So, I may or may not have been watching Book of Circus on repeat and been falling in love and having my heart ripped out in cycles. [The life of a socially anxious introvert must get its perks where it will]. This, of course, absolutely means that I have to do a blog post about it, because what’s better than becoming obsessed with a story! For me, Book of Circus stands out as the pinnacle of everything Black Butler is: it is haunting and harrowing, funny and endearing, tactical and cold, and yet swelling with emotion. It also contains some of the most interesting characters featured in a series which turns on the idiosyncratic and leaves their stories largely untold, glimpsed at in a handful of flashbacks, which, of course, sets my mind racing with questions and theories, and an overwhelming need to fill in the blanks. So, ladies and gentlemen (said in Joker’s accent) without further do I give you: five truths everybody who has watched Black Butler: Book of Circus will know.
1. Book of Circus should be subtitled ‘Book of Devastation’
Literally, pick any angle – the truth about Ciel’s past and his contract with Sebastian; the cold-blooded murder of the entire circus troupe; the kidnapping and lobotomizing of children in order to use their bones as ‘high-grade’ material for prosthetics – they’re all just devastating. And a little bit twisted. Yet, for me, it is the successive deaths of the circus performers which feel perhaps the most devastating because they seem so unnecessary. Granted Ciel must ‘erase’ the threat, but the threat is Baron Kelvin, the threat is Doc; her majesties justice could have ended right there and been satisfied with the result. Joker and the troupe were acting under orders and intense emotional blackmail; to borrow Ciel’s analogy, they were merely pawns in Baron Kelvin’s twisted game, unable to move in any other way than what their king directed. To borrow their own, like Tom the Piper’s son, they were only ever taught to play one song, and who can ultimately blame them for playing it when they were ordered? They were not the masterminds behind the crime, and, given any other choice, they would not have been kidnappers either, but for the loyalty they owed to Baron Kelvin for rescuing them from poverty and restoring their bodies. A loyalty which Baron Kelvin exploited and abused in the worst possible way. In the end, they misplaced their faith and failed to realize they were being manipulated, maybe they even occasionally felt a faulty sort of pride in what they were doing as they became proficient at it, but they were ultimately recoverable characters and, given the right opportunities, could have lead meaningful, legal, rewarding lives. They did not deserve to die.
Their deaths do, however, possess their own individual poignancy which makes them just that inch more devastating. Jumbo’s guilt, for example, when he thinks he has killed Finny shows that they are not essentially evil and take no delight in murder, furthermore, his final action in calling out to Peter and Wendy to run shows how much he values his ‘family,’ and how he is willing to sacrifice his own life to give them the potential to escape. Wendy’s death is the most abruptly shocking, though perhaps the most ironically kind as she never has the chance to fully appreciate that they are under threat. There is a sense that her death is perhaps crueller to Peter, given that she is the only person he is ever seen to show kindness towards, and as he tries to avoid Mey-Rin’s hail of bullets he becomes more and more desperately discomposed. He and Wendy have always worked in tandem and he does not do well on his own, that bravado he has had right through the arch is completely decimated, and finally he becomes what his appearance suggests: a scared little boy.
Beast and Dagger’s deaths have all the irresistible tragedy of Romeo and Juliet; they are also the only two of the troupe who die together. Leaping to shield her from Bard’s machine-gun onslaught, Dagger ultimately knows his action is futile, they are disproportionately outmatched, yet he still can’t allow anything to happen to her when he has the possibility to prevent it. He is the only one of the troupe whose moment of death is a choice, a worthwhile sacrifice – at least to his own mind – because that same moment is also when Beast realizes how much he cares about her. The moment when she opens her eyes and sees him. Beast’s death, furthermore, has an additional haunting quality which suits her character well, as Bard explains the combustible property of finely-ground flour before striking a match: she has always, more or less, seen the final result their actions will engender, and she accordingly faces death without fear and almost without emotion. Bard’s regret that, in any other lifetime he would have bought her a drink in a bar and got to know her, underscores the greatest devastation of the Circus arch – that under any other circumstances the troupe could have lived. And the way she stands, watching the match slowly descend, shows both bravery and total defeat.
