Ciel and Sebastian take their act to the Big Top and bring down the house in this, Black Butler’s best—and darkest—story to date.
A Note on Spoilers: I want to make these newbie-friendly, so I’ll try to avoid discussing specifics and instead stick to overarching concepts and themes. There are a couple paragraphs toward the end that deal with the finale, so I marked them with a warning message. Of course if you prefer to go into a series without knowing anything about it, then the short version is: It’s disturbing and heartbreaking and excellent. Go watch it.
To give you some background, Book of Circus is an adaptation of a single arc from the Black Butler (Japanese: Kuroshitsuji) manga. The arc follows Ciel and Sebastian as they investigate the Noah’s Ark Circus in relation to a string of missing children cases. BoC ignores all anime-original material that came before it, picking up more or less where Ciel left off after meeting Prince Soma and Agni (around episode 15 of the first season).
The creators were likely aware that this could be confusing for viewers, so we spend the first episode touching base with the primary cast, and the series occasionally flashes back to key plot points when needed. Overall I’d be hard-pressed to recommend BoC to a Black Butler newbie, but if (like me) you’re a non-manga reader, it’s pretty easy to follow as long as you’re aware of the plot differences going in. (And if you are a BB newbie, might I recommend getting thee to a streaming service and watching at least the first 15 episodes? The first season is a bit hit-and-miss, but Book of Circus is so good that it’s very much worth watching.)
Outside of Ciel and Sebastian (well, and William Spears), BoC spends relatively little time with its recurring cast, instead focusing on the Noah’s Ark circus troupe. I talked at length in my Rule of Three Review about how the circus setting is absolutely perfect, exuberant and dark with an undercurrent of sadness, and the people who populate the circus fit that description to a T. It’s tough to get attached to characters in just nine short episodes, but careful scene selection and all-around terrific voice work make the Noah’s Ark gang a group that will stick with you long after the end credits roll. They’re a fascinating, complicated bunch, and the series does an excellent job of endearing them to you in the early, lighter episodes so that the darkness that comes later packs the proper emotional punch.
And make no mistake: Darkness is where this season takes you. Book of Circus begins with the classic nod-and-a-wink silliness for which Black Butler is famous, but it steadily shifts to tragedy and horror (for which Black Butler is also famous), forcing Ciel and the circus troupe alike to face the evil within themselves as well as in the world around them.
BoC is in many ways a scathing look at Victorian England, using the circus as a microcosm for the society as a whole: Pretty and well-behaved enough at first glance, but hiding an interior that is indifferent at best and outright cruel at worst. It’s a society that divides people into “those who steal and those who are stolen from,” as Ciel says, and BoC spends much of its time showing the disturbing measures people will take in their attempts to move from one group to the other—and how so many people get caught between the two, becoming the worst of both predator and prey.
[Here there be spoilers: Skip to the final paragraph to avoid plot points from the final two episodes]
Black Butler has never been a series that’s willing to spare its characters from either death or harsh reality, and there’s little in the way of happiness for any involved parties by the time this story comes to its gut-wrenching close. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that not everyone makes it out alive, and the Grim Reapers are there to collect the fallen, showing the same indifference to them in death as society did when they were alive. “Nothing of note,” say the Reapers after collecting the souls of the lost. After spending a season with these characters, seeing their suffering and joy, their nobility and brutality, it’s perhaps the most quietly heartbreaking line of the series.
Even so, BoC manages a final scene that offers a faint ray of optimism amid the desolation, saving the story from outright despair and transforming it into a kind of beautiful tragedy. It’s a difficult feeling to describe—“poignant” comes close—but it’s undeniably powerful, and I was thoroughly moved by the end of it.
[Spoiler-free from here to the end]
Book of Circus isn’t the easiest watch by any means, but it’s by far one of the best (if not the best) anime of the summer season, and on track to be one of the best shows of the year. From its intensely cool opening theme to its cathartic ending credits, the series not only attempted to do everything—comedy, tragedy, mystery, horror, social commentary, even a few drops of romance—it also managed to do them all just about perfectly. If you’re in the mood for a series that will take you from laughter to shock to devastation to something like hope, look no further than this one. You won’t be disappointed.
Season Grade: A-