Anime Review: Parallel World Pharmacy

Wait, a pharmacy isekai anime that has some actual plot?!

The first anime like that I encountered completely failed to pass my one-episode rule. The second had a contrived plot in which the pharmacy was ultimately irrelevant. This is the third one I’ve encountered, and I was rather surprised when I realized that there was, indeed, a real plot to the story, and one in which the pharmacy had some relevance. Mind you, this one has issues of its own, mostly involving the world-building, but we’ll get to those in a moment.

Parallel World Pharmacy follows the soul of a driven, dedicated doctor as his soul leaves this world and is sent into another one, possessing the body of a young boy in a Medieval European sort of empire. The boy, Farma, got struck by lightning and died, leaving the vessel open for the new Farma to move in. Now being raised in an affluent family of pharmaceutists, as they’re called, Farma possesses an immense wealth of magical power and ability, with which he is able to diagnose any ailment and create medicines for them, using knowledge from his previous life. It becomes quickly apparent that his soul was sent there by the family’s godly patron, called the Panactheos, not only through his unique abilities and great power, but also as his actions and contributions to their medical knowledge soon have vast repercussions throughout the empire and the world.

And all Farma really wants to do is open a pharmacy of his own, to help heal as many people as possible and alleviate suffering. It’s a noble desire, born of a loss suffered in his previous life, but apparently his new patron deity has a bit more in mind for him, namely stopping some other, more nefarious entity in its tracks.

Pausing on that note, I have to admit I was a little put off by the whole idea of a god killing a child and shoving another soul within his body to do its work. I still am, actually. It might have been a bit more benevolent if, say, the doctor’s soul had become a companion within the boy’s mind instead, allowing for an entirely different dynamic. That said, when I take into account that there is clearly another force at work, one which is bringing suffering and death to people very quickly, I have to wonder if the more benevolent deity simply had to take drastic action immediately and could not be kinder about it. Either way, though, it was this sudden showdown with an evil force that suddenly shook me, realizing that everything up until this point might have been tedious and a bit awkward, but it was meant to set the stage.

Farma’s abilities enable him to command a tremendous amount of elemental magic, in addition to an ability to create raw materials from nothing or render them into nothing, topped off with a mystical eye that lets him see and accurately diagnose any sort of malady. It’s a perfect combination for one with his medical knowledge, and it leaves him quite overpowered, practically a god among mortals. All of these turn out to be vital in his sudden confrontation with the villain of the story, but it is his kindness and caring which win him the many friends he needs at the moment of crisis.

He is kind to a tutor who became overwhelmed and fearful in the face of his power, he saves the empress from a fatal illness, he saves his little sister from drowning, he provides useful treats for sailors to combat scurvy among them, he cares for a young girl with all the professionalism he had in his previous life, and he saves the life of an inquisitor who mistook Farma for some kind of demon. Thus, he gains helpers, assistants, protectors, allies, coworkers, colleagues, and more, all of which play their pivotal role in the face of an enemy’s nefarious attack: an unleashing of the Black Death upon their people.

Thus does Farma come face to face with a true evil, a man who perverted the selfless medicine of the pharmaceutists and turned it towards the inflicting of suffering instead of the alleviating of such, striving to kill instead of save, and on a massive scale. We see him for exactly one episode, but between his wicked works, his deranged mentality, his love of pain and death, and how he hurts the most innocent members of the entire cast, it’s safe to say that one episode was enough for me to absolutely hate this man, this Camus de Sade, who had become an evil spirit of pestilence and plague. He may have stood absolutely zero chance against such an overpowered foe as Farma, but this time it simply felt right, that such a degenerate devil of a man and all his works should be undone so quickly and easily by the true servant of a divine being.

A surprisingly potent villain for lasting only one episode.

And everything tedious, which set up every aspect of what Farma needed to lead the fight against the Black Death and to undo de Sade himself, took the patience I needed to endure some relatively dull episodes, and rewarded it with a most satisfying victory.