Joker’s death is almost torturously dragged out – undoubtedly Sebastian’s intention – as he is made to watch everything crumble around him with no ability to stop it. His death is also lonely, arriving in the harrowing basement of Baron Kelvin’s estate, while he is surrounded by everyone who has manipulated or misused him. Joker dies friendless, and its the greatest tragedy of his character. As much as he found the Baron’s orders repugnant, he at least thought he was protecting those he cared about most by fulfilling them, and even Ciel admits that this does not make him a bad person, just one who lost the game. Joker has always been at the centre of the troupe, not just as the ringleader, but the one who kept them all together and took responsibility for them, all of this is taken away from him in the end. And while the others can still feasibly die with the belief that maybe the rest of the troupe got out, he is completely denied this comfort. He has seen how ruthless Ciel can be and therefore his words ‘please … please live’ are a plea for the impossible. A plea for the already impossible because, by this point, all but one of his family are dead.
These deaths are bad enough, and then, of course, comes Doll’s. If any of the troupe performers were given the reprieve to live it should have been her, though whether she ultimately would have wanted to after her entire family had been killed is debatable. On the whole, I can understand Ciel’s ability to kill Joker and the others: he had no meaningful connection to them, they were merely faces in a mission to secure England’s security, but Doll was different. He spent time with her, he got to know her personally, not just as her circus persona but ‘Freckles,’ the tomboy with a trusting nature and a generous heart, and she looked after him too. He wouldn’t have lasted even as long as he did in the Circus without her help. I don’t understand then how he could possibly give the order to erase her! Yeah, Book of Circus made me temporarily hate Ciel.
2. Snake is a brilliant character
Apart from being hilarious with his excessive number of slithering friends, all of whom have literary-inspired names and their own personal ‘voice,’ he intrigues me in so many ways. Snake is essentially the freak among freaks; even given the diverse range of personalities the troupe embraces he still just doesn’t quite gel, he remains plainly on the outside – whether by his own choice or not – as something that is perhaps too extreme even for the abnormal standard. This, of course, raises the question: is Snake sane? To some degree, all of the troupe demonstrate a measure of split personality as a defence mechanism against what Baron Kelvin is forcing them to do. This is most pronounced in Joker when he switches between his Irish-cockney and rough-cockney accent (and the role of ‘obedient son’ and carefree fool) but all of the characters display slight dissonances in speech depending on the situation. Therefore, the idea that Snake might not be a hundred-percent adjusted is credible, after all we know little about his past other than he was rescued from caged confinement, arguably because Joker and the troupe identified with him as a fellow gutter-rat. What was he made to suffer in this time?
Snake never speaks for himself, his snakes ‘speak’ and he agrees with or qualifies what they ‘say.’ Arguably the snakes speak exactly what he cannot say, and he seems to use different snakes for different emotional states. Is this then a more extreme example of what Joker and the rest of the troupe do? Or does Snake really believe that his serpents speak to him (i.e. is he suffering from some form of schizophrenia?) When Peter asks him exactly this question Snake pointedly does not answer.
There is of course, especially in the Black Butler universe, the possibility that Snake can validly communicate with serpents. Fallen Reapers can become undertakers and Demons can be butlers after all, why would it be unreasonable for Snake to represent some kind of missing link, either biologically or engineered? Furthermore, it’s an open debate between whether the scales seen glistening iridescently in patches on his skin are a feature of his stage make-up, or real. Like I say, he’s intriguing, and hilarious.
