between the two because well… Sebastian’s good at his job as both Ciel’s butler and primary caretaker and Ciel’s pretty self aware about his own morality and feels obligated to continue his march into the abyss because he’s already come this far.

Given all of that context into Ciel and Sebastian’s relationship, it comes off as especially revolting as A-1 Pictures tries to really hammer home the idea of SebaCiel. To be absolutely fair here, there are moments in the manga that do come close to crossing the line (i.e. Sebastian cradling Ciel when he has a traumatic flashback to the cult during the Circus arc). However, the line was never fully crossed because such moments in the manga always had the context shown to be Sebastian only comforting his master at the bare minimum necessary so that he doesn’t go insane.

Any remotely intimate moment between Ciel and Sebastian in the anime doesn’t have this context. Instead, it just comes off as if Sebastian’s grooming Ciel. To be absolutely fair here, it’s not like there isn’t a concept for demons who prey upon children sexually or otherwise. Indeed, countless cultures across the world have some idea of a supernatural force preying upon children. The thing is though that the anime doesn’t really run with the idea of Sebastian having a vested interest in Ciel beyond the contract. There’s still some effort put in to show that Sebastian ultimately cares more about the contract than he does about Ciel, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. In the end, all we really get is one episode where Sebastian ends the episode as a hypercompetent butler followed up by another where A-1 Pictures wanted to give the fujoshis a reason to buy the BD sets.

I know I’ve been bitching about this for a while, but it really must be said just how much this detracts from the overall experience. The initial impression from the very first episode, and indeed, some of the most iconic moments across both halves of the anime (i.e. everything involving Jack the Ripper, Ciel’s own awareness of how fucked up his life is, the backstories of the Phantomhive servants and their reasons for their undying loyalty to Ciel, etc) show bits and pieces of a truly fantastic show that just ends up getting buried under all of the additional shit that A-1 Pictures put on top of it.

Now we get into the second half of the anime’s story and boy, where the fuck do I begin? I would imagine that Yana wasn’t particularly involved in the writing process for the second half of the season beyond a few vague hints at things that would later happen in the manga. A-1 Pictures had 9 episodes to wrap everything up and considering how the manga’s well past the 160 chapter mark with no sign of stopping any time soon, it’s no secret that it doesn’t bode well for the overall quality of these episodes.

Upon rewatching for the first time in well over 6 years, I can’t really say I finished the season enjoying it as much as I once did. The biggest problem with the second half of the show is that it throws so much information at you at once without any inkling of foreshadowing or consideration for character interactions. There’s a point where Ciel ends up finding the cult who tortured and defiled him before Sebastian was beckoned, and not once are we treated to any sign of visible trauma on Ciel’s part during the whole proceeding! Why?! The manga didn’t really touch upon the cult specifically beyond the backstory needed to show Ciel and Sebastian’s first encounter. I’d actually be pretty down to see Ciel actually investigating the cult and his own reactions to the faces that traumatised him. But no, it’s yet another missed opportunity.

As far as the ending is concerned, it was lukewarm for me. By the time I finished the show, so much had happened so fast to the point where I kinda just wanted to be done with it. I would say that it’s a pretty definite conclusion, but we all know at this point in time that Black Butler II completely and totally shits upon that notion. Still, I’d like to think that Black Butler II didn’t happen and that the finale of the 2008 show is the more fitting conclusion to the anime’s continuity. I’ll write up another rant on Black Butler II, so I’ll cut myself off here.

Character-wise, we don’t really have much to go off of here. While the anime is supposed to be adapting the first 23 chapters of the manga which actually provides a great deal of character context and development, we already established that the anime doesn’t actually do this well at all. In the end, the Phantomhive servants sans Sebastian are treated as comic relief, Elizabeth is more of a burden on Ciel rather than his actual fiance, Grell is comedy relief and also Sebastian’s biggest fan, the other reapers just… exist and don’t come into the anime’s story unless the plot demands it, you get the idea.

The only two characters that actually had any effort put into their writing was Ciel and Sebastian, and honestly… Ciel’s portrayal isn’t even that good. Instead of being a relatively composed though still short-tempered child, Ciel is basically the spoiled brat that everyone who hates Black Butler thinks he is. Mind you, he’s certainly not in the same league as Alois Trancy is in Black Butler II but we shouldn’t use the core of the earth to judge what’s below the bottom of the barrel.

