Blue Exorcist Review
Having endured some fairly standard plotting in the first thirteen episodes of Part 1, your patience is likely to be tested with the first half of the second part of Blue Exorcist. Although the series started off with a fascinating premise where a young schoolboy discovers that he not only has demon powers but is also actually the spawn of Satan, the subsequent predictability of Rin Okumura's Harry Potter-like education as he is trained to control his powers and become an exorcist didn't quite live up to the potential promised in Episode 1. It's the potential that lies behind this idea - using Rin's unusual background (to say the least) as a tool by the Vatican in their eternal struggle to finally destroy Satan - that keeps you on board even as the antics of the young students of magic go through the predictable paces of conflict as they learn to control their magical talents and powers. The big surprise then is not that the series takes off half-way through the second part of the series - it was clearly heading for darker territory - but that it suddenly turns into Fullmetal Alchemist.
Well, ok - not entirely. Before you get there however - mark Episode 20 in your diaries as the one to hold out for - it's initially slow going again, the series still repetitively marking time as Rin receives his education and tries to keep his blue-flamed demon powers under control and hidden from his classmates. It's end of term, but the training continues for the students at the True Cross Academy, who have to undertake some field work. Literally. It goes all a bit 'I'm An Exorcist, Get Me Out of Here' as the students deal with all kinds of bugs and creepy crawlies as they are assigned to complete a task in the woods in Episode 14, the opening part of the series. No, it's not terribly imaginative, even though it makes use of bugs and insects grown to creepily large proportions and in numbers that would terrify anyone to good effect (they are of course under the control of supernatural forces) - but, as you can imagine, the adventure is just another means for the students learn about their weaknesses, the value of teamwork, helping others, and the value of friendship and, so on and so on. There's not a lot of variation from the Harry Potter magic school educational growth in the subsequent episodes either as the students continue to be assailed (or tested) by dark forces, with Rin's origin obviously meaning he's a figure of interest to both sides in the eternal struggle between the forces representing Heaven and Hell.
If you haven't given up on the series by Episode 19 - an amusing but inconsequential episode that is built around Rin and his colleagues organising a secret birthday party for one of the other students - it's because in the background there is always this looming threat of the conflict between Assiah (the real world as we know it) and Gehenna (Hell) coming to a head, with Rin a calculated gamble who is almost certainly the agency that provokes and determines the final outcome. There are other little devices to keep you involved, from the question of how long Rin can keep hidden the demonic blue flames and tail that betray his origin from his colleagues, to the question of how the religiously devout students will react when they discover that they have the son of Satan in their midst. There is further ambiguity in the situation where the head of the True Cross Academy is none other than a certain Mephisto Pheles, and where the motivations and actions of some of the teaching staff and even some of the higher Vatican authorities can also be seen as somewhat questionable. There's definitely enough here to keep you interested.
When the big reveal does come in Episode 20 however, it comes fast and - on balance - it's well worth waiting for. It's perhaps a little too out-of-the-blue and, having spent so much time on young apprentice exorcists battling minor demons and their own inner demons, it's clear that the more important backstory has been insufficiently developed. Other than Rin's brief employment at a supermarket in Episode 1, we haven't really seen much of the outside world, although the nature of the Academy and its huge labyrinthine construction has given enough of a clue that this is a fantasy world of sorts. Still, it comes as something of a surprise to suddenly be thrust into a universe where the Vatican has a militaristic hierarchy and the Knights of the True Cross all wear uniforms that make them look like State Alchemists. The Fullmetal Alchemist comparison becomes even more pronounced with the revelations around the taboo of creating Artificial Lives and Anti-Souls, but this isn't really followed through and Blue Exorcist has a few other ideas to play around with in the run up to its climax.
Principally, it's the great final battle to end all battles between Assiah and Gehenna that holds the promise of larger scale and rather more serious conflicts than we've had before. The situation here does bring Clamp's X to mind, and if it would be hard to match Rintaro's feature film anime version of that for destruction on a truly apocalyptic scale, Rin's demonic nature here ought to at least give Blue Exorcist a little more character and ambiguity. With the forces of the Vatican, the Knights of the True Cross and the Grigori involved questionable activities to bring about the coming of a "Messiah", that makes things not quite as clear-cut along the lines of Good and Evil as you might expect. Disappointingly however, having spent so much time on junior-exorcist training, the series doesn't really have the time to explore the questions in any great detail, and wraps everything up (including the mysterious origins of the Okumura brothers) rather precipitously in the last six episodes.
On the whole however, while there is some serious imbalance in the planning of the series and not a great deal of originality in its obvious and opportunistic lifts from Harry Potter and Fullmetal Alchemist, Blue Exorcist sees its demonic storyline through to a suitably dark near-apocalyptic conclusion, with the usual flair in design and animation that we've come to expect from the A-1 Pictures studio.
Blue Exorcist, Part 2 is released by Manga Entertainment as a two-disc set on DVD only, containing the final 12 episodes of the series (Episodes 14 - 25) spread across two dual-layer discs. The release is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The series, presented in 16:9 widescreen, continues to look fine on DVD and it's hard to imagine that it could look much better in High Definition. The image is slightly soft, but clear and with strong colour tones, the flow of the animation smooth, the transfer stable. Other than some minor colour banding artefacts that seem to plague animation releases, but not cause any significant problems, the image is just about perfect. I noted some macro-blocking noise in my review of the previous release for Part 1, but have to say I didn't see anything like that in this second part.
One important point to note however is that, presumably due to rights issues, there is only one audio option for the series, which is the original Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track. If you're given only one option, it's perhaps better that it's the original Japanese track, rather than being forced to listen to an English dub, but clearly many anime fans would like to be able to have the choice. That shouldn't however be a factor that would prevent you from watching the series with the Japanese track, particularly since the voice acting and the quality of the soundtrack is very good. Subtitles are bright yellow, but I wouldn't let that put you off either.
Extra features are all on Disc 2. The five Ura-Ex Bonus Short Movies are all barely more than a minute and a half long (including credits), but are well worth viewing. Web Previews are short trailers for each of the 12 episodes introduced by various demons. The expected Textless Opening and Textless Closings are included here as well.
On the one hand, it's good to have a proper conclusion at the end of Part 2 of Blue Exorcist, and it is one that certainly lives up to the apocalyptic cataclysm that is promised at the outset - but it all seems to come along much too suddenly and unfortunately wraps up the storyline much too quickly, just as the series was really getting interesting. There is however a post-credits sequence to the last episode (and other episodes - look out for those) that, if it doesn't exactly promise a continuation of the story, at least leaves the Blue Exorcist world open for further development. And if another series does come along, the challenge of coming up with an idea that surpasses the events that unfold during the conclusion here should make that worthwhile, provided that it can also develop and expand on some of the more interesting original touches of its own.