‘Emily’ to Dagger: I hope you shan’t be away too long. I’ll keep the bed warm for you. Snake: Goodness, Emily, that’s forward. XD
3. Joker, Beast and Dagger’s not-quite-love-triangle is beautiful and tragic
Generally I’m not a huge fan of love stories (it’s the bitter cynic in me) but this one strikes all the right chords, and is a highly effective way of exploring the conflicts and desires of the core troupe characters. I say ‘not-quite-love-triangle’ because it is missing the attendant animosity which usually goes with this structure: Dagger does not resent the physicality Joker demonstrates with Beast; Joker, in turn, does not resent Dagger’s affections for Beast, nor the small advances he makes towards her; and Beast knows exactly where her heart lies with no conflict, unfortunately for Dagger. Their collective pasts, living rough on the streets, and the dependency they had on each other puts them in a position where this kind of bitterness just isn’t sustainable. Yet their shared history also seems to be the reason why any relationship between them is untenable.
As I said before, Joker took responsibility for them all: this can be seen when he inexpertly steals a loaf of bread and gets beaten for his trouble, just so they can have something to eat. Even at fifteen he is highly sacrificial for those who he considers family, and almost devotedly driven to protect them (surely it would have been easier just to send Peter and Wendy to beg for food? They look like cute kids, no-one would have refused them). As a natural MO, however, Joker bears the brunt of any punishment so no-one else has to. Once the troupe are ‘rescued’ by Baron Kelvin, he still continues to retain this position, acting as a go-between, a buffer which ensures that ‘father’s’ orders are carried out, but which protects everybody else from direct manipulation. He is the only one we ever really see in father’s psychotic sanctum, for example, with the possible exception of Beast in a certain flashback, and there is a sense that, as much as he was possibly able, he would have prevented the rest of the troupe from having to go there, especially someone like Doll who the truth would destroy. Again, he becomes ‘father’s’ messenger so no-body else has to. He will sacrifice his entire self if it means he can protect someone else. Maybe Dagger even picks up a little of this trait from him.
That Joker and Beast share an intimate connection is undeniable – after Sebastian’s affront to her modesty (who knew, right?) Joker is the only one who is able to defuse her, though don’t we just love how Dagger defends her honour? The simple flower-conjuring trick (which Dagger notably copies later with a single red blossom) ultimately means nothing, it is Joker’s presence, his tone, his physical touch which soothes her. In essence it is him, she loves him unashamedly, and she responds to his affection when he gives it. Beast is no weak woman by any stretch of the imagination, but even then she shows a beautiful and tragic vulnerability with him. In what is, poignantly, the last time they will ever see each other alive, though they don’t know it yet, she clings to him desperately, begging for them to start a new life away from ‘father’s’ influence. They are a successful circus, they could easily be independent, work for themselves and not have to live with the dark undertones of their current existence. And, what she doesn’t say: he could love her without being afraid. This is one of the rare moments we see Joker without his stage persona, and in his response to her there is both genuine love and impeachable resistance. As beast later admits to Sebastian (and how sad that scene makes me) the only words she really needs him to say: ‘I love you,’ are exactly the ones he can’t. Though there is little doubt that Joker does love her, his responsibility to ‘father’ makes any solid admittance of that love impossible. At different points we see the stress Baron Kelvin’s orders inspire in the troupe, but Joker undeniably bears the worst of it, more in fact than they’ll ever know. By protecting them from ‘father’s’ influence he has made it impossible for them to truly understand his position as ‘obedient son,’ and maybe he is afraid that any close affection with Beast will mitigate this protection and place her under the same malevolent influence. For there is fear as well as loyalty in his regard for Baron Kelvin.
In one of the most disturbing scenes of the arc – the lobotomized children performing a circus – we can see that Joker is physically repulsed by the role he is being forced to play: he is visibly shaking, and as the macabre entertainment plays out he quickly loses the stomach to watch, in fact he seems almost relieved when Sebastian puts a timely end to the madness. This represents only one throwaway instance of what Baron Kelvin has put him through over a decade-long career, one instance of his degradation and shame, yet it is more than enough to demonstrate how he lost the ability to love Beast as she needs him too, as he undoubtedly did when they were on the streets or first in the workhouse. The only thing he can offer her – or anyone else – now is kindness, seen in brief flashes and incapable of being sustained, and though he gives it to her wholeheartedly it just ends up hurting her all the more, because it’s all she can ever call from him, and kindness is not love. Instead of making him whole again, Baron Kelvin damaged Joker in an irreparable way and blinded him to the knowledge of being broken. Beast doesn’t have the luxury of that same blindness.