Ciel’s biggest problem throughout the 2008 anime is that he’s completely incapable of functioning without Sebastian at his side. While it is true that one of the terms of the contract is to protect Ciel no matter what, the practical reality of the situation is that Ciel’s duties as the Queen’s Watchdog make it difficult if not outright impossible for Sebastian to always be by Ciel’s side.

Indeed, the manga actually does account for this and so any time that Ciel would likely be separated from Sebastian for any duration, they’d have the necessary preparation to take care of important tasks separately if needed. The manga actually shows that Ciel is a capable hunter, that he has some history of training with his future mother-in-law, and that he sleeps with a gun under his pillow and that he isn’t afraid of using it. Mind you, all of these details are revealed in Chapter 14 of the manga between the conclusion of Jack the Ripper and the beginning of the Curry arc, which technically this show is supposed to be adapting and yet Francis, Ciel’s future mother-in-law didn’t make her anime debut until Book of the Atlantic came out!

Coming back to this show knowing full well that Ciel should be capable of defending himself on some measure only to see that he really can’t and relies on Sebastian for everything is pretty fucking infuriating, not gonna lie. His overall demeanour isn’t noticeably different from that of his manga counterpart, but it differs just enough to piss me off. If Ciel had no desire for survival, he wouldn’t be the Earl of Phantomhive in the first place. That’s like Peter Parker being forced to learn responsibility from Nick Fury in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon: Peter Parker wouldn’t be Spider-Man if he didn’t already learn the lesson of responsibility from Uncle Ben’s death. Same concept.

Given all of the above, it does my heart some good to know that A-1 Pictures didn’t mess up Sebastian too much. Both in the manga and the anime, Sebastian is portrayed as a more elegant though admittedly less powerful counterpart to Alucard from Hellsing. He too is a supernatural accomplice to a greater mastermind, with all of the wit and sarcasm of a Victorian-era gentleman to boot. I would bring up the level of Sebastian’s power detracting from the overall experience of the show since he’s rarely in any real danger barring the later stages of the anime’s second half.

Still, I just find our butler to the core so fucking enthralling whenever he’s on screen. Sebastian’s own charisma easily manages to make any otherwise boring bit about food, tea, or high society that much more entertaining whenever he’s in the frame. Sebastian’s own ruthless efficiency is nigh impossible for a human to accomplish and yet he’s purposely holding back from using any more supernatural power needed in order to maintain his cover as the Earl of Phantomhive’s faithful butler.

Granted, it’s not like the manga really makes an attempt to explain why Sebastian does things the way a human would rather than simply using demon magic for everything. Indeed, we don’t get any such insight as to why that is until the middle of the Luxury Liner arc. Still, I’ve often theorised that Sebastian needed to maintain some cover so seeing that theory confirmed when I read the manga leads me to believe that the same can be said about Sebastian in the anime. Mind you, this is all speculation on my part but I have no reason to believe otherwise.

The anime-exclusive characters like Pluto, Ash, and the anime’s own version of Queen Victoria are better left to be experienced. I say this not because they’re pinnacles of character growth or development that deeply impacts the lore of the show as a whole. Rather, I say this because the show is so fucking incompetent to the point where these characters make absolutely no sense. A description isn’t really necessary since your reaction to them will give you all the information you really need for motives, investments, and so forth.

Now that we have all of the story and characters out of the way, let’s talk at length about the superficial stuff! You know, animation, art direction, soundtrack, dubbing, that kind of thing. As far as the artwork and animation are concerned, Black Butler has aged phenomenally well. Then again, it’s no surprise considering how A-1 Pictures has always been really good at creating a visually stunning show. In fact, they’ve only gotten better as time went on if the anime from Book of Circus-onward is anything to go off of.

The overall colour palette of the show is fairly muted with lighter scenes having a light grey cast and darker scenes gravitating more toward the blacks and dark blues while also using shadow and limited lighting to great effect. Fairly fitting considering how this is a work taking place in Victorian England and I personally like it because it just adds to the overall Gothic atmosphere that the series both anime and manga strive to achieve.

The thing is though that Yana Toboso’s style involves blending together real life and the supernatural in such a way where it still stays true to the status of the time. The anime does do this as well, but some of their own additions like a shapeshifting naked bishonen with the brain of a wolf kinda detract from how grounded the artwork and animation is in relation to its setting. There’s also another thing that detracts from the overall quality of the animation: CGI.

