So yeah, remember that last arc? Good – now forget it.
It’s easy to forget just how good Ao no Exorcist was (if you’re keeping score at home, very good indeed). This was truly an excellent shounen, one of the more interesting exports from Shounen Jump in the early 10’s and probably just a notch or two short of the truly great modern shounens like Hunter X Hunter and Fullmetal Alchemist. The anime took an original turn in the final several episodes, one which in my view was still quite good but is generally viewed as a big step down from the manga material. That was followed up by an original theatrical film which I also thought was very good – and one of the most surprisingly beautiful and well-produced anime films of the decade.
Here we are about six years later, and AoEx makes a welcome return to the small screen. When adaptations of ongoing manga go the original route to close their first season, it always sets up a difficult conundrum if there’s a sequel. There’s a tendency to think they’ve screwed the pooch but honestly, I think the best approach is to just do what shows like Kuroshitsuji and now Ao no Exorcist did, and that’s a big “never mind”. Just pretend it never happened and sooner rather than later, the butthurt manga audience will get over themselves and re-engage with the story.
It didn’t take me all that long to re-engage, personally, though it did take me a while to remember a lot of details. Six years is a long time and there’s no preamble here – “Kyoto Fujouou-hen” jumps feet first into the story without much explanation (there’s a brief flashback sequence deep into the episode but that’s it). That leaves the story about where the 2011 series left it before the final arc – classic shounen protag Okamura Rin has lost control of his blue flames (inherited from his dad, Satan) during a battle. This has left his relationship with his fellow student exorcists scarred, and Rin under house arrest (under the watchful eye of Kirakagure Shura) to make sure he doesn’t go off again.
There are several struggles at the heart of Ao no Exorcist, not least of which the one going inside Rin all the time – between his human and demonic lineage. There’s also the great tug of war between Rin and his younger twin brother Yukio, who did not inherit the blue flames and matured into a narc of the highest order (and a teacher at the Exorcist Academy). Mangaka Katou Kazue explores a lot of very universal adolescent sibling themes through the lens of the exorcist story, and the brothers’ love-hate relationship and eternal rivalry is at the heart of the narrative. There’s also a tug of war for the role of Rin’s primary love interest between the mild-mannered Moriyama Shiemi and the classic tsundere Kamiki Izumo. It’s certainly worth noting that Izumo has stuck by Rin through his hard times, even as his other friends (including Shiemi) have turned on him. They treat him like a “mad dog” in his own words (and I could hardly choose a better phrase).
There are some important changes for this season of Blue Exorcist, with the big-time director Okamura Tensai replaced by Hatsumi Kouichi (not much directorial experience there) and – most interestingly for me – Oono Toshiya (Tsuritama) taking over on Series Composition. On balance, though, the premiere feels pretty much like peas in a pod to what I remember – the look and tone are the same, and Sawano Hiroyuki’s soundtrack provides a welcome feel of continuity. Plot-wise this arc seems to focus on the theft of the demonic artifact the “Left Eye of the Impure King” – a black eye (ironically) for the Academy and a threat to the human race.
Ao no Exorcist is what it was – a very traditional shounen which deals with shounen themes of weakness, envy, friendship and self-loathing in a considerably more sophisticated manner than your run-of-the-mill shounen title. It’s very good to have it back, especially in light of what looks to be a pretty weak schedule on the whole. On the whole it seems like a very safe bet – the manga is not remotely adjudged to have jumped the shark, and Oono is more than gifted enough as a writer to be able to craft a smooth narrative for this new season. This show is like seeing an old friend after a long absence – and you certainly can’t go wrong with that.