Halloween Week: Blue Exorcist (Vol 1-13)

Love it or hate it (and I'm sure the balance is leaning more towards hate at this point), Naruto is easily one of the most influential manga in the past decade. The series has gathered a large following and is still one of the most popular manga made today, only really outmatched by Shonen Jump's unstoppable juggernaut One Piece and the recent sensation of Attack on Titan. There have been countless Naruto take-offs, usually copying the three person team set-up from the series, and usually fading into obscurity as soon as they appear. Blue Exorcist, on the other hand, copies the premise of a main character with incredible demonic power being cut-off from society around him and trying to prove his worth. The difference, and the reason the series has stuck around, is that Blue Exorcist decides to really explore that concept for all its worth, not afraid to go into grim territory for a shonen story. The horror and world mythology theme the series runs with just emphasizes that grimness, and makes the positive attitude of the main character stand out all the more.

Blue Exorcist is about Rin Okumura, a going nowhere punk who keeps trying to make it as a normal guy and constantly fails. He's unable to stand back when someone is committing an injustice, and it constantly brings him into trouble. To make matters worse, he's started to notice strange creatures wandering around town. After nearly being branded by a possessed rich sadist, Rin learns the truth from his adoptive father; he is the son of Satan himself, and his powers are awakening, which is bringing every demon under the sun to him in order to drag him to the devil's domain. Rin understandably has trouble accepting this, but a slip of the tongue in an emotional moment weakens his father's resolve for just a brief moment to allow Satan to take over. Rin is saved by both using some of his power, the blue flames capable of burning anything the owner desires, and his father fighting back against the possession, but it's not enough. His father dies, and a friend of his father's named Mephestio appears to kill him. However, Rin decides to become an exorcist like his father and personally defeat Satan himself, and the amused Mephestio decides to allow him the chance, under the condition he keep his true self hidden. Rin winds up going to the massive True Cross Academy, while taking exorcism classes at odd hours to become a proper exorcist and pay the devil his due, with interest. Along the way, he has to make amends with his twin brother Yukio, make friends with his fellow exorcist trainees, and learn to control his dangerous flames.

What's interesting about this series is that Rin's status as the son of the devil himself isn't something only a few characters know about and it stops being a big deal after the intro chapter. It starts out as a secret between him and Mephestio, Yukio and eventually one other party, but Rin's secret is revealed in a brutal way come chapter fourteen. The strongest known exorcist stabs clean through his leg, his friends all abandon him in fear and shock, and he's put on trial for execution, only barely managing to live through his own honesty and Mephestio's clever arguments. The ramifications of the reveal go on to this day, and Rin has to work in order to win back the trust of his former friends. Rin's status as the outsider trying to prove himself is made the central source of drama and a major theme, and later arcs start to reveal that some of the other members of Rin's class are going though similar issues as well (of course, not on the same level, since he is the Antichrist and all).

Every single supporting cast member gets a heavy amount of development at some point or another, another area this series has over its obvious point of inspiration, Naruto. Where there supporting cast members are commonly thrown aside for a far larger plot, they're all treated as equally important as Rin is here. The Buddhist aria Bon, Rin's brother Yukio, and his crush Shiemi get the focus of development among the supporting cast, and Yukio could almost be considered a second main character. He's almost the exact opposite of Rin (reserved, intelligent, ect), but what makes him similar to his brother ends up becoming the core of his own inner conflict in a rather brilliant turn during the Impure King arc. Bon and Shiemi are simply interesting, with Bon's status as a chant focused aria making him play a more supporting role in battle, despite having a temper of a melee fighter, while Shiemi's incredible ignorance of how the world works and her mixture of optimism and knowledge of plant life gives her abilities no other character in the series has. Their reasons for rejecting Rin are also interesting, with Bon simply being upset by how Rin takes everything in stride, despite the incredibly dangerous power he wields, while Shiemi is more shocked by how little she understood the suffering Rin and Yukio were going through and is trying to conquer her own insecurity that locks her up whenever she tries interacting with the two.

Izumo, Konekomaru and Shima round up the rest of the class, and all far more interesting than they initially appear. I was expecting the three to act as more cliched characters from first appearances, like Izumo being the tsundere, Konekomaru being the generic smart guy, and Shima mainly sticking around as silly comedic relief. However, the series takes all three of these characters in very interesting directions, especially Shima in the most recent arc (I can't go further than that without spoilers). Shima's deep seeded and crippling apathy, Konekomaru's deep compassion and frustration with his own weakness, and Izumo's massive trust issues all get used well and elevate each of the three beyond their initial status as arctypes, exploring angles I haven't really seen in a shonen action manga before. There are other great supporting cast members (like Rin's sword teacher Shura) that get some time in the sun, but the series remembers to keep things focused on the kids growing with each other.