Now, A-1 Pictures is NOT Gonzo when it comes down to its usage of CGI. However, there are a number of scenes where the viewer is treated to an otherwise well-designed landscape marred only by a bunch of CG horses pulling CG carriages. Mind you, that is fairly minor on the list of transgressions (especially considering how the CG got even worse in Black Butler II) but it’s that nasty habit of A-1 Pictures where they give us such a visual delectation and yet there’s points where the budget got stretched and then there has to be an addition of a CG element to compensate. This is something that also happens in other A-1 shows like Sword Art Online, Your Lie in April, and of course, the other Black Butler animes.

On the subject of stretched budgets, I would imagine that the show tended to rely heavily on chibi gag humour because they’re simpler to draw and easier to animate than the more dramatic stuff which requires proper attention to detail. Make no mistake though, A-1 Pictures didn’t neglect these segments of the show at all. Indeed, the level of polish put into the anime’s gag humour shows a similar dedication that Bones had when they animated stuff like Fullmetal Alchemist, Brotherhood, Ouran HSHC, and so on. I often find myself watching compilations of the anime’s gags because the jokes themselves are actually pretty fucking funny in a vacuum since it’s not detracting from the show trying to take itself seriously.

As far as the audio side of things is concerned, I’m happy to say that the soundtrack has aged gracefully as well. Every background track fits the scene tremendously well and indeed there are many tracks that do stand out in my memory. The one background track that stuck with me the most however is a track called “Si Deus me Relinquit” which is Latin for “If God Has Forsaken Me.”

There genuinely aren’t enough words to describe just how much I love that particular song. If there was any song that could adequately describe what Black Butler actually is, then it’s this particular song. It starts off as a slow, sombre piece where a woman is vocalising the lyrics and it then slowly builds up until a Gregorian chant briefly comes into play. Then the orchestra takes over and turns it into a bombastic, yet also incredibly melancholic tune. This song alone manages to perfectly capture the sheer drama and also inevitable tragedy that Black Butler is all about. This song playing in the background of the show’s most serious moments alone almost makes me look past all of the uncomfortable subtext between Ciel and Sebastian that the anime tries to shoehorn.

The openings and the first ending are also some of my all-time favourite songs in any anime ever released. I’ve been a huge fan of SID ever since I first heard them doing the first ED to Brotherhood back in 2009, so I was completely on board to hear them again. It actually shocked me to realise that SID did Black Butler before ever touching Fullmetal Alchemist, so that kinda made me wish I actually picked it up back in high school. There’s just something so nostalgic and comforting about mid-to-late 2000s J-Rock that makes me get hype to watch whatever it is that’s next, even if I know full well that the next episode is gonna be abject rubbish.

Also, get this: you know how virtually every anime ever released ends up changing its opening halfway through the show’s run? A-1 Pictures actually made a different opening animation but they actually used the second half of Monochrome Kiss by SID for the OP which is so fucking amazing to me. There’s a lot of really amazing songs I’ve been pointed to ever since I first started watching anime, but you never really hear more than a minute and 30 seconds of the song in question. Using the second half of the same (already amazing) song still blows me away because I don’t think any other anime studio has ever done that before or even since A-1 PIctures did it.

The first ED track is actually an upbeat pop punk song from an AMERICAN band of all places called “I’m Alive” by BECCA. I’ve always loved animes that use foreign music for their OPs and EDs. That’s actually part of the reason why I adore shows like Wolf’s Rain and Serial Experiments Lain. What’s more is that again, there’s something really comforting and nostalgic about mid-2000s pop punk to the point where I can’t help but enjoy it. I often don’t like upbeat endings because they tend to contrast horribly with more dramatic scenes that an episode could end on, but this ED is used primarily during a time when the anime isn’t really taking itself seriously to begin with, so I really didn’t mind much in the scheme of things. Hell, the ED animation is actually just chibi segments of Sebastian doing his mundane duties as a butler. I can’t really complain, now can I?

Now we get to the dubbing… and this is the part I’ve been dreading the most. On the Japanese side of things, we’re treated to wonderful performances by the likes of Daisuke Ono, Mayaa Sakamoto, among others. They’re a duo I’ve appreciated listening to going as far back as Wolf’s Rain, so glad to see the partnership continuing here. If you’re looking to stay sub-only, you really won’t have any complaints outside of whether or not you’ll be watching the shitty fansubs from 10 years ago. Of course, you’re probably not reading this part of the review to find out whether or not the Japanese audio is good.