Mind you, there are still some world-building issues in the background. In particular, it is established that Farma alone has the skills to make many of his medications, especially in a Medieval world that very much lacks any industrial technology. Thus, this begs the question of how Farma is able to keep his large pharmacy properly supplied, and, even more, how he is able to supply the partner shops that open up as part of his guild. I mean… how?

The other world-building detail that kept bugging me was the entire dynamic between the nobles and the commoners. Specifically, with what I know of history, the notion of this Medieval Empire wherein the commoners actually became wealthy on their own without the nobles. That was not exactly a common thing back then. The rich people were the nobles who had the financial means to fund their various business ventures. They were the big business elite. Now, I can understand nobility being based on one’s divine arts – aka, having magic – but the notion of that commoners owned wealthy businesses while nobles just sat on their butts, in a society based on our own real history, just strains credulity a little too much for me.

If one can set those issues aside, though, then Parallel World Pharmacy remains a simple, somewhat tedious story of a human being who wants to help his fellows being blessed with the opportunity to do so at a pivotal moment in history. He may well become a legend among the people for his kindness, compassion, and his tireless effort to heal people. Which is something of a welcome departure from every hero being overpowered only in ways which destroy and are meant to kill demons but which can hardly save anyone at all. It’s a very wholesome, uplifting sort of anime, though not always exciting.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #418: Love, More Than Money

“I must say, Regina, now our son really is the richest boy in the world.”

“He has friends.”

– Richard & Regina Rich, Richie Rich

This comes at the end of a movie which, from beginning to end, is about how money is not everything. It’s not even the “best” thing. It is a very useful thing, perhaps, but it’s worth a lot less than people sacrifice for it. People think that if they had enough of it, all of their problems would disappear, and then they would be happy. But nothing about that is true. Not only does happiness not mean “a lack of problems,” but money is inherently limited, so it doesn’t simply make every problem vanish in the first place. It certainly does not bring happiness, else why would so many of the richest people in the world be so miserable?

Money can buy many things, but not happiness, and not love.

That is what makes the son of these two so rich. It’s not his bank account, or his popularity – and, yes, he is rather popular at the moment, but that is not remotely the same thing as being loved. Love is the greatest wealth in the universe, for from love springs the loyalty of comrades, the treasure of kindness, and the joy of family and friendship. Love takes all sorts of perfectly ordinary things, common items and everyday moments, and turns them into priceless treasures. Priceless in the truest sense of the word, being beyond the power of money to buy, barter, borrow, or exchange, or take, or lose in any way. You can lose a house because of money, but money cannot make you lose the joy that was known within its walls.

People in dire deprivation have known more joy in their lives than the wealthiest of the world’s elite, so long as they have had love. People facing death itself have known more peace than the safest person behind all of their walls and guards, because they have loved and been loved by the people who faced death alongside them. The humblest of the humble have been richer in the things that truly matter than the proud and mighty, because their treasure has been eternal, beyond the power of thieves and rust and inflation.

I know that I do not have much in my life, not in the eyes of the world, neither money nor status nor great, fancy toys the worth of which could feed a man for years on end. I know that I have indulged in far too many fantasies of having all those worldly things. I know that, whatever I do have, I am still squarely at the bottom of the totem pole.

And yet, I have so much. So much!

I do not suffer from deprivation. I have all my needs met, as well as many luxuries. I have an ocean of stories to swim in, sating my mind and my sanity. Most of all, I have love in my life. I have my family, and my adorable pets, and, though many have gone away from me, a weight which lingers on my heart, I do still have friends. True friends, and loyal.

I have so much to be thankful for, treasures which are beyond the price of money.

I am thankful!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Anime Review: Bucchigire!

The English translation of the title is, “Shine On! Bakumatsu Bad Boys.” Somehow, I have difficulty taking that title seriously, so I still think of it as Bucchigire.

