Ao no Exorcist was always in a tough spot, an adaptation that began too early in the life of a fiercely popular manga that will likely run for years to come. The episodes that were direct adaptations of manga chapters were generally very successful. As with all A-1 Pictures series, the animation and music was top-notch andthe casting was excellent. Those episodes did a fine job of setting up the story. There were some excellent anime-original standalone episodes mixed in, too.
The final arc itself certainly wasn’t as dramatic as the best manga material, suffering from at times insane pacing and a little too much predictability. To end with an original arc was probably the best choice under the circumstances, giving at least a measure of finality to the anime without closing any doors for future seasons. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the movie. Will it follow the FMA route and be completely new material, perhaps following directly from the anime? Or will it tackle a manageable chunk of manga and adapt that? I suspect we’re likely to see a series of two or three films using anime-original material, both to keep the fans hooked in and leave more manga material for future seasons.
For me, the best elements of the story – and the best episodes – were the ones dealing with Shiro. One of Fujiwara Keiji’s most winning performances, Shiro was a great catalyst for strong family drama and intense conflict. That family conflict was really what the series was about at the beginning, and was always its best feature for me. Shounen is full of complicated fraternal relationships and angst over missing fathers, but rarely is it presented as well as it was here. Things tended to get a bit bogged down with complicated excess baggage in the second cour, but going forward sticking to its core elements is going to be critical for the series to succeed.
Another strong aspect of AoEx was the nicely varied supporting cast. I particularly enjoyed Mephisto, the grinning mystery man at the heart of everything that happened in the series who never revealed his hand, right to the end. But Rin’s fellow students were also an above-average bunch, with Bon especially standing out as someone who was deeper and more intelligent than his clichéd appearance suggested. We never did get any romance between KanaHana’s Shiemi and either Okumura brother, but she was still an enjoyable character – hardly Hanazawa’s best work but distinct enough from the rest of the cast to stand out (in more ways than one).
I didn’t end up feeling as strongly about AoEx as I once thought I might, largely because the first cour was clearly better than the second. But I don’t really think it’s fair to judge it yet, because this really does have the feeling of something that’s barely gotten started. it was probably a mistake to begin an adaptation this soon, because even in spite of the very strong popularity of the manga it’s likely we’ll have to wait the better part of two years for it to stretch its lead out far enough for another season to make sense. Will the fan interest still be there? I hope so, and I think so – there’s a reason the manga is so popular. This is a damn good story, well-conceived and smartly written with strong characters, and as long as the manga continues indefinitely I think the fanbase will wait for another season. And the movies (I fully expect more than one) will help tide them over until that happens.