Back when Funimation still held the licenses to the entire Black Butler franchise sans the manga, they produced the dub for this show sometime in 2010. Around this time, Funimation was also working on dubbing Brotherhood since it was supposed to air on [adult swim] in the USA. I haven’t seen this sentiment echoed elsewhere, but I feel like being produced so close to Brotherhood had some degree of impact on the overall quality of the dub.

Make no mistake: this isn’t a bad dub by any means. Well… once you get more than 3 episodes in but that’s beside the point! My biggest issue with this dub is that while Funimation opted to make sure that all of the characters who speak English use British accents, the only ones who are even remotely convincing are Brina Palencia as Ciel, J Michael Tatum as Sebastian, and Lydia Mackay as Madame Red. The Phantomhive servants, endearing though they might be, unfortunately end up spoiling the entire bunch due to their over-exaggerated Cockney accents.

Speaking as someone who actually watched Hellsing Ultimate before coming over to Black Butler kind of disappoints me. I know that Ultimate was originally a Geneon show and that Funimation spent a long time gathering the original cast back together to finish the dub of that show which didn’t happen until 2014 despite licensing a good chunk of the Geneon library back in 2008. Still, was it too much to ask for Funimation to at least hire some actual British people to do some voice acting? Come on man, Victoria Harwood and Steven Brand were easily the best parts of the Hellsing Ultimate dub! My heart would leap out of my chest the moment I heard Steven Brand saying “Yes, my lord” in that wonderfully thick Scottish accent of his. Sadly, it’s a missed opportunity.

There’s also another point of contention I want to make: I love Chris Ayres and Patrick Seitz. They’re both wonderful voice actors and I’ve enjoyed many shows that they starred in. If there’s one thing I must say against them though, it’s that they can’t pull off a fucking Indian accent to save their lives. Speaking as a Desi man, I can’t help but cringe any time I have to listen to Prince Soma and Agni for more than a minute at a time (okay, they’re not that bad but they do get pretty fucking unbearable at times). In Funimation’s defense, I will admit that they’ve been getting better about this since they’ve been hiring more amateur talent now with all of the simuldubs they’ve been pushing out ever since 2015. Still, if Brian George was able to pull off a convincing Indian guru when voicing Guru Pathik back in 2006 for the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I really don’t understand why Funimation didn’t try something similar.

Again, I want to reiterate that this is NOT a bad dub whatsoever and indeed, J Michael Tatum is easily the best part of the dub as Sebastian. In fact, the same cast gets back together to do the voice acting for the anime from Book of Circus-onward and the accents aren’t anywhere near as exaggerated. I can only imagine that Funimation did actually give it their best shot with what they had and they did fairly well but with plenty of noticeable rough edges. Still, any time J Michael Tatum says “Yes, my lord” while Sebastian looks at the screen smiling and kneeling before Ciel is enough to make me swoon. Take the bad with the good and you’ll find that the dub is perfectly watchable. If you get put off like I was at first, just wait until Book of Circus to listen to the dub.

Now we come to the most subjective part of this whole review! My own personal enjoyment of this particular anime. While I do certainly still enjoy this anime on some measure, I can only really find myself enjoying particular bits taken out at random points during the show’s run. From start to finish, this show was kinda painful and even boring to get through at some points and honestly, I feel like the time you spent watching this could’ve been better spent reading the manga.

This isn’t something I normally say, since I used to be such a big defender of anime deviating from their source material because the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime is quite literally my all-time favourite anime and that differed so wildly from the manga. The thing is though that Fullmetal Alchemist was never intended to be a 1:1 recreation of the manga. It wouldn’t have been possible at the time for Hiromu Arakwa to actually keep up with the pace of episodes being released.

Instead, we found the 2003 anime maintaining broadly similar continuity from the manga at the very beginning while slightly changing up certain concepts (i.e. how alchemy works, the core component of a philosopher’s stone, tensions in Ishbal and Lior with the Amestrian government, etc) and then slowly expanding that as the show came closer and closer to running out of manga to work with. By the time that this does happen though, the anime’s own lore and internal logic have developed sufficiently to make sense without needing to rely so heavily on the manga anymore.