Furthermore, the sad reality is that a relationship with Dagger could give her everything that she desires. He basically tells her that he loves he with every word and action he directs towards her, and his happy, lively temperament would take the bitter sting out of hers in a way Joker’s never could. But, for whatever reason, Beast never views him in light of this potential, in fact, I don’t think she ever takes his ‘crush’ seriously (because she must be aware of it) until sacrifices his own life to save her. Admittedly, Dagger is on the young side; if we were to guestimate ages I’d say that he is the youngest after Doll, with Peter and Wendy’s appearance just being hugely misleading. We have a baseline age with Joker: twenty-five, making him roughly fifteen when Baron Kelvin ‘rescued’ them. I would put Beast at around this age as well, or maybe just slightly younger, as the flashback to the workhouse show them to be pretty similar in height/development. Dagger at this time, however, appears unmistakably younger than them, though not young enough to be a child as Doll is, which would put him somewhere around ten or eleven, making him twenty to twenty-one at the time of Book of Circus. From the workhouse to the present he does retain something of the little-brother vibe, especially with Joker, and maybe the reason Beast never views him as a potential suitor is because she never really conceives him as moving past this role. He can be everything she needs, but maybe he’s also everything she doesn’t want, maybe she likes Joker’s seriousness, his maturity, maybe its just him as an entire person. But I do think Dagger and Beast would have made a good couple, and a potentially more well-adjusted one that Beast and Joker. Even if he can’t love her though, she can’t help loving him and he is the last thing she sees the instant before she dies, even after Dagger has laid down his life for her.
4. The kidnapping of the flower-girl is bizarre
I mean … it’s just bizarre. And anyone else love how Beast just casually brings Betty along for the show? As casually, that is, as you can bring a full-grown tiger anywhere in London. Now, I’m not an expert on the nineteenth-century drugs trade, but there has to be some sort of hallucinogen somehow administered to the little girl because what she sees is not normal by any standard. Admittedly, things begin to go wrong for her the instant she hears Joker playing, and the sudden appearance of the poster advertising the Noah’s Arc Circus pre-empts the subsequent scenes by raising the question: is she really seeing it, or is she already affected by whatever substance is being used on her? The police don’t see the poster, in fact, they never seem to connect the circus in any way with the disappearances, despite the troupe’s worry. So, is it real? Possibly not. As an interesting point, when we see a shot of the wall again, in the instant before the real policeman morphs into a whistle-blowing polar bear, the poster has conspicuously vanished. Though whether this is just an error remains to be seen.
When Joker introduced himself to the little girl and conjures her a bunch of flowers the air is seen to glitter around her, or, perhaps more precisely, is seen to be filled with glittering particles, which continue to be present in the version of events she sees. Joker and the troupe are shown to operate outside this lollipop dream word in the ‘real’ flashes of the kidnapping we get, so maybe a close-range, air-dispersed hallucinogen is used; something which is strong enough to affect a child but at the same time leave Joker and anyone else at a distance unaffected. Who could manufacture something like that? Yeah, my thoughts exactly, Doc. He is certainty twisted and dedicated enough, and his cover is still intact at this point. Doc is also responsible for the oh-so-neat lobotomies of the caged children, just in case you didn’t make the leap. I didn’t initially. Hate him all the more now?
