The Satan-Slaying Manga ‘Blue Exorcist’ Doesn’t Blaze New Trails, But It Still Rules [Review]
A lot of stories, especially superheroic ones, end up being fairly predictable due to formulas like the monomyth of Joseph Campbell, where each narrative must hit certain points in order to be "complete" or "good." Formulas are common in manga, too, especially shonen (or boys') manga like Kazue Kato's Blue Exorcist, about how the son of Satan becomes a demon fighter. It's a series full of characters and plots that you've seen elsewhere, and while I wouldn't describe it as innovative, it is very good, because of how well it works inside the shonen manga framework. Blue Exorcist is unbelievably charming and well-drawn, and more than willing to have fun with familiar tropes.Like many manga series published in the U.S., Blue Exorcist reads from right to left:
Blue Exorcist stars Rin Okumura, with his younger twin brother Yukio playing a supporting role. In the first chapter, Rin witnesses the death of his father figure at the same time he discovers that he's actually the son of Satan. This means that he has access to an extremely powerful blue flame and a fancy sword, but also that an order of exorcists known as the Knights of the True Cross want him dead before he grows into Satan's power and becomes a threat to humanity.
Rin makes an unlikely compromise: He rejects Satan as a father and demands to be allowed to become an exorcist. When Mephisto Pheles, President of True Cross Academy, asks him why he wants to be an exorcist, Rin replies, "So I can kick Satan's ass!!!" Somehow this works and he joins up. Kapow! All it takes to do anything is confidence and willpower!
Again, fans of anime and manga may find that many of these character types seem familiar.
Imagine someone who's rowdy, and maybe a little stupid but makes up for it with earnestness and sheer brute force. He's the guy you want on your side in a fight, because he'll fight until he wins. He's a good guy, really, a big believer in things like loyalty, sticking up for the little guy, and making friends out of enemies. And though the fact that he's dumb as rocks is a problem, you can't help but love him. He's got a dark past, maybe, but he doesn't let it get to him. That's Rin.
Imagine another character. This one is quiet, a brooder. He's got the weight of the world on his shoulders, and no time to fix all the problems the way he'd like to. He's a loner, really. But this loner secretly craves the approval of others. He's an expert in his skill of choice, and may be stronger, or just more talented, than the other guy. Or maybe he's just straight up evil, and he's waiting for a chance to kill the other guy and rule the world. That's Yukio.
If you've read any shonen, I bet you could attach plenty of other names to both of those descriptions: Goku and Vegeta. Naruto and Sasuke. The hero and his rival are a key component of the shonen formula, along with struggling to become a better fighter, fighting through your pain and buckets of blood, fighting through your tears, making new friends, standing up for those friends so that you can fight through your pain and thereby become a better fighter while bawling your eyes out, and so on.
So you could be forgiven for thinking that Blue Exorcist is formulaic, because it is, from the open-ended quest to the hero who is more important than he could ever know. The lead characters are young, and even the elite characters early on are teenagers. The leadership distrusts the main character. Manga-ka Kato isn't exactly going to win any awards for innovative plotting here, but that's okay, because her strength lies in creating very fun and cool characters.
That quick one-two punch of mirrored jokes with absurd reactions, each arising from misconceptions about Yukio's status, is a great example of Kato's comedic stylings. Kato likes to bump up right to the edges of the shonen framework and throw her own twist onto things. Yukio is removed as Rin's rival very early on. When Rin is given a chance to say something meaningful to a young girl who was just freed from possession, he slaps her on the back of her head and tells her "Go on!" When the busty fan-service character arrives, it's not with a butt shot and a giggle. She's revealed as being a character that's been around since the beginning who just got done saving Rin from a demon.
Kato regularly turns just far enough away from the formula to be able to mine it for good jokes, from Rin's aggressively simple way of making friends to turning a mean girl nice, but not so far that she breaks the classic shonen format. It's an interesting balancing act. Blue Exorcist often pokes gentle fun at its genre, and knowledge of that genre definitely makes the book better as a whole. Even without that knowledge, though, Blue Exorcist is a good time. It handles brutality and frivolity equally well, and the post-chapter sketches and supplemental material at the end of each book do a great job of fleshing out Kato's world and brightening otherwise dark moments. Blue Exorcist is funny, a delight, and undeniably shonen.
Right now, there are four volumes available in print for $10 or digitally for $5. Volume 5 comes out 12/06/11, just a couple weeks away. If you're somehow not convinced by this review and Kato's wonderful art, check out this seventy-two page preview and the four covers below. If that preview isn't enough for you, you can watch the 25 episode anime on Hulu for free.