To be absolutely sure, the 2003 anime did actually contradict itself at some points and there are still many unanswered questions that the audience is left with considering how fast the final 5 episodes of the show are in comparison to the slow pace of the anime from Episode 28-onward. However, Bones still made an earnest attempt at trying to resolve their loose ends and they actually tried to tell a story that makes sense within the context of the universe that they created.

A-1 Pictures really didn’t put the same level of dedication into their own gecko ending for the 2008 anime, which really is a shame. I genuinely do believe that anime studios should be able to exercise creative liberties with whatever show they’re making. However, I feel like studios need to exercise much more caution whenever they exercise those same creative liberties. From all of the failed projects that I’ve left on the backburner for years at a time, I can easily attest that it is genuinely hard to create.

However, the difficulty of creation is something that shouldn’t be used to justify mediocrity. If you have the nerve to actually go out there and make something, that’s all fine and dandy but please, I beg of you, make sure that you do more than just the bare minimum necessary to wrap up your story. As the wise Hank Hill once said, “whatever you do, you should do it right, even if it’s something wrong.”

One of the things I’ve been struggling with for the last 5 years at this point is just how little joy I really get out of anime nowadays. I used to find myself getting engrossed in the story and characters as I was watching, formulating my own theories on whatever the subject may be, anxious to click on the “next episode” button because I didn’t know whether or not I could handle whatever would come next only to have the autoplay force the next episode in. Those were genuinely exciting times.

Unfortunately, the only things that really seem to come out nowadays are overly ambitious shows that try so many things at once only to fail miserably. Sometimes I was indifferent like if the current talk of the community was something like Re:Zero and other times, I went in hopeful only to come out bitterly disappointed (i.e. Your Lie in April). Coming back to Black Butler for the first time in years actually did briefly bring back some of that joy I used to feel way back when, but unfortunately that joy just doesn’t stick around because of how badly it fucks up the stuff that actually matters.

The fact that A-1 Pictures intends for the 2008 anime to actually be the starting point for new Black Butler viewers is ultimately the worst part about all of this. As much as I adored Book of Circus/Murder/Atlantic, I would’ve preferred it if A-1 Pictures just decided to make a full-blown reboot that was actually faithful to the manga from the very beginning. Then we wouldn’t have people on Kissanime wondering where Pluto, the naked dog man went. But I digress, as I’ve gone blathering about for far too long.

Should you watch Black Butler? Yes, but I’d like to add a LOT of asterisks to that remark. As a fan of the entire franchise, I wholeheartedly believe that you should watch Black Butler… at some point. Honestly, it would make more sense to start off at Book of Circus now because Book of Circus actually has quick flashbacks to important characters pre-Circus arc and the first episode more or less gives you the overall feel for what type of series Black Butler is. I cannot in good conscience recommend the 2008 anime if you’re looking for a good anime introduction to the Black Butler franchise as a whole. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch it, as I do firmly believe that you should definitely give it a shot since it’s not without merit whatsoever.

Still, first impressions are important and unfortunately the 2008 anime has soured MANY people on their overall opinion of Black Butler. If you go into this anime knowing full well about its flaws and choose to ignore them for the sake of entertainment, I don’t doubt that you’ll be entertained. It’s really the matter of the show being consistently entertaining. At best, the 2008 Black Butler anime is only passable which is truly unbecoming of any tale told about the Phantomhive family. While I did enjoy it, I’m not gonna be quick to recommend it.

Journal #5 – Return to RSS

Let's rewind the clock to a much simpler time: 2006. The internet was starting to mature from where it was in the 90s, social media barely existed, and most people were using RSS feeds to keep up with blogs and other such websites. RSS (Really Simple Syndication), for those of you who aren't familiar, is a web protocol that aggregates updates from websites like blogs, news outlets, and such in a simple, easy-to-read format. In the early days of the internet, RSS was a fucking godsend as it spared us all the trouble of bouncing between several websites at once; you'd instead load up your favourite RSS reader and just scroll through the feed. Of course, RSS nowadays is borderline irrelevant as most people opt to get updates on whatever from social media.

While I was never that big on RSS when I was younger, I did find it useful when I was in middle/high school because it gave me a leg up on my current events homework while also letting me follow a bunch of other websites like RuneScape fansites, art blogs, flash game websites, etc. Of course, my RSS reader gradually fell out of favour once I started getting more and more absorbed in social media. After all, why would I bother hopping between my web browser and my RSS reader when I could just as easily follow the blogs, news outlets, and such on Facebook? As time went on though, I started becoming more and more dissatisfied with the “quality” of my Facebook feed.

