Blue Exorcist is by the numbers shonen , but it does it so impeccably well, you won’t hardly notice – or care, for that matter.
A particular high note for the first volume are the character designs and overall setting. The aesthetic of the work is a mixture of 90s Goth and 19th century buildings, mid twentieth century transportation, and 21st century digital technology. This mixture gives the work a feel that is both ahistorical and yet also contemporary, which is disorienting enough to make the fantasy elements of the story seem all the more plausible.
The series opens at the tail end of fight. The assailants, we later learn, are local teens who were killing pigeons for fun. The protagonist, who looks a little worse for wear, laments his inability to stay out of trouble.
We soon find out that the boy, named Rin, is living in a monastery, and that his guardian is the head priest – a priest whose wardrobe has been selected by Siouxsie Sioux, or maybe Nana Osaki. Father Fujimoto, the aforementioned punk rock priest, is also an exorcist, meaning he casts out demons, although Rin claims that all he does is listen to people’s problems and offer corny advice. Father Fujimoto remarks that demons are real, and that they exist in people’s hearts, which Rin takes as being just more pablum. Little does he know…
In this first volume, Blue Exorcist lays out its central themes as being responsibility, accountability and family. As we soon find out, Rin is an illegitimate child, and not just any illegitimate child, he is literally the bastard child of Satan himself. The Prince of Lies says that he created Rin on a whim, and now that Rin is apparently of use to him, Satan comes to claim him as his own. Not that Satan cares at all for the well-being of his son; Rin is simply a necessary conduit or vessel for the Prince of Darkness to enter into and then conquer the human realm. Father Fujimoto dies trying to protect Rin, the boy he chose to raise as a son.
Evil is thus presented as capricious, irresponsible, and opportunistic; good is responsible, steadfast, and – most importantly – elective. Rin’s “real” father is no father at all; Rin’s adoptive guardian chooses to be his father instead, and by that choice creates something, a real relationship.
One more character ought to be introduced here is Rin’s twin brother, Yukio. Studious and unassuming, Rin’s assumed relationship to him is like that of a protector, even though Yukio is often the one picking up the pieces after Rin’s occasional angry outbursts.
A major aspect of the first volume is how often our perspective shifts with that of the protagonist. A relationship or circumstance is quickly established, only to just as quickly be turned on its head. The effect is jolting, in a good way. And like a cat, Rin always manages to land on his toes.
Finally, I ought to clarify that Blue Exorcist is shonen through and through. What I mean is we get all the elements of the shonen genre – plucky, can do protagonist who isn’t too book smart but can pick things up, the scholastically inclined, dogmatic partner who is actually more resilient than we think, the ambiguous adult mentor with his own agenda, lessons on taking people or things for granted, on the importance of education as a means to an end, the need to be accountable, but not morosely so, etc.
What I’m saying here is that Blue Exorcist is more Star Wars than Black Butler; terrible things happen, but then we’re already on to the next adventure. The true joy in the narrative is both the extremely engaging characters as well as the manga’s ability to get you to see things through the eyes of Rin, a fifteen year old. Even as adult.readers, our inner adolescent is right there along with him, with the slowly dawning realization that the world is a bigger and more nuanced place than we originally assumed.