CAUTION: Spoilers for Black Butler: Season One are ahead. Proceed with caution!
Based on the popular manga written and illustrated by Yana Toboso, Black Butler features a compelling mix of drama, occult horror and slapstick comedy. The first season strictly revolved around Lord Ciel Phantomhive and his upscale life in the outskirts of Victorian-era London. Ciel's parents were murdered several years ago...but instead of building a Batcave and fighting crime, he traded his soul to a demon in exchange for vengeance. His most faithful and skilled butler, Sebastian Michaelis, was the demon entrusted to carry out this task...and when the job was complete, Ciel's life would effectively be over. Long story short: the job was completed, so the series should've been over as well. Right?
Wrong. Black Butler II is the truncated second and final (?) season of this offbeat series, and it more or less picks up right where the original left off. Unfortunately, the world presented during Season 1 is partially swept under the rug; in its wake, we're introduced to Earl Alois Trancy and his butler, Claude Faustus. Sebastian and Ciel are still very much in the picture, but the latter is dead. Or asleep, to be more specific.
It doesn't take us long to learn that Ciel is still very much alive...but Alois will stop at nothing to consume his soul, so his life is still very much in danger. We also learn of the curious links between the Trancy / Phantomhive families and the yin-yang relationship shared by these young men. In short, this may not be the first time they've been brought together.
Gruel: It's what's for dinner.
This round of episodes also amps up the personal drama and scales back the slapstick that was peppered throughout the first season. More often than not, the humor isn't missed. The series' trademark occult elements are still very much in effect, which may distance more cautious viewers but adds a necessary amount of weight to the proceedings. Also, it's worth noting that Black Butler II regains its footing after the rocky start, so cautious fans needn't worry. More good news: the majority of voice actors are back for Round 2, particularly those found on the excellent English dub. It's not often that I favor dubs over original language soundtracks, but both seasons of Black Butler offer some of the best I've heard.
The first season of Black Butler was available in two forms: as a two-part DVD release and a full-length Combo Pack. This second season eliminates the first option, forcing fans of the series to go all-in with both formats. The sticker price remains the same, even with a shorter episode count (including six bonus OVA episodes), but we also get a packaging extra that Season 1 owners should sincerely appreciate. On the technical side, Black Butler II serves up another rock-solid technical presentation and a handful of great extras, partially alleviating the sting of a high price tag. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Black Butler II looks as good as its predecessor. The show's diffused visual style ensures that some sequences aren't razor-sharp (in fact, they're only a step above "upconverted DVD" quality), but this is a stylistic choice and perfectly acceptable. Black Butler II's subdued color palette is rendered nicely, black levels are consistent and the sporadic CGI effects look great. The included DVDs look well above average for standard definition, and both formats show no obvious signs of digital manipulation, compression artifacts, pixellation or other digital eyesores. In short, it's a perfectly good presentation that fans should appreciate.
The audio is also quite consistent overall...and though I rarely say such a thing, both options are just about equal in quality and effectiveness. Both the original Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 dub are included here; each of them offer clean, crisp dialogue and strong music cues. Obviously, the 5.1 dub is more enveloping, but that's not all: FUNimation really did a fine job with the ADR, and the British accents suit the series' location quite nicely. Purists may want to stick with the original Japanese track, but these are both excellent in their own right. English subtitles are included for translation purposes only, which is (once again) annoying but understandable.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen above, the menu designs are smooth and extremely easy to navigate. Each episode has been divided into roughly half a dozen chapters, no obvious layer changes were detected and a number of forced trailers must be skipped before the main menu loads. The packaging is practical and efficient, as this 5-disc Combo Pack is housed in a multi-hinged keepcase (just a bit thicker than a standard Blu-Ray) with attractive double-sided artwork and one promotional insert. You'll also get a nice outer box that's been perfectly sized to fit the complete series...so if you already have Season One, you'll be all set.
The extras lead off with six Bonus OVA Episodes
1080p, 26 minutes apiece), including "Ciel in Wonderland Part I", "Welcome to the Phantomhives", "The Making of Black Butler II
", "Ciel in Wonderland Part II", "The Threads of the Spider's Story" and "The Story of Will the Reaper". These are much closer to stand-alone stories than epilogues; for example, the "Making of" doubles as a meta-commentary on the series itself.
Up next are three Audio Commentaries during "Clawed Butler" (Episode 1), "Black Butler" (Episode 12) and "The Making of Black Butler II" (one of six bonus OVA episodes listed above). These casual sessions feature five voice actors from the English dub (including ADR Director Ian Sinclair, who voices Baldroy), and the subject matter obviously favors voicework and dialogue over art, design and story themes. Again, some variety might've helped in the long run, but die-hard fans will definitely want to have a listen.
Closing out the extras is a a brief collection of Outtakes (1080p, 3:20) from the English dub recordings, a pair of Trailers for both seasons ans three text-free Opening/Closing Songs (1080p, 1:30 each). Like the episodes themselves, optional English subtitles have been included for translation purposes only.
Black Butler II is almost what you'd expect from the follow-up to a great first season: it's a little less consistent, a little bigger (in scope, not episode count) and a little more sure of itself. But it's also different in a number of subtle ways, altering the formula ever-so-slightly while maintaining a certain "comfort level" to keep fans happy. This truncated final season (?) is bolstered by a number of side-stepping OVA episodes, while FUNimation's Combo Pack pairs up a strong technical presentation with several thoughtful bonus features. It's definitely a no-brainer for fans of the first installment...and though the sticker price remains high, Black Butler is an unusual series worth investing in. Recommended.
NOTE: The above captures were taken from the included DVDs and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two in his spare time. He also enjoys slacking off, lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.