Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 14th 2013
Blu-Ray - Box Sets 1 & 2 [Limited Edition]
Rin Okumura is a hot-headed teenage boy with a shocking secret: he's the son of Satan! Rin's adoptive father, a priest named Shiro Fujimoto, has tried to raise him as an ordinary human—but when Rin starts seeing spirits and emanating blue flames, it becomes clear that the secret won't stay hidden much longer. Rin gets the shock of his life when Satan himself comes calling and tries to open a gate to the demon world, Gehenna. After a horrific tragedy, Rin swears he'll become an exorcist and defeat Satan, which means enrolling at the prestigious, and mysterious, True Cross Academy. That's where Rin discovers that his level-headed twin brother, Yukio, has some supernatural secrets too. Together, the Okumura brothers will make new friends and face new challenges, and learn that the lines between human and demon—and good and evil—are never as clear as they seem...
Blue Exorcist is the kind of series anime studios dream of working on, and that fans always hope to see: visually polished from top to bottom, instantly appealing on the surface, but also deep enough to get fully invested in. The lavish box set treatment is further proof of how much love and care has gone into producing Blue Exorcist—this isn't just another demon-hunting supernatural action show, but one of the finest examples of the genre, bringing together an entire encyclopedia's worth of monsters and mysticism. Can Shintoism, Buddhism, and Christianity all work in the same universe? Sure they can! Yet for all of its accomplishments, this series still starts from the same place as most of its peers: an unsuspecting teenage boy destined for greatness.
It's easy to dismiss Rin's origin story as yet another "high school kid discovers hidden powers" scenario—but even here, Blue Exorcist goes above and beyond. Rin doesn't just stroll into a world of demon warfare, but begins his journey with great emotional trauma. Family relationships come into play, bringing a human element to a plot point that usually leans more toward fantasy. The drama doesn't always run this high, though, and the next few episodes after Rin joins True Cross Academy involve training sessions and one-shot missions. Yet meaningful storytelling still finds its way into the plot, as the series' multi-mythological universe is revealed, Rin's classmates go through key character-development episodes, and the question of whether the academy's teachers (not to mention Rin himself) can be trusted hangs over the story.
The intensity picks up as the series gets past halfway point (and into the second box set), with Rin's demonic nature becoming known to the wider public. Unfortunately, it's also at this point that the anime storyline branches off from the manga and starts to lose its cohesion. Entire plot points are set up and then abandoned—did Rin ever complete his training for Exorcist certification?—and there's even an entire episode wasted on school-comedy filler. The most jarring development, though, is the wild attempt at ramping up the drama in the last four episodes: Yukio goes through a character change too drastic to believe, and the showy, apocalyptic finale of the exorcist-demon conflict isn't consistent with the "in the trenches" nature of previous episodes. Nonetheless, the final arc still packs an emotional punch, with love and courage triumphing over self-serving desires, just like any good action series.
Although the plot has its imperfections, the visuals are nearly flawless, to the point where even day-to-day scenes are presented with panache. Every frame of animation is rendered smoothly—the characters are constantly in motion during battle, and even static poses and gag-comedy gestures are full of life. Special effects, particularly Rin's Blue Flames, also fit seamlessly into the visuals (the only exception being the "rolling heads" of the Gehenna Gate, which could use more polish). A vivid color palette helps to convey the series' many moods, whether it be the natural blue-and-green of Rin's early, happy-go-lucky adventures, or monochrome shadows and "evil purple" as the story turns darker. The varied colors, coupled with highly detailed backgrounds (note all the architectural flourishes on the True Cross Academy building), make the show a visual delight even when there are no characters on screen. But don't take that as a slight against the character designs—the cast of Blue Exorcist is as unique as they come, with distinct facial features and outfits that reflect their personalities.
Just as polished as the animation is the music, which not only runs the entire emotional gamut, but also goes through an eclectic mix of styles. Composer Hiroyuki Sawano shows off his keyboard chops with a number of poignant solo piano passages, plus other tracks arranged for a classical ensemble, yet the sound of modern rock and electronica is just as likely to be found on the soundtrack. Some of the scoring follows the usual clichés (churning electric guitars during battle), but there are also inspired moments where a powerful melody or a certain sonority (like a full choir in the finale) boosts the impact of a scene. Among the theme songs used in the show, it's actually the endings that come off as more memorable—the infectious dance beat of "Take Off" and chill electronic sound of "Wired Life" have more edge to them than the usual ballads one would expect.
A first-rate anime deserves a first-rate English dub, and that's exactly what this one gets—every character is performed with confidence, even the supporting extras who only appear for an episode or two. No matter whether the scene calls for a raging battle cry, a sobbing lament, or a silly joke, the cast expresses each of these moods (and more) convincingly, and the voices are ideally matched to the characters' personalities. A good dub alone would have been enough, but the box sets even include face-to-face interviews with the English cast, so fans can hear how the actors felt about the recording experience. Aside from the interviews, both boxes are practically overflowing with bonus content, including animated comedy shorts, mini-artbooks, soundtrack CDs, and an entire extra episode in the first box. Who's even got time to watch textless openings and endings with all those extras?
In the end, Blue Exorcist is proof that something as commonplace as "ordinary teenage boy discovers hidden powers and fights evil" can be the seed of something truly great. It's also proof that, even if you gum up the story by trying to write an original anime ending that has nothing to do with the manga, it's possible to recover and still impress people with how well-produced everything is. This series has it all: gorgeous visuals, a powerful music score, and all of it wrapped around a story that uses fantasy-world ideas to express real-world truths. Not bad for a demon spawn who just wants to beat the hell out of Satan.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Stunning production values, plus an emotionally moving story, prove that even a well-worn genre can be a place for first-rate entertainment.
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