It all started when Facebook got rid of the chronological feed, which made it borderline impossible to keep track of the latest updates I from the stuff I was genuinely interested in. I can't recall exactly when that happened, but I'd like to say it occurred somewhere between 2011-2013. Then came the (now-discontinued) trending bar that showed what the latest talk of the town was on Facebook. While I welcomed it at first, it quickly wore off its welcome as I noticed the Trending section was a hotbed for flame wars and clickbait. As we fastforward into the modern era, social media has more or less become an anaethema for me. Most of my favourite pages were either getting flagged and eventually shadowbanned by fact checkers or were constantly getting taken down due to some arbitrary violation of the community guidelines.

Given the algorithmic editing of my feed, my favourite pages constantly being in jeopardy due to inconsistent moderation, and the general state of discourse on social media being a radicalised free-for-all where outrage and hot takes are the norm (among all the other reasons why Facebook is fucking awful as a company and as a service), I made the conscious decision to abandon Facebook altogether in mid-2020. While abandoning Facebook has been great for my overall mental health, there's one glaring problem that I've been dealing with for months: I've fallen so far out of the loop with current events to the point where I feel like an ignorant old man.

At first, I tried using stuff like Firefox Pocket and Brave Today but I found that they were grossly inadequate for my purposes. I understand that there are fans of Pocket, but I've always found it to be nothing short of an infuriating clickbait aggregator that compiles updates from websites that I don't like. Brave Today is marginally better in this regard, but I found that the articles it recommended me were completely out-of-touch with my own interests. On top of this, there was always the underlying debate over whether or not I wanted my browser to aggregate content on my behalf. The convenience is nice, but it didn't make much sense to switch from Facebook to my browser if I was trying to avoid centralised entities algorithmically aggregating content for me. The same logic also applied for entities like Google News.

A few days ago, I was watching a YouTube video on self-hosted Raspberry Pi projects. One of the projects that CensiClick used his Raspberry Pi on was a self-hosted RSS reader. That's when I finally decided to reject modernity and embrace tradition by returning to RSS. I won't lie, it was a bit of a “eureka” moment for me because I had otherwise completely forgotten about RSS as a concept until very recently. Either way though, installing Feedbro and Awesome RSS in Firefox was definitely the right call to make. With that in mind, there are a few quirks about RSS in the modern world that tick me off.

One of the great things about Feedbro is that it's generally able to pull the full contents of almost any web page I'm subscribed to. As it would happen, this is a feature that's sorely lacking in other apps like Feedly and Inoreader; most websites nowadays opt to provide a brief synopsis of the article before forcing you to click on the article for the full text. At that point, you gotta deal with all the other nonsense that most modern websites have: garish banner ads, trackers like analytics and browser fingerprinters, maybe an arbitrary limit on however many “free” articles you can view before having to buy into the paywall, etc. This isn't really a problem for me on a PC or a laptop, but mobile is where the real headache comes in as ad blocking technology is nowhere near as robust (especially if you're an iPhone owner like I am).

Another annoyance of trying to use RSS in the modern era is that almost every website that has a feed goes out of their way to obfuscate it; gone are the days when you could easily click on the “follow RSS” button to add the reader with ease. Even worse, some websites like Bloomberg decided to abandon RSS altogether which means that there's no way to add it to your reader even with an extension like Awesome RSS. Granted, this is a relatively minor gripe in the scheme of things but that doesn't make it any less annoying. If I were to get into how some RSS feeds are poorly formatted while others are perfectly legible, I'd be here for hours writing a fucking thesis on the subject.

All of these grievances aside, I cannot underscore how much I missed using RSS. There's something so immensely satisfying about being able to scroll through a feed without fear of algorithmic editing of any kind. The privacy benefits with my specific configuration are also insurmountable (at least while I'm on my PC/laptop). More than anything else though, returning to RSS gives me that nostalgic feeling of returning to a simpler web where I don't have to worry about paywalls, tracking, clickbait, and maintaining my engagement with the platform. If you're a disenfranchised internet user who's sick of getting news from social media, I can't recommend RSS enough. Just do yourself a favour and avoid the dodgy readers like Feedly and Inoreader and you should be fine.

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