Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 8th 2012
The students at True Cross Academy's “boot camp” shouldn't be surprised that things are heating up, after all they've never been a normal class, but no one expected the heating up to include a rampaging monster. Afterwards Rin comes across a cat demon who once served as his father's familiar. When Kuro the cat hears about his master's death, he rampages through the academy and Rin must stop him. After that Rin, Renzo, and Izumo head to the beach, which aside from the giant squid goes exactly as expected. Later the class goes to exorcise an amusement park, which doesn't go anything like expected.
The real story of Blue Exorcist isn't Rin battling demons; it's the series battling its own script. This volume presents some new challenges, including the inevitable mascot character and an increasingly stubborn status quo, but like any good hero, the show always comes out on top. Nothing here shakes up the series the way parts of the last volume did, but it's consummate entertainment nonetheless: slick and effortlessly propulsive, yet still respectful of its audience and characters.
The first two episodes find the series tying up its boot camp arc. Like so much else in the series it has a surprising number of layers, giving some indication of just what a hostile environment True Cross Academy is for Rin. There are vendetta-minded teachers, his own demon-hating classmates, and of course the intensely and increasingly untrustworthy Mephisto. There's also loads of demonic action, and a step forward in Rin's quest to become an exorcist. The arc's main purpose, however, is to firm up the personalities and relationships of Rin and his classmates. The events of the previous volume dredged up Izumo's personal insecurities, which she sublimates into abusive vitriol. Attitude-heavy punk Ryuji reveals a more studious side and some unexpected leadership skills, and when the pressure's on his sidekicks prove as capable as they are quirky.
The cast that emerges is a lot closer to being an ensemble than it was before. Rin's place in the class really begins to gel, and it doesn't feel out of place when the focus shifts occasionally to Shiemi's changing ambitions or even when the show decides to base an entire fluff episode around Izumo. That is nothing but a benefit to the series. The obligatory filler episodes that follow and even the slighter portions of the more serious episodes are all better off for having a more substantial supporting cast to fill in the gaps. Izumo's beach episode (what, you thought the show wouldn't have one?) works only because Izumo and her various personality issues can carry it—with comedic support from Rin and girl-loving lightweight Renzo, of course.
Still, there's no denying that the series seems to be treading water during the first two-thirds of the disc. For all its sturm und drang, the boot camp arc alters little besides the characters and their relationships. Characters and relationships are nothing to sneeze at, especially when their evolution is as nice as that of Shiemi, but that doesn't mean you don't crave plot. And it goes without saying that the two filler episodes that follow aren't going to satisfy the craving. About all they can boast is a little growth in Izumo and the introduction of Kuro the cat. Again, that isn't to be underestimated—in her own way Izumo is a real charmer and it just breaks your heart to see Kuro and Rin mourning together. But again, it doesn't change the fact that the plot isn't moving.
It's at times like these that the series' execution is most important. From infectious opener to cleverly minimalist closer every episode is constructed to go down easy and entertain like heck while it does. The fun factor is so consistently high and the pace so effortlessly brisk that unless you're really paying attention you're unlikely to notice that the series overall isn't going anywhere, and even less likely to mind. Humor remains important throughout the less substantial episodes, and is used even during the more serious ones, often as a blind before something nasty happens. Director Tensai Okamura is careful to keep the balance of goofiness, intensity, and raw action coolness optimal even during the slightest of episodes, making for a satisfying experience even when the experience really shouldn't be.
It helps that his work is never less than perfectly polished, with nary a rough edge to get snagged on, and never less than great to look at. Even without such things as its effective character growth and silk-smooth entertainment chops, the show is such a pure sensory joy that it'd still be worth watching. Okamura visibly relishes the freedom and movement of A-1 Pictures' top-end animation, setting up throwaway camera moves and sending Rin hurtling about pretty much for the hell of it. His action scenes are lessons in showboating, as the entire class collaborates to disintegrate a ghoul, Rin and Yukio match brawn and firepower against a slavering conglomeration of demon limbs, and Rin goes mano-a-mano with a giant squid (which is exactly as silly as it sounds).
Okamura saves the real deal, however, for the disc's last two episodes. What begins as an innocuous mission to an amusement park (a Mephisto-themed amusement park no less) soon leads to a major conflict with the forces of Gehenna and a major shift in Rin's status vis-à-vis the Vatican. You can feel the series jerking back into motion, and Okamura correspondingly ups his action game. Rin fights up, over and on a hurtling rollercoaster at Mepphy Land, shattering attractions and growing more feral with every blow. It's one very cool fight, and part of a growing pile of evidence that Okamura is becoming one of anime action's better practitioners. For the record the arc makes one new addition to the cast, who, if you're curious, increases the series' fan-service by a factor of somewhere between ten and a hundred.
Aniplex's release is actually worth its asking price. That's both a function of their very nice treatment of the series and the fact that it isn't priced as stratospherically high as some of their other releases. The disc comes with an attractive reversible cover, a two-sided poster, and a good chunk of extras. There're the usual clean OP and ED and various trailers, but also humorous alternate versions of the next-episode previews and a pair of short omake dealing with the home lives of Mephisto and Ryuji. The big extra, however, is a full-length unaired episode starring Kuro the cat demon. It's a silly little slice of nothingness that nicely highlights the series' humor and, like most of the show's slices of nothingness, is anchored by a kernel of bittersweet emotion.
You may want more than a kernel in the end, though, and that's fair. If that's you, take heed of the final episodes. Their mounting intensity and stabs of feeling aren't passing fancies.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Good growth for the supporting cast; still kicks many different kinds of butt; even the fluff episodes have their emotional sting.
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