It’s an alternate history that puts a rather fantastic twist on the famed Shinsengumi. It starts out very strong, with a group of criminals being forcibly recruited as substitutes for seven of the Shinsengumi leaders, all but one of whom were assassinated. They are to fight for the nation and people of Japan, and their enemies are the Masked Demons, who have their own view of what the future should be and do not hesitate to kill anyone in order to further their goals. Indeed, much of what the Masked Demons do is simply to kill people, to collect their souls and use them to power some very futuristic weaponry. Against this, the substitute Shinsengumi leaders have only their own swords, but which are empowered more willingly by the souls of their deceased predecessors.

I’m going to be blunt here: this was not a very surprising show. It was fun, in its way, but it was also cliche, predictable, and filled with by-the-numbers tropes, with a plot that mostly happens just because it needs to happen that way.

The leader is a reckless, loudmouthed fool with big dreams of changing the world, as per usual. The enemy commander is the leader’s long lost brother, complete with a tragic redemption arc, as per usual. The girl of the group is one of the best fighters and has a romantic subplot, as per usual. A cold, ruthless assassin with a tortured past is both foible and strongest support to the leader, as per usual. The others include a priestly pacifist, a mad scientist, a gun-toting ruffian, a huge idiot with a huge appetite, and the lone survivor of the previous generation of leaders, now trying to bear the weight of all of them, all as per usual. The witty mentor figure is assassinated and leaves a clue to the enemy’s plans, as per usual. The true enemy is a highly-placed official, a traitor, with occult knowledge and a desire to keep the world from changing, so he does not lose his place in it, all as usual. And after a dozen episodes of growing accustomed to these colorful characters, we have a showdown that is suddenly reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven, or, rather, Seven Samurai. Except, of course, that none of the main heroes actually die or suffer much in any way.

So, it’s not any sort of revolutionary anime. No great twists and turns and shocking reveals here. And yet there is a certain… resonance. Something which draws on truth and speaks to the soul, rather than to the mind.

Japan had a long history of self-isolation, so much so that they had to have their doors kicked down and their teeth kicked in, dragging them kicking and screaming into the modern era. Once that was done, they quickly became a dominant power in their sphere again, enough to take on much of the world. Still, to this day, Japanese culture is not much accepting of outsiders, irregulars, and foreigners. One can hardly blame them, given how radical were the changes forced upon them, no matter how much they have made those changes their own and thrived for it. Anyone would be angry for a very long time in the wake of losing so much of their ancient traditions, and all that accompanies such.

Thus, when I look at this anime, I see Japan’s struggle with itself, seeking to increase their strength without cutting the roots of their cultural identity. It is a painful ordeal, to grow and change, not least for what ends up left behind. Within this, there will always be those who greedily strive to hold on to their waning status, even to renew and increase it, no matter whose blood they will spill, whose lives they will trample on, and on whose souls they will feed. The ancient and the occult are merged with frightening futuristic weaponry, playing on the human fears of both science and the supernatural, co-opting humanity’s march into the future and turning it into a backwards slide into stagnation. Against this, the protagonist fights for the dream of a new world, one in which no one gets stepped on. A simple but very high ideal, the hope that shines in the darkness of the enemy’s ultimate despair.

There is something of value in that.

But it’s still a very campy, predictable, and very generic action flick that generally does not excite one’s brain overmuch. It’s fun, but not really thrilling. It’s not quite a children’s anime, but it is close.

Rating: I give it 7 stars out of 10.

Grade: …hmmm, C-Plus seems slightly low, so I’ll be a little generous and say B-Minus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #417: Understanding and Hope

“How to stay afloat in this world and all of its gravity
When every day the pull is grabbing me
And it’s easy thinking, ‘Nobody here’s understanding me’
Maybe I’m not alone
Maybe I’m not alone”
– from “Gravity,” by Irys

Music is the universal language, speaking to us on a level even deeper than emotions.

As I am writing this, the song I’m quoting has just barely been released, sung by a VTuber whose online nom de guerre is Irys, a herald of hope. From the first note to the last, it speaks to me of that hope which she wishes to spread. The song as a whole is about going through the heavy ordeals of this world, lacking energy, feeling like we’re in a bottomless abyss we can’t get out of, and feeling so alone… but we’re not. Right now, someone is feeling the same things we are, countless people knowing exactly the same frustrations that we are enduring. We are not alone.

