One of my favourite things about watching and reviewing anime is the sheer breadth and depth of the experiences on offer. The medium stretches across almost every genre imaginable, from action to sports, romance, adventure, drama and everything in between, and you never know how any given show is going to develop. Unless of course you run into something that’s strictly formula, that plays the beats in exactly the manner you’d predict. Sadly, Blue Exorcist is such a show.
It’s a real shame too, as we open on a promisingly tasty premise. Rin Okamura is a troublemaker, a knucklehead who can’t stay in a job and can’t keep himself out of a fight, in contrast to his brainbox twin brother Yukio and their father, a priest. But one night, as the forces of darkness invade their home, a terrible truth is revealed – Rin is actually a son of Satan (yes, that Satan) and cursed with incredible demonic powers. Vowing to become an exorcist and battle his own kin, Rin enrolls in the prestigious True Cross Academy to train in the arts of the holy warrior.
It’s not a setup without potential, and the first two episodes do a good job of selling it, mixing some dark urban fantasy and glimpses of Rin’s ‘normal’ life with nasty violence and some engaging pseudo-religious babble (anybody a little squeamish about the religious aspect, don’t be – the Christianity portrayed here is about as much a real religion as the Jedi are) but already the cracks are showing a little. And they only get worse when the story transfers to True Cross Academy and the story settles into a wearisome loop of high school clichés interspersed with shonen manga clichés, nary a drop of originality to be found. There’s poor pacing on show too, with the main plot effectively stopping after the two-part opener and only really picking up again in the final couple of episodes, leaving the vast majority of this set to introduce characters and then fill for time.
Filler can still be good though, if it’s used as down time to develop the characters and the world. Blue Exorcist makes stabs at both but frustratingly succeeds at neither. Rin Okamura is one of the least interesting protagonists I’ve seen in a long time, fitting every worn out trope to a tee. He’s an arrogant idiot, lazy, stupid and reckless, but it doesn’t matter, because he has a good heart, right! Right? In truth Rin is a moron who no doubt provides a great point of empathy for angry teenagers but contributes little of depth to the story and is no fun to root for. His twin Yukio is more mature and measured, but also blander, with little to distinguish him besides being a straight edge. They’re surrounded by a parade of cardboard cutouts masquerading as fellow schoolmates, such as the angry Ryuji who immediately gets into a series of hot-blooded showdowns with Rin, disguising the fact that deep down they’re more alike than either will admit. Female classmates Shiemi and Izumo are passable interpretations of the shy girl and tsundere, both of whom are disappointingly lightweight and mostly exist to swoon over or be rescued by the male protagonists.
Continuing the character thread, lack of strong villains is another reason why this set fails to really take off. With big bad Satan staying offstage for the most part, and most of the actual battles being monster of the week affairs, the role of chief villain is delegated by default to the academy’s morally dubious director Sir Mephisto Pheles (a weak attempt at a Faust reference). A dandyish vision in bubblegum pink and white, Mephisto manages the difficult feat of being both not funny and not scary. Much more entertaining is his younger brother Amaimon, who adopts a bored, disaffected shtick that’s far more amusing than his brother’s relentless campery. Amaimon also gets to participate in the best fight, a bruising curbstomp of Rin that takes place in a theme park. The fights in general though are disappointments – there’s very few of them, the monster design is unremarkable and the animation is way more limited than one would expect of such a recent show.
Having said that however, the show does otherwise look and move sharply. A1 Pictures do a great job of staying on model, and while they’re hampered by some pretty bland character designs they do their best to inject some flair with creative camera work and some lovely architectural touches. I particularly enjoyed Academy Town, rendered as a single enormous mountain of higgledy-piggledy buildings that manages to capture some fantasy wonder. Music is also strong, with some neat themes and good stings, and I’m a particular fan of the peppy techno of the first ending tune ‘Take Off’. The big audio controversy is of course the lack of a dub, and I must admit this sort of pulpy, schlocky tale would benefit from one, though the Japanese cast are good value and inhabit their characters well. Extras are also generous on this two disc set – aside from clean openers and closers we get some comedy shorts, plus an entire bonus episode following team pet Kuro, which contains for my money one of the best scenes in the entire run.
I think that it’s important to emphasise that, despite the rough tone of this review, Blue Exorcist isn’t actually a bad show per se. It’s solid, workmanlike entertainment, good for filling a half hour here and there. This set also improve palpably in the final stretch, introducing a new character and finally setting some sort of over-plot in motion. But as a whole this run of episodes is lacking in imagination, style or individuality. While it’s likely more palatable for those who are new to anime, anybody who’s been a fan for any length of time can immediately see the crushing weight of clichés piled upon its head. There’s no drive for me to return to this world, and no desire to see any more of these characters (even though I inevitably will, because that’s my job). Blue Exorcist is a show that ticks all the boxes and meets all the requirements, but forgot to bring any of what makes shonen adventure work, the heart and soul.
Blue Exorcist Part 1 is available to order now on DVD over on Amazon.
Blue Exorcist Part 1 [DVD] – £15.99