Shonen Jump is entering a new era – with Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha coming down the pipeline in only a few short weeks, it appears that we are headed towards a place where the legitimate publisher can beat the scanlator on the terms of his or her speed. Sadly, the content on Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha isn’t the most impressive of what is being published under the Shonen Jump label. Of the six titles in the original offering; Bakuman, Bleach, Naruto, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, One Piece, and Toriko, only Toriko and Bakuman really interest me in some way (even if it’s only a guilty pleasure kind of way). The one gem of a series that isn’t being published in Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha which I really enjoy is Kazue Kato’s Blue Exorcist. (Perhaps that’s because it runs in Jump Square, but honestly, if it’s being published as a Shonen Jump title in the USA, that shouldn’t exclude it from a USA-centric anthology.)
I bought the first volume of this series on a whim at the VizManga.com webstore and read it on a combination of my iPad and iPhone and at first, was struck by how… terrible the first chapter was. I had read the first piece of the story and had attempted to give it up, when I read a review of the first volume from David Welsh, who praised the volume after he trudged through the first chapter, and decided to finish the first volume. After an abysmal first chapter, I was surprised at how great the story turned out to be. Blue Exorcist manages to turn itself around and get on its storytelling feet in a matter of pages, and it’s a change that makes this story go from cancelled in 10 chapters to a long-term success with its own anime.
One of the things I really enjoy about Blue Exorcist is its fully realized fictional world, something we don’t often see in shonen manga, where things are often made up on the spot, chapter by chapter – in the world of Blue Exorcist, there are two realms, Assiah, the human realm, and Gehenna, the demon realm. Exorcists protect Assiah from the influences of demons. The demons of Gehenna seem to have a sort of taxonomy that the author, Kato, has constructed that makes it much more cohesive. Our main character, Rin, wants to become an exorcist after his adoptive father, Shiro Fujimoto dies at the hands of Satan, the most powerful demon of Gehenna.
This is complicated by the fact that Rin is the son of Satan. Oddly, Rin has a twin brother, Yukio, who knows of Rin’s demonic nature before he does and vows to protect him by becoming an exorcist. At Shiro’s funeral Rin encounters another exorcist, Mephisto Pheles, who helps Rin enroll at the True Cross Academy, a school for exorcists. The relationship between Rin and Yukio adds an interesting twist to this otherwise straight-forward battle manga, where the protective and studious Yukio tries to prevent Rin from being consumed by his demonic powers.
As Rin joins the Academy to become an exorcist, the cast of supporting characters grows larger and we meet other students and teachers for Rin to interact with, and things get a bit sketchy when they all find out he is a son of Satan. This development is very organic – growth and trust in the students in the class leads to fear and misunderstanding of Rin’s purpose and background, and it’s very “Shonen Jump” but it’s a little softer, and less forced than other series that have pulled this trick before.
Another positive for this series is its fantastic artwork. Kato’s character designs remind me of D. Gray-man, a series written by another female Jump writer, Katsura Hoshino. Both of these ladies do fantastic work in illustration, and their backgrounds, settings, and landscapes transcend the traditional shonen aesthetic. Having a well-written storyline to go with the gorgeous illustration never hurts, and Kato moves at a pleasant clip, neither irritatingly slow nor blisteringly fast.
Overall, I think that Blue Exorcist is one of the sleeper hits of 2011. The series has a lot going for it – beautiful illustration, dynamic characters, and a slick fantasy world to let them play in. It’s a battle manga that transcends the battle manga ethic in a fun way.