Misery may love company, but so does joy. Hope is a light that grows ever stronger when we know that we have someone to share it with, as they share it with us in turn. Even for the most independent of souls, it’s comforting to be in good company, people we know understand us.

I say that as one who has often felt alone, in an abyss from which there is no escape. Not alone, at least. Oh, I am not a social butterfly by any means, and I would not survive if I could not retreat and recharge in solitude. But, oh, how thankful I have been when I have found that I was not really alone! Even at those times when I have not been in anyone’s immediate company, I have been able to feel close to others and happy when I have known that they understood me and truly cared for me. My friends have been my angels, lighting my darkness, giving me warmth even in the cold of my despair, and helping escape the inescapable abyss.

Simply being understood is such a powerful blessing, and I thank God for it!

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The Charming Little Yakuza’s Guide to Babysitting

With a title like this, one might expect an overwhelming comedy, maybe something like the anime version of Three Men and a Baby, where hilarious hijinks ensue as the big, tough men have to learn to adapt to the task of raising a child and find their lives forever changed as they all become a family. There is a certain element of that, but The Yakuza’s Guide to Babysitting is mostly about the fun, simple, happy, peaceful moments by which a bond is formed and how that bond begins to reshape both man and child.

A yakuza heavy-hitter is tasked with babysitting the adorable daughter of the family. This is partially to ensure that six-year-old Yaeka is looked after and protected, and partially to teach the former heavy-hitter, Kirishima, to be a bit more responsible and less violent. What follows is a series of endearing episodes wherein the loneliness that both of them feel is driven away as they form connections, strong and deep, with each other and with the people around them. New friends are made, old friends return, they adopt a stray kitten, they visit Yaeka’s mother in the hospital where she has been comatose for several years… that sort of thing. They learn to smile, cry, comfort, and support each other.

There is a certain humor to when Kirishima and his comrades have to balance caring for Yaeka, “the little lady,” and seeing to their duties as yakuza, which mostly involves beating down interlopers who tread on their turf and mistreat those under their protection. Still, I have some reservations about such a positive depiction of organized crime. Sure, they might still be human, and they may well have their own code of honor, but they’re still involved in every bit of shady business that goes down in Japan, much of it violent, bloody, and lethal. They’re not gentle protectors, compassionate overseers, and family men who fall for the girl at the flower shop and raise families like normal, peaceful people. Sure, it might be a bit inconvenient for them to have a loose cannon around, but I doubt the head of a powerful crime family would really mind having a one-man army the likes of Kirishima, who can apparently destroy entire rival families single-handed. Thus, it might make sense to make the man a bodyguard to protect the daughter of the family, but not so much to try and tame and pacify him by making him practically solely responsible for the girl.

As such, fully enjoying this anime somewhat depends on being able to forget that the yakuza are violent, despicable criminals, and not thinking too much about how little Yaeka will one day be a queen of crime, and that’s if things go well, with nothing terrible happening to her.

If one can manage that, then this a cute and heart-warming story about people finding more joy and happiness as they bring out the best in each other. This is even contrasted by the villain lurking in the shadows, pulling puppet strings and leaving devastation in his wake as he works to turn Kirishima back into the demonic person he used to be, by orchestrating a threat to Yaeka. It works, for a short time, because who wouldn’t be infuriated beyond reason towards any who would threaten such an adorable, innocent little girl? But it doesn’t last long. The incident is soon resolved, though the puppeteer escapes for the moment, and everyone is back to smiling and making each other better.

Though, if I may… why did they not get to *this* obvious complication?!

Not that everything is unrealistic, undiluted happiness. I mentioned Yaeka’s mother being in a coma, and the series, or at least the first season, ends without her ever coming out of it. It similarly ends with Kirishima visiting the grave of his parents, who died when he was quite young. But there is abiding hope for Yaeka’s mother, and peace within Kirishima as he talks to the grave. Thus, there is a certain balance between the ingredients of happiness and sorrow, though much more favoring happiness.

