Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 11th 2012
It's summer vacation time for the students at True Cross Academy, but not for Rin and his fellow ExWires. The school sends them on a "camping trip" that is in reality a three-day combat test. There are three slots open higher up the exorcist ladder and the ExWires must find, light, and bring back one of three lanterns from deep in a demon-infested forest in order to qualify for one of them. What with the lantern turning out to be a half-ton demon with a taste for girl-flesh, that's hard enough even without the return of King of Earth Amaimon to make it harder. The ensuing battle alters Rin's life permanently. Again.
The thing about a six-episode volume, it gives you a broad swath of the series. In these six Tensai Okamura lets his action instincts run wild before the plot takes a big, jolting leap forward and then settles back down for a couple of episodes of easygoing character-building. The series dabbles in nearly everything here: poignant drama, uplifting tales of friendship, team-based adventuring, high-octane action, light humor, political intrigue, straight-up filler. And it's all really good. If this chronically generic series has one defining feature, that would be it: whatever it does, it does well. Come hell or high water, it's always fun to watch.
The previous volume was mostly light adventuring, disturbed here and there by intense action and flashes of character growth. So when the ExWires head out for a bout of combat training there's no reason to believe that it's anything but what it seems: another light adventure. And for most of it that's exactly what it is, and like everything else the series does, it works well for what it is. There's warmth in how the kids pull together to solve the problem of the two-ton lantern, their solutions to problems are interesting, and there are amusing character tidbits all along the way. Who knew that girl-crazy Shima was terrified of bugs or that Bon could draw like a manga artist? It's more or less what all of these episodes are about: Rin and his comrades and the bonds between them.
Bonds that the show sets about testing when, instead of tying up neatly, the ExWire camping trip blows up and upends the group's established dynamic. Saying too much more would spoil some of the fun; suffice to say that subsequent events fundamentally alter Rin's current life and force his friends to reexamine their relationships with him. It's a drastic step forward in the plot, which is refreshing after the admittedly entertaining stasis of last volume, but even more importantly sets in motion the most satisfyingly emotional developments since the series' first episodes. It's a pure pleasure to watch the reactions of Rin's friends evolve during and after the events of the camping trip, even deep into the episodes that follow.
That seemingly routine camping trip is also where the series hit its action peak. Okamura pulls out the stops for Rin and Amaimon's fight, fashioning an action scene that snaps easily from funny to brutal and terrifying to stand-up-and-cheer cool. The good-hearted but ill-considered interference of Bon and company ramps up the stakes, while giving Rin just the push he needs to go completely over the edge. What follows is pure spectacle as Rin and Amaimon plow through forests, rending the landscape and tossing trees like confetti, Rin growing more and more demonic with every blast and blow. It's fast, furious, exhilaratingly well-animated stuff. Other episodes, both earlier and later, have action scenes and those action scenes have their share of memorable imagery (a smoky demon disappearing in a art-deco swirl of Rin's flame; Amaimon's swift and fluid final end) but none can match this one for plain awesomeness, not to mention emotional consequence.
Of course, Blue Exorcist being Blue Exorcist, after that burst of activity the plot immediately stalls out again. One episode is mostly about training, another is about Konekomaru's insecurities and the last is about a surprise birthday party. Not exactly the kinds of episodes that advance the story by leaps and bounds. And yet every one of them is great to watch. The training episode works out some of the plot's remaining issues while also giving a priceless view into Yukio's past with Shura. Konekomaru's episode solidifies the ExWires' new relationships while strengthening all of the characters, not just Konekomaru. It also has a flash of romance (go Izumo!), a dash of action and another view into the past, this time Bon and his crew's. And final episode, pure filler though it is, is a blissful chance to enjoy the characters' re-forged relationships as well as the series' long-absent sense of humor.
It isn't just when the swords are flying and demon flames burning that the series looks great. It looks great when Rin is being a sloppily-drawn goofball. It looks great when meandering through the exorcist academy's improbable conglomerations of disparate architecture. It looks great when making a big and hugely cute joke out of Izumo's misinterpretation of her best friend's "relationship" with Shima. It looks great when Izumo's face gives away her unspoken feelings, whether about the party or her liking for Rin. It looks great when glorying in Shura's unusual sex appeal. It looks great whenever Okamura lets characters twitch and move when normally they'd just stand there like cardboard cutouts. It looks great when it fills the screen with color and movement and inventively composed imagery. Really it looks great all of the time. Maybe a tad hectic, maybe a tad careless, but always great.
Aniplex of America continues to give Blue Exorcist top-notch treatment at a (relatively) reasonable price: Premium packaging, including an attractive reversible cover and a two-sided foldable poster. Solid extras, including two very short but highly amusing omake (one about Shima's hate of bugs, the other about Izumo's love of Kuro the cat) and clean versions of the rocking opener and pretty, chilly closer. No dub unfortunately. It could have used one; it's exactly the type of conventional action anime that would benefit from the increased exposure.
And yes, Blue Exorcist is conventional. Even when it's goosing its plot, it is still predictably devoid of originality. It still doesn't need it though. Okamura still carries the series on sheer execution alone—with a little help from the cast this time around. You get the sneaking feeling that the series will never end entirely satisfactorily, but you also get the sneaking feeling that that won't matter a bit. We'll still have a blast.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Plot takes great strides forward; Rin vs. Amaimon fight is a stunner; characters and their relationships keep getting better; still unfailingly fun.
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