From the stack: Blue Exorcist vol. 1

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in the editorial meetings following the publication of the first chapter of Kazue Kato’s Blue Exorcist (Viz), because they must have been intense. That first chapter is terrible – bland, boring, and baffling, a triple threat in the realm of bad shônen. Aside from being ably drawn, it didn’t have a single aspect that would make me want to read the second chapter if I was a follower of Jump Square, its original home.

Someone at Shueisha, and possibly Kato herself, must have agreed, because the series rights itself completely in the second chapter and stays on course for the remainder of the first volume. It’s downright weird to see all of your complaints and criticisms answered in the space of a month. Even Viz must admit to this, since the free preview of the series is from the second chapter, not the first.

Blue Exorcist is about the son of Satan, Rin Okumura, but this fact has been kept from him by his foster parent, Father Fujimoto. Things go very badly when Rin learns this fact, but the experience leaves him with a goal – he wants to fight demons as an exorcist, even though his chosen profession views him as a likely threat and thinks everyone would be better off if he just died. It’s an awkward situation, compounded by the fact that Rin’s teacher at exorcist school is his fraternal twin, Yukio.

It’s nice to see another fraternal relationship as the crux of an action manga, what with the days of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist (Viz) sadly numbered. Rin is rough around the edges, and Yukio is polished and restrained (and obviously much more studious than his elder twin). Beyond that, there are some dark undertones to their relationship. Yukio doesn’t have the burden of their demonic legacy, and he’s grateful for Rin’s protection throughout their sickly childhood. But Yukio is an exorcist, and his brother is half demon with very poor impulse control. It adds nice tension to the series.

It’s also nice to see Kato’s storytelling become sprightly and thoughtful after the first chapter’s muddle. There’s some solid resonance in the second and third chapters, and the supporting characters show a lot of promise. I’m particularly smitten with Mephisto Pheles, headmaster of the school for exorcists, the True Cross Academy. Mephisto looks ridiculous, both in human form and in those moments when he transforms into a dog (a West Highland White, if I’m not mistaken). He’s one of those grown-ups who seem more intent on amusing themselves than behaving in a strictly responsible fashion, and Mephisto certainly amused me, so I’d love to see more of him.

It seems like the fictional world of Blue Exorcist is moving towards some interesting coherence. The funny, quirky bits aren’t so ludicrous that they throw you out of the story, and Kato shows real flair in the more ostentatiously supernatural visuals. I wasn’t even bothered by the quasi-Catholicism of the whole affair, even though that’s almost always an indicator of a series I’ll despise. (For the record, that’s not due to any protectiveness for the Catholic church on my part. It’s just that manga Catholics are often the presented in exactly same kind of confusing cosplay fashion as manga vampires.) I didn’t find the demons very persuasive or interesting, but Kato seems to be building up a taxonomy.

Blue Exorcist really seems to have a lot of potential, which I never would have believed halfway through that first chapter. In fact, I’d suggest you skip that first chapter entirely, as its events are explained and reframed later (and better), and there’s really no reason to subject yourself to it. If you’re looking for an attractive shônen fantasy-adventure with a decent amount of wit and heart, it’s a likely candidate.

(These comments are based on a review copy provided by the publisher. You may remember that Blue Exorcist was a candidate in my first “readers’ choice” Previews experiment. Believe me, if it hadn’t shown up at random, I wouldn’t have bothered. It still sounds like a formulaic drag on paper.)