Basically, this is a charming little anime for when you want something that you don’t have to think much about, and which carries just enough emotional weight to feel good. It’ll pass a few hours pleasantly enough, with some laughs and some tears, without demanding much in return. And it’s mostly wholesome, too, which is a particular plus these days.

Rating: I’ll give it 7 stars out of 10.

Grade: C-Plus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #416: Our Veterans’ Sacrifice

“When I return home, I will swallow every horrible thing I’ve done here. And I will smile when I’m with her. I swear on my life, I will make her happy.”
– Maes Hughes, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
OVA 4, “Yet Another Man’s Battlefield”

This is part of Maes’ answer to a question from his friend and comrade about when they get home from a terrible war: can he hold the woman he loves in such blood-soaked hands as he has, as they all have? The answer is yes, because Maes is determined to be the man she loves, a selfless man of principle and honor who does what he must to protect himself, his comrades, his country, and her, and then comes home to love his family and make them happy. He will let nothing stop him in that goal, not even the hell of war itself.

This week is my country’s Veteran’s Day. It’s not nearly as honored as I think it should be, but it’s where we are to take a moment and remember the people who have served in our armed forces and come back alive. Memorial Day is where we remember those who died, and Veteran’s Day is where we remember those who survived.

There is very little that we can do, I think, to properly repay what they have given, offered, lost, or had taken from them in service to our nation. Many of those who came back alive came back very different from who they were before. They have come back with injuries to the body, and to the mind, to the heart and soul. They have all but walked straight through a slaughterhouse, and done some slaughtering of their own. One cannot still be human without that leaving some sort of mark.

They come back from all that, from things which shattered them and their comrades, and they resume normal, everyday life: go to work, pay the bills, find someone to love, get married, and raise the kids, with all that entails, including teaching, protecting, playing, etc.

Some men and women have trouble with that. They have trouble leaving the battlefield behind with everything they’ve seen and done. They have trouble healing and moving on. They have trouble being happy and being alive. And yet they persist. They keep trying.

To swallow everything horrible and go on to live a happy life takes a kind of strength that does not come easy. Those who do it are often among the very best and most honorable examples of humanity. And even those who don’t have often given more for their people than their people can ever truly realize.

So, to all of you out there who have served so well and sacrificed so much, I offer my most sincere gratitude. Thank you for protecting everything and everyone which I hold dear. I may be only a civilian, but from the bottom of my heart, I salute you, and I wish you all the happiness in the world.

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Why Killing Bites Infuriates Me

With a great deal of money, influence, and access to highly advanced science, a quartet of corporations have mastered the ability to splice human DNA with that of animals. With this amazing technology, they turn people into therianthropes, as they are called, and have them fight to the death like gladiators. A hapless salaryman stumbles into this deadly arena of blood and money when his path crosses with that of a particularly ruthless and deadly high school girl, and the course of his life and death are forever altered by the competition known as “Killing Bites,” where – as they say in every episode – “the one with the sharpest fangs wins, that’s what Killing Bites is!”

I will applaud the creativity of the people behind this anime, applying their knowledge of various animals to fights between beast-people. There are the usual contenders of a lion, a tiger, and such, but also a few unusual ones, including a hippo, a rabbit, and a pangolin, the armor of which is surprisingly dangerous when it comes on a figure as big or bigger than most people. Easily the breakaway star, though, is the female lead of the show, who shares the traits of a honey badger. And if a natural honey badger can be dangerous to lions despite the difference in size, try shrinking that difference to no more than the variance between average humans, and the honey badger girl might as well be called the world champion already.

I will also praise the intricate plot behind the plot of the show, where the outcome of the current Killing Bites competition determines the future of mankind, being the last piece necessary to pull off a massive coup.

I will even say that the fights are interesting and fun to watch, the humor makes me chuckle, and… well, it is difficult to look away from some of the saucier scenes that manage to push the envelope without outright burning it.