Rin himself makes a great central character. His positive but abrasive attitude makes him very likable, and how he's able to keep it up in the middle of his downward spiral of a life is inspiring at times. His moments of doubt are very powerful and even a tad relatable, and seeing him move past those doubts with the help of a friend of his own will always leads to some incredible triumphs. Rin's simplicity makes him the most constantly sane character in a world far crueler than anyone would wish, but his lack of social grace balances him out and prevents him from being an obnoxiously perfect lead. There's a ton he needs to improve on, and using those faults to create conflict between him and Yukio is really well handled, giving them a very brotherly relationship in a more realistic way, instead of the usual overly synched relationships you see from series like this. It also gives Shiemi a role as the mediator between the two, the heart to Rin's raging soul and Yukio's introspective mind, the ego to Rin's id and Yukio's superego. Rin is slowly becoming one of my personal favorite shonen leads, and I hope this momentum with his development keeps up for a good while.

There's a larger plot present and constantly hinted at through Mephestio. The school chairman is a demon king working with the Order of the True Cross who's constantly scheming and causes a lot of the situations that bring Rin and friends heartache, but also cause them all to grow closer. He's a fascinating individual who acts like a clown while planning something far grander behind everyone's back, with the current Illuminati arc giving a glimpse at his greater workings and a better idea of how the various kings (all sons of Satan, I should add) relate to each other and find themselves at odds. Demons in this series are either made violent and simplistic beasts, or giving intelligence beyond normal human understanding, including demons revered as gods that demand proper hosts or summoners before assisting. It's very similar to the demons of Shin Megami Tensei in a way, and it's always interesting to see the series play with this on rare occasions. The little hints at the sheer cruel nature of the church is also appreciated, especially because the series doesn't make them the ultimate villains.

Where I have some issues comes from pacing. The early chapters of the series are either one and done stories or very simple two parters that build up the cast or hint at things to come. When the Impure King arc is reached, the series comes to a screeching halt as a mess of new characters related to Bon, Konekomaru and Shima are introduced to build up a mystery plot with a cast of characters that haven't even been hinted at before. It's like stumbling into a completely different series, while the then more interesting drama with Rin trying to control his flames to save his life is constantly inter-cut with heated conversations about concepts and people the reader has no understanding of. This becomes troubling, and it takes several chapters for the series to find its footing again. When it does, however, the story really kicks into gear and comes back around to Rin's central conflict, while giving a ton of development to the rest of the cast. The series never loses its momentum in the remaining volumes after this, remembering to introduce new characters and concepts through the involvement of already established cast members the audience can easily latch onto as an anchor point without getting lost.

Kazue Kato's art is mixed for me. The expressions are all really lively and instantly recognizable, while some of the creature designs are simply ghoulish. Rotting flesh and misplaced body parts are nearly shown as often as more smooth and animalistic designs. I also love her work on the nature spirits, simply because their designs are so busy and intricate, like golems made of twigs and weeds. Some of her environments are very creative as well, including some wonderful city scapes, but the inside of facilities are usually standard stuff. Kato also seems to have a habit of failing to finish some of his illustrations, sending in unfinished sketches at times. It eventually stops around the Illuminati arc, but it's a noticeable problem for a lot of early chapters. On the plus side, the characters are all designed very kinetic and lively, with lots of jolting and sharp points. It makes everyone stand out in some way to the point where there's not a single forgettable design for chapters upon chapters. The early chapters have issues with panel layout and framing, but it gets corrected pretty fast later on.

While I'm very positive about Blue Exorcist on the whole, I do have issues with how the series portrays the female characters at times (and I realize the grand irony in that). While they're all complex characters in their own right, Kato has a bad habit of using them as damsels or robbing them of their power for the sake of drama. Shiemi gets it especially bad, constantly needing to be saved for a long while. The more recent stuff with Izumo is a tad more forgivable, considering her harsh back story and mountain of issues, but there's also the problem of one particular character from the Impure King arc that sticks out to me. Her actions are very rash and idiotic, and I think it could have all been built up better than it had. Hopefully this won't be an ongoing trend for future arcs.

This is especially odd with how the series likes to play around with expected character traits. For example, Rin is an absolutely excellent cook, a traditionally feminine hobby, while he has an aggressive attitude. Bon values knowledge and faith more than anything else, despite having a constant angry, punkish scowl across his face. Mephestio is a calculating demonic king, but also a human otaku who buys ridiculous crap at obscene prices. Even the Paladin warrior of the church is an egotistical dolt who has a talking, fangirl sword. Everyone is just so strange at times, but this occurs less frequently with female characters. That just bugs me a little. Despite their depth, they somehow fit into more traditional roles more often than not.

Blue Exorcist is a series made strong through a powerful central concept and a cool religion/horror theme, but made stronger through absolutely fantastic character work and surprisingly intricate and engrossing plots with a bit of a gray morality streak going on throughout. There's far more to this series than what appears on the surface, and I'd consider it one of the better written shonen action series out there right now, issues with how it treats its female cast and some unfinished panels aside. This is a series not to pass up if you're really into the shonen scene.


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