Black Butler II was always going to be garbage, and I say that with a great deal of agonized affection. The series it works as a sequel to is inundated with enough low-key shota exploitation to require a shower after viewing, and my favorite “character who deserved better” is a walking transphobic joke. And yet.
I was a big fan of the first anime series as a teenager, with its trashy pseudo-gothic aesthetic and ability to wring a consistent character arc out of Ciel by veering away from the manga’s consequence-free borderline-sociopath. I even maintain a certain fondness for the canon’s depiction of that good old “death as bureaucracy” trope, and the musical spin-off The Most Beautiful Death in the World is straight up quality viewing to this day. So it was that I harbored high hopes for the show’s second season back in 2010, which pre-production information initially billed as “White Butler” – a series seemingly set in the same universe but with a different main cast.
Oh, if only that had been the case.
[Heads up: the point of these posts are to examine flaws in the subject as a whole – that means details and a fair amount of spoilers.]
Taken within the standards of its genre, Black Butler II had an extremely strong start: Alois is a deliberately different protagonist from Ciel, and his manipulative nature belays a deep-seated reliance on his contracted demon that goes deeper than the need for those supernatural powers. While Ciel’s trauma is focused on an external source, Alois quickly reveals himself to be someone feigning an achievable goal when what he’s really after is someone to validate his broken, self-destructive sense of self.
He’s an extremely compelling protagonist (with more than a few similarities to a certain other emotionally shattered teenager whom I’m quite fond of), and the tragic elements of his narrative in isolation are all pretty well executed. There’s a lot to be done thematically with gradations of evil, devotion, healthy vs unhealthy emotional support, and the deliciously melodramatic “can even demons loooooooove” thing they tried to sneak in at the very end there. It would never be high literature, but that’s okay. It could’ve been quite good at selling the indulgent sort of story it set out to tell.
Unfortunately, the first episode quickly reveals itself to be a fake-out, as Sebastian shows up to retrieve Ciel’s soul and get the ball rolling with the whole cast from the first season again. Not content just to take time and development away from the ostensible new main character, the plot decided to go ahead and undermine the tragic ending of the first series as well. Because what’s the fun in actually following through on the consequences of your story, apparently.
It’s unclear at what point the staff decided that Ciel should be folded back into the second narrative: certainly it feels like the move of a staff getting worried that the audience would reject the new cast and cry out for the old one, and yet it’s so prevalent throughout that it must’ve been decided before storyboarding and animation began. Whatever the truth is, it couldn’t have been a worse decision for the series as a whole.
Putting aside the issues of undoing the gravitas of the previous season and how the plot relies on completely erasing Ciel’s previous character development in favor of a tabula rasa, the show’s pacing is absolute garbage. After the initial fake-out, the show wastes two episode – at only twelve episodes total, that’s a sixth of its running time – pretending nothing is wrong and having season one-style adventures that have exactly zero bearing on the plot at large.
While there are single cour shows that can pace this out properly, BBII is not one of them. The main conflict of the narrative comes to a head in the final episode with less than ten minutes to wrap everything up (literally; as it was airing I was convinced there had to be a thirteenth episode), winding up feeling rushed to the point that the conclusion is flat and empty. Even more insulting, Alois is basically kicked out of his own plot in the name of the single most fanfiction come to life ending I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
And the tragedy of it is that if you excise Ciel from the story, there is a perfectly functional narrative at play here. His role in the plot – some legendary soul that was supposed to be amazingly delicious, for which Alois is nothing more than a stand-in – could’ve been accomplished by either a new character or by referring to Ciel without actually bringing him in at all. The demonic rivalry between Claude and Sebastian is so shoe-horned in and poorly paid off that there’s no reason the functional elements of it couldn’t have been given to Hannah or her minions (the latter of whom aren’t so much characters as they are plot devices badly camouflaged with anime hair).
The elements of the show that played off of the previous series could still exist in some form as well – there are characters whose stories were left unfinished. There was still the dispatch society, which wasn’t tied exclusively to Ciel’s story. There is an immense amount of fun and creative possibility to be had in writing a stand-alone story set in a shared universe. Even the themes of a protagonist looking for love from a demon still work both on their own and with prior knowledge of Ciel’s disdain-dependence on Sebastian. It certainly needed no help aesthetically, with the on-point deployment of the spider motifs and the not-inconsiderable funding from A-1 pictures helping it out; and Alois had a skilled actor for the part in the form of Nana Mizuki, who went all out in selling the big breakdown scenes in particular.
At the end of the day, the writers made a protagonist who deserved better. While this isn’t the kind of series that was ever going to make a really sensitive portrayal of Alois coping with his past abuse and trauma, he still managed to be unique. Shows like these almost universally rely on the mundane character disliking the supernatural element that’s invaded their lives. The fact that Alois reveled in it and the tragedy that unspooled from his equally genuine top layer of awfulness made for just enough of a twist to the genre boilerplate. More than that, he’s allowed to be pathetic. He’s allowed to be gross (someone on staff really enjoyed drawing ugly crying). His beginning status as a villain gives him far more flexibility in expressing personality and emotional lows than the typical genre protagonist.
Allowed to have his own series, there might have been time enough to fully explore his character, mental breakdown, and all the consequences thereof, instead of having to split so much time with another character who constantly insists on being let out of the plot and whose only growth is a weak, truncated rehash of previous development.
There are very few things in media worse than seeing an interesting new idea strangled by a frightened adherence to the status quo. Strange, uneven genre fare or no, it had a chance to be much better than the trainwreck it ended up as.