And I will top it off with expressing my irritation that the last five minutes of the show set it up as if it were a prequel to some existing franchise, and thus the story isn’t only unfinished, it takes us through all the twists and turns and loop-de-loops to bring us up to the real beginning without taking us even one step beyond it! That has got to be one of my biggest pet peeves ever!

All that said…

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…there simply must be a more straightforward means by which to justify the depiction of young, sexy beast-girls in very little clothing. I mean, if that’s what you really want to do, then do it! No great need to come up with some convoluted scheme that’s filled with blood, horror, murder, and rape! Sheesh!

Oh, yes, that’s all part and parcel of the show, too. Lots of people die in horrible ways, and at the end of it all, when the coup is successful, the lion-man takes a young woman by force. True, she was a fool and (pardon my language) a bitch, but that is no excuse. It was simply horrific to witness and made me vastly uncomfortable, even if they avoided a depiction nearly as explicit as is found in, say, the first episode of Goblin Slayer.

Of course, all the beast-men were simply depicted as beastly, no attention paid to making them look good at all, except the tiger-man. But the girls almost always kept their pretty faces and alluring figures in outfits that left precious little to the imagination. And with bodies and strength like that, it’s small wonder that a dirty old man who thinks himself a king was drooling over them in such a disgusting manner.

Basically, my frustration is that they could have either taken this notion of sexy beast-girls and done something less graphic with it, or they could have taken the plot they had, including its tragic conclusion, and made it easier to take seriously if they’d focused less on sexy beast-girls, but putting the two together was off-putting as much as it was riveting. It basically appeals most to the lower appetites, the primal urges which appreciate violence and sex, rather than anything dignified and uplifting.

And that is something which, as I am working to improve myself in whatever small ways, I find myself less and less willing to accept. Far be it from me to judge those who truly enjoyed this anime, but I generally found it lacking. If not for that never-to-be-sufficiently-cursed ending, and the wasted potential for a proper story, I would have finished this anime and felt very little about it.

Killing Bites is basically a festival of boobs, butts, and blood, and I can’t say I’m better for having watched it.

Rating: 4 stars out of 10.

Grade: D-Minus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #415: We Must Stop Moping

“I’d been feeling sorry for myself, which is about the most useless thing you can feel: it doesn’t do a damned thing for you. You don’t feel any better, you don’t get any better, and you’re too busy moping to do anything to actually make your life any better. There’s a reason the old folks call it stewing in your own juices. That’s all that goes on – you just soak in the pain.”
– Harry Dresden, The Law
From The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher

To be clear, Harry mentions scarcely a moment later that it’s OK to hurt, just not OK to let that hurt stop him from helping the people who need him. That, however, is something I will want to go into in-depth another time. This quote is a little more general, and a little more pointed as well.

Harry, narrating the entire story, says this in the wake of a most terrible and devastating loss. No one can fault him for being in the kind of pain he’s in, for feeling the agony that tries to drag him into the living nightmare of a waking memory every single moment of every single day. But what he describes is very real and very dangerous to everyone.

We all suffer from sorrow, from pain, from loss. No one goes through life without knowing pain. We all take injuries to our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our souls. We all need time to heal from every such injury. But healing the body often involves getting up and doing things, such as physical therapy, rather than just lying there and feeling the pain. So it is with healing our sorrows: we can’t just sit and stew in them forever. That’s not healthy.

Somehow, some way, sometime – and the sooner, the better – we have to do more than simply sit in our pain.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop hurting. That doesn’t mean we have to stop feeling. And it certainly doesn’t mean we have to leave behind the love we have for those we have lost. It just means that we can’t let it stop us.

It may not be easy, and it may not be painless – physical therapy often involves pushing oneself, and so do other kinds of healing – but it must be done.

We don’t have to be all right all at once. We don’t have to be not in pain in order to be able to smile again.

But we do have to get back up and move forward, else we will never heal at all, and our sorrow drown us forever.

