I can’t help but wonder why more people aren’t watching Kuroshitsuji: Book of Circus – or, if they are, why they aren’t talking about it. The series scores highly on sites like Anime-planet and MAL, and seems to be just as popular in Japan as ever, on-track for strong disc sales as usual. But even if this isn’t the best show of the season, in the English-speaking fandom it’s certainly the most overlooked. Did that anime-original season do that much damage, or are people watching and just not talking?
An episode like this one, which packs pretty much every element that makes this show a powerhouse, really brings home just how good Kuroshitsuji can be. In terms of transporting you inside its universe there are few anime that can match it, but it’s more than just a question of atmosphere. The series starts and ends with the complex and utterly fascinating tangle between Ciel and Sebastian, of which all its many faces were on display here. The mystery and suspense elements are far superior to most series which specifically identify as part of those genres. And the intricate plotting in a big storyline like this one really shows off Toboso-sensei’s formidable technical abilities as a writer.
One of the highest compliments I can pay both the source material and the adaptation is that even knowing most of what was coming in this episode, it was still extremely tense and felt surprisingly fresh. What we see here is Ciel truly facing up to his own limitations – in his own words, he’s “ay my limit”. This pushes him to take risks he wouldn’t ordinarily take, desperate to bring this investigation to a close and return home (or at least to his London townhouse and Souma). And this in turn reveals complexities in his relationship with Sebastian, who relishes that he can follow his master’s orders to the letter even if they seem to place Ciel at risk, and proclaim that he had no choice. Yet there’s more than mischief here, and Sebastian is quite aware of protecting his investment. And possibly something more than that, too, as scenes later in the episode prompt the viewer to wonder about.
Ciel’s plan is to search the first-stringers’ tents during the show, a plan which is considerably complicated when “Black” is drafted to perform in place of an injured Wendy (paired with a horrified William, who’s forced to fill in for Peter because of Black’s size). Ciel forges ahead anyway, and in Beast’s tent finds old photographs showing what appear to be the first-stringers as children standing with what looks like a wealthy nobleman or merchant in front of a workhouse. Most disturbingly, inside Joker’s tent he also finds a letter from “Tom, the Piper’s Son” with his name and considerable detail about him. Well – perhaps most disturbingly he finds himself face to face with one of Snake’s charges when he tries to flee before Joker returns – Sebastian having released the snakes exactly as ordered, even knowing Ciel was still amongst the tents.
Fortunately for Ciel Doll is present, and helps him, feeling guilty about having violated his privacy at the baths. Ciel’s plan is simple – pretend to be a thief, and he pulls his best Oliver Twist out of the bag. At this point we learn one secret – Doll and the freckled “boy” who’s been paired off with Ciel are the same person. Doll tells Ciel that she does this because she doesn’t sleep well on her own, and she and Ciel have a warm shared moment – punctuated by Ciel’s inner reflection that she can’t be trusted to keep his secret because humans can lie anywhere, any time. Not excluding himself, of course. It’s a reminder of just how cold as steel Ciel can be despite his age, but it’s clear there’s more to Doll’s helpfulness than meets the eye. Joker and the others don’t trust Doll, and consider her too soft.
All the while Ciel has been exhibiting an ominous cough, ever-more insistent – almost unnoticed at first. Doctor examines him and declares it to be asthma – a diagnosis which leaves Sebastian seemingly both genuinely baffled and genuinely concerned. Turns out Ciel had asthma as a young child, and the combination of stress and the chill he got from the outdoor bath in winter has caused a major relapse. Ciel drifts in and out of consciousness, flashing back to the Lady in Red, before finally giving Sebastian a secret order via Morse code tapped out on his palm – go to the registry and find the signet of the man who stamped “Tom’s” letter. That means leaving Ciel alone and vulnerable in the hands of the enemy, but an order is an order – and Sebastian is about to carry it out when William once again intervenes to keep him from his appointed rounds The difference this time is that Sebastian has been given a direct order to fulfill…
In terms of pacing, I’d say this episode was just about perfect – there wasn’t a lull of a single moment. Honestly, this is how mystery should be done – layer in the atmosphere and character dynamics and it’s fabulously entertaining. The extra touches like Terashima Takuma’s performance as the multiple voices of his snake spies add so much to the experience, though the cast is so uniformly strong that it’s hard to single anyone out. All in all this is probably the best anime episode of the week along with Majimoji Rurumo – further proof that fanfare doesn’t determine quality. There are some plenty good headline series this season, but it’s the unheralded ones which are really starting to rise to the surface.