Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Rin Okumura is no ordinary teenage boy. Running through his veins is the blood of Satan, but having been raised by a priest, Rin has chosen to fight for good and intends to defeat Satan. In order to do that, he must first master his powers—which is why Rin is enrolled as an exorcist-in-training at the Academy of the True Cross. Rin and his classmates set out on their first real mission after they learn that dark forces have stolen a demonic artifact known as the Left Eye of the Impure King. Their job is to help guard the Order of the True Cross's office in Kyoto, where the artifact's companion piece—the Right Eye of the Impure King—is being held. But with religious sects squabbling at the temple, and Rin's own classmates afraid of his Satanic powers, can they co-operate long enough to do their job?
Volume 5 of Blue Exorcist marks the point where the manga and anime storylines diverge, and for those who saw the anime and wondered how the last several episodes managed to go so far off the rails, here's the answer. The manga launches into a longer, more sustained story arc at this point—one that goes beyond one-shot adventures and training sessions and looks into the real politics of exorcists, demons, and the ongoing war against evil. However, these revelations also mean that the current plot is more about setting the table rather than feasting on demon-battling eye candy. It may not provide instant gratification, but for those who truly care about the story and characters, this is the place to be.
Still, one surefire way to get readers hooked on a new story arc is to kick things off with hot-blooded action. The first chapter of this volume delivers accordingly, putting Rin and his allies through a classic exorcist caper: a demon thief, a kidnapped child, mysterious tunnels, and a wicked twist that puts the real storyline in motion. But those first fifty pages end up being the main action highlight of this volume; the next few chapters after that dial down the stakes by having Rin and his classmates go on what is essentially a support mission. From a tactical viewpoint, it's a smart idea: keep the kids off the front lines, but give them something useful to do, and let them get to know the entire True Cross organization better. But from a storytelling viewpoint, this is not the dramatic firefight fans are looking for: the young exorcists make the trip to Kyoto in the comfort of an express train, and their biggest battle involves fending off a magical punishment gone awry from one of their own teachers.
The lack of high-stakes action is further emphasized in the volume's second half, where our heroes spend most of their time running errands and observing the ideological squabbles at the Order of The True Cross's Kyoto branch. But for those who long to know more about the series' side characters, as well as the ins and outs of exorcist politics, these chapters are a gold mine. In particular, Rin's rival Suguro—the other guy who wants to personally kill Satan—ends up in the spotlight, as this just happens to be his hometown. A number of well-placed flashbacks dish out the details on Suguro's frequently drunk father, as well as the downfall of his family temple after the deadly "Night of the Blue Flame." Controversy around Rin's demonic bloodline also continues to swirl, and a number of situations add drama to the storyline: Rin's arguments with Suguro, for example, and the quiet shunning from classmates. These moments capture feelings of discrimination and alienation that are surprisingly subtle for an action series.
Kazue Katō's art is often stronger than the story material in this volume, with crisp lines and attention to detail that make the series fun to read even during lulls in the action. The characters are designed around typical shonen tropes—youthful, rugged guys, cute and quirky girls—but each one of them has distinct visual traits that are easy to spot. Kato also comes up with a convincing cast of grown-ups, many of whom make their debut appearance here as representatives of the Kyoto faction. Even more impressive than the character designs is the background art, with some incredibly detailed establishing shots (not to mention that the use of historic Kyoto as a setting makes things even prettier). However, those backgrounds often disappear during moments of dialogue—a trick that places emphasis on the characters, but also looks kind of lazy. No matter what the situation, though, the clean rectangular panels make the flow of the story easy to understand.
Not surprisingly, dialogue plays a key role here as much of the current storyline involves characters explaining or arguing various points. Fortunately, even the deepest flashbacks are a breeze to sit through, as Kato makes a point of showing, and not telling, what went on in the past. The real highlights of the script, though, are in the moments when tempers flare: Rin packs a wallop of emotion when he defends his right to be an exorcist, and Suguro fights back just as hard when he describes the trauma he experienced as a child. Even minor characters who appear for the first time make a good show of verbally sparring over exorcist ideals—a reasonable compensation for the lack of demon-battling in this volume. A solid translation helps bring the dialogue to life, while the editing of sound effects into English shows a lot of variety in choosing fonts that blend with the original art.
So there's the answer to why the Blue Exorcist anime went on the path that it did. The manga, it turns out, was winding up its gears for an entirely different storyline—something longer and more ambitious than any of the previous adventures. The one problem with this volume is that it doesn't bring enough action to the table; fans will have to settle for the rescue/retrieval operation in the first chapter and enjoy some Kyoto sightseeing the rest of the way. But for those who truly want to get deeper into the world of Blue Exorcist, this is where it gets good: organizational politics, heated arguments, and character-defining flashbacks prove to be just as engaging as any physical battle. Between that and the highly polished art, there's plenty enough reason to keep reading—and see what happens when Volume 6 comes.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ Flashbacks, controversies, and new characters broaden the storyline, while artwork continues to be rich in detail and variety.