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Black Butler: The Book of Eternal Tragedies

In Victorian England, a young boy named Ciel Phantomhive seeks to avenge himself and his murdered parents, even selling his soul to a demon in order to achieve that end. This demon must do everything Ciel orders him to do, complete every objective, and ultimately bring down those responsible for Ciel’s suffering. In return, once this contract is fulfilled, the demon will devour Ciel’s soul. Until then, until “the end,” the demonic Sebastian will be Ciel’s greatest servant: one hell of a butler.

The franchise that is Black Butler can be a little tricky to untangle. There is the original anime, and it’s sequel season, which tell a continuous story. Then there are the “book” additions: The Book of CircusThe Book of Murder, and The Book of the Atlantic. These are, respectively, a shorter season, a two-part special, a movie, and the potential for yet more to come. The “books” also have a clear continuity among them, one that I understand is a bit more true to the manga. They refer to events portrayed in the original anime, but clearly deviate from that timeline, with original characters and other distinctions. They have the same beginning, and may ultimately have a similar ending, but there is a great deal different in the middle.

What both iterations have most in common, though, is that they both deal in profound tragedy.

There is, first and foremost, the tragedy of Ciel. Not only does he carry the trauma of his many losses, but if ever he succeeds in his goal, that will be the end of him. The original anime found a way to work around that, but only insomuch as to slightly alter his fate, rather than to redeem his soul. Redemption is impossible for him, it would seem, and not least because he willingly accepts and willfully embraces his damnation. It is a cold and ruthless form of determination unlike most I have seen, as if it were the last trace of purity left to him, and it lends some credibility to Sebastian’s slavering hunger for the boy’s soul. He truly is unlike the rest.

Then there are the tragedies which befall those around Ciel. His parents, of course, are dead. He sees his aunt reduced to an insane serial killer before she, too, is brutally murdered. Friends, colleagues, and protectors come into his life with their light, and those that don’t die for him or turn on him end up bereft, left behind by his eventual demise and descent into Hell.

And so it goes.

A circus troupe made up of orphans are turned into monsters by their insane benefactor and end up destroyed for it, never realizing how terribly they have already been betrayed. An honest, humble author is nearly driven mad as he witnesses a murderer brought to justice, but not for the murder he committed, and faces a demon in his quest for answers. The guardians of life and death go mad, a queen falls to her own desires, loyalty itself is cast aside in the face of brutal necessity. The very worst face of humanity is revealed, and it is grotesque. Good people have to do brutal things as they plunge into the deepest darkness which lies barely concealed beneath the veil of upright civilization.

And who are the stewards of both civilization and what lies beneath it? The butlers. They stand at the door, preventing innocent young ladies from seeing the mess of a bloody corpse in the hall beyond, one moment aiding in the creation of said corpse, and the next, speaking soothing words of reassurance so the lady may go back to sleep peacefully.

Sebastian, of course, is the consummate butler, accomplishing many an improbable or even humanly impossible feat with elegance and charm, as any seductive demon might. Other butlers include an elderly man of surprising eloquence and strength when the needs calls for it, a grim reaper that is obsessed with Sebastian, a Hindu monk with a right hand blessed by the goddess Kali, and a fallen angel who delights in delivering judgment and massacre. That last may be somewhat different in the “book” iteration, replacing the angel with a pair of deadly earls instead, who are happy enough to hang Ciel out to dry.

Speaking of, that’s another distinction between the two iterations: the relationships are much more all around antagonistic in the “books.” Ciel and Sebastian are practically one being in the original anime, operating smoothly and without incident between them, but in the “books,” they poke at each other without mercy. The reapers in general are still obsessed with avoiding overtime, but where they are reluctant allies in the original anime, they are flat-out enemies in the “books,” which adds complication.

I will say, though, that at least other characters besides Ciel and Sebastian have a proper chance to shine in the “books,” albeit briefly, and in such a way that highlights their own tragedies. In the original, those two were the central powerhouse duo and everyone else played second fiddle, Ciel’s eternal tragedy overshadowing all the rest. Which was a particular waste, considering the potential all the other characters had, such as how we hardly ever got to see any ass-kicking from some surprisingly kickass women.

