That quiet, funny little man sipping his tea throughout Black Butler is nothing more than a comedic beat at first, like canned laughter. But with each passing episode he meant something more, as an indispensable part of what makes the show so special. Every so often, he’d turn up as someone you’d almost mistake for a different person; a tall, striking, yet warm and grandfatherly figure, with just the same monocle, suit and smile. After the change has taken place for the first time, when his measured words are needed by impetuous master Ciel Phantomhive, the three-beat laugh we’re used to is suddenly loaded with meaning. Though, like his sage advice, it always chimes in at just the right moment, it’s now an intimation to the sadness in his eyes as old wisdom returns.
I’m glad I first watched Black Butler when I did. Any earlier and I might not have noticed the suggestion behind his occasional shape-shift, eloquent again if only for a short time. For the past few years, there’s been someone in my life who behaves the same way. Most often it’s like she’s forgotten herself; she doesn’t recognise me as I am now. She remembers me as a child, and sometimes she’ll grasp a memory and run with it, no matter how absurd it seems to others. She was an artist and writer who adored Japanese brush painting and poetry, and from as early as I can remember she was teaching me to write. She would keep instructing me to be the person I am now, right up until dementia took its hold.
I miss her as she was, but whenever I see Tanaka, even in something as ephemeral as a gif, I’m comforted by the fact that even behind closed eyes he’s still all in there somewhere, at peace with his bubble life. Black Butler is a gift for representing those who are omitted elsewhere in anime or manga. You have Ciel suffering PTSD after the deaths of his parents, Grell, who’s openly bisexual though it’s never pointed or sneered at, and Beast in Book of Circus with her prosthetic ball-joint leg. And then there’s Tanaka, who suffers from his dementia quietly, yet distinctly in unexpected metamorphoses. Sometimes he’ll be absent for episodes but for a “Ho, ho, ho” or two, though in time you can be sure he’ll open his eyes and provide some vital wisdom.
The character’s Japanese voice actor, Shunji Fujimura, passed away just days ago. But his gem of a sensitive character with an often-overlooked illness will be loved by generations of otaku to come. I can only thank him for bringing mangaka Yana Toboso’s creation to life in such a way that it can be a comfort to many like me. Anybody who has a loved one lost inside their own mind and memories can still look at Tanaka and see that, in some way unique to them, they will always remember you.