But perhaps a more intriguing question than how they would do this is why? If Doc is only going to ‘subdue’ the children later anyway this dreamland vision seems wholly unnecessary and unlikely to be his idea, though he designs to means to achieve it. Similarly, while Baron Kelvin orders the kidnappings he doesn’t state under what conditions, and by the time the children become part of his collection they are already obedient automatons, so he would hardly be likely to consider their temporary emotional well-being as they are abducted. No, I think the dreamland vision is Joker and the troupe’s idea; a way to ease their conscience perhaps, or take some of the venom out of what they are doing. Despite Baron Kelvin’s manipulation, all of the troupe are passionate about performing and about being part of a circus – considering they had no pre-existing skills, they must have worked pretty darn hard to get their acts up to the standard Ciel and Sebastian see. The circus is a relatively pure aspect of their lives, something which makes them happy and which they can achieve for themselves, therefore, in any area of their life where they could, I think they would emphasize it – especially when they are placed in their own position of powerless victims.
And, when looked at in a certain way, the dreamland vision is kind: the flower-girl comes from a poor background, one which needs her to work in order to support the basic needs of her family, and if she works really heard she might just be able to take her brother to a circus one day. Joker and the troupe bring the circus to her and make her the star of it. Knowing what will happen to her the instant she reaches Baron Kelvin’s estate, Joker’s choice to make her last physical memory one joy with a complete lack of fear shows a humanity in him that is often smothered in his obedience to ‘father.’ If they have only ever been taught to play one song at least they play it, whenever they can, in their own way.
5. It was all a lie
Arguably this is the most devastating fact in the entire arc because it makes everything so pointless. Joker and the troupe have never been under any illusion about what they were doing, even if they dress it up in neutral language to make it more palatable (‘father says we have not quite collected enough sweets’). Like Ciel, they know where their loyalties lie and they adhere to them. In this way, Ciel and the circus troupe are very similar, and this might underlie why one cannot permit the other’s existence. Both are rogue, unstable elements and their is only a limited space for them to move in. To Joker and the others, the kidnapped children are worth the sacrifice so that Baron Kelvin will keep supporting the workhouse and their brothers and sisters within: rejected from wider society because of their deformities they have little guilt in attacking it, maybe sometimes it even feels vindicating, but they do have loyalty to those who are in the same disadvantaged position. (Snake is prime example of this). Therefore, whatever else Baron Kelvin may be in their eyes – and there are hints that he represents something fearful and repellent – his one redeeming quality is that he saved them and, as they have been lead to believe, saved many others just like them. This is the string with which Joker is bound to him, and all the troupe die with the belief still intact that, whatever crimes they committed it was for a noble reason, or at least a worthwhile one, if noble won’t stretch that far.
I wanted there to be a workhouse still, just something so their deaths were not my meaningless, but the rubble has probably lain there since the moment that they left it. None of them were ever likely to return, in fact, Baron Kelvin ensured they wouldn’t by setting them up as a circus and giving them their backstage task, therefore, all he had to do was to fabricate and support a lie. One he could use to coerce his ‘son’ into committing terrible actions, and the same to use as a threat to stop him ever rebelling and finding out the truth. Baron Kelvin’s hold on Joker and, though him, on the troupe is unbreakable, and he reinforces this not just with intense emotional blackmail, but with brutal condescension too. He makes Joker a child in his presence through epithets such as ‘a good boy’ and ‘a dutiful son,’ and Joker can do nothing but comply to this complete infantalization. He is completely powerless against the perversity of Baron Kelvin’s nature and he becomes a shadow in the shade of it, unable to think or act for himself, and it devastates me because it is so cruel. His life is cruel, his death is cruel, but the cruellest is that everything he believed, that single spark of goodness in his life was a lie. Maybe he was better of dying without knowing the truth, because the truth would have undoubtedly destroyed him anyway.
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Note: Well, this was supposed to have been about the Book of Circus arc generally, but instead I just seem to have focused on the troupe … maybe I should do another one to compensate (hmmm). I’d love to delve into Alois’ psychotic little mind. If anyone is not a fan of Joker, sorry I’ve harped on about him a lot, but I love him. He perfectly fits my villain-with-a-good-heart type. If you liked this then let me know. I have a lot more anime’s I’m fully prepared to ramble about.