I also have to appreciate the humor they managed to infuse into this anime. It’s a bit like any other recipe: the ingredients need to balance each other out, too much of any one will overpower any sense of taste. The many tragedies of Black Butler needed to be balanced with witty, over-the-top humor, which made pivotal character moments feel all the more grounded and realistic. Otherwise, it would have been little more than the relentless beating of a thoroughly dead horse. Not that such is entirely out of Black Butler’s wheelhouse, with plots that lay on the complication and lighten up how much sense they really make, so the characters may shine in their respective tragedies.

Fair warning, in addition to all of this darker material, there are two scenes where Sebastian shows off how seductive he can truly be. The first one, in the original anime, came out of nowhere and made no sense to me, but the second, in The Book of Circus, was much better-crafted and added to both the texture and the plot.

Basically, if you want something happy, this is definitely not it. Humorous, certainly, with a very dark flavor, but Black Butler is a chronicle of tragedy after tragedy within overarching tragedies. It’s a veritable study in how to unnerve and disquiet a civilized audience with blood, pain, loss, and sorrow as well as many freakish sights and sounds. Some elements can be a bit repetitive – I can never listen to “London Bridge is Falling Down” for awhile after watching this anime – but that minor annoyance just adds to the unsettling texture of the show. It’s about as far into horror as I generally like to go, but it is riveting, especially the “books.”

Rating: all in all, I give Black Butler 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #414: Care vs Control

“It was his nature, man and beast, to take care of the people around him. When he was courting Mercy, he’d come to the reluctant understanding that taking control of her life – and and maybe especially for her own good – was the opposite of care. Experimentally, he’d applied that understanding to his pack, and he’d seen it become healthier, stronger.”
– from Soul Taken, by Patricia Briggs

The “he” in question is the male lead of the series, Adam Hauptman, a werewolf, the Alpha of his pack, whose duty it is to protect said pack. He was a protector before he was turned and that has not ceased in the decades since. However, his approach has altered little by little due to his love for the female lead, Mercy Thompson. She is not one to tolerate being controlled, which runs a bit counter to the werewolf approach of protecting by means of control. There is a certain validity to that, as sometimes a werewolf’s wild side runs amok and must be controlled externally. However, what Adam has learned is that trying to control someone else is an extreme measure, sometimes useful in an emergency but not fit for everyday use.

Indeed, the more control one exerts over another, the less “caring” there is in the equation. People become things that are in need of controlling “for their own good,” instead of being actual people.

To be controlled is to be suppressed, stifled, and suffocated. There are cases where that needs to be done, where people who commit crimes and think nothing of treading on other people’s lives must be stopped, but that is in the case of the guilty, not the innocent. If someone has murderous tendencies which they do not control themselves, that is something which very much needs to be controlled externally, and we do it all the time: we throw them in prison or execute them. Hardly something we ought to be doing to the innocent people we love though, is it?

A parent may wish to protect their child from all the evils of the world forever. One may want nothing more than to protect a friend, a lover, or a family member from the consequences of their actions. One may want to save the world and save everyone from all the hardships that befall them. And I can hardly count the number of times I’ve heard people saying what amounts to, “If God exists, he shouldn’t let anything bad happen at all.”

But what often comes of that desire? The same as any other desire left unchecked and unrestrained: suffering at every level.

Parents become tyrants, pushing their children so hard that they push them away. People spout about all the wrongs of the world, but ignore the crimes of those they love, upending justice itself, and creating all the greater harm in the long run. Flowery rhetoric about caring for the little guy fuels destructive political agendas that march over the freedoms and corpses of every person in the world, turning charity into a slaughterhouse as every dissenting voice is crushed without mercy, where even torture is justified as being for the sake of the victim.

Perhaps the reason God does not take control of us is exactly because He cares about us.

I recall a moment in another book I read as a youth, which taught, quite simply, that when you wish to protect something, you must set it free.

It is a difficult thing, I know, to take a step back and let go of those we care for even more than we care for ourselves. But the option is to put chains on them, and there is no caring in that.

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