Have you ever seen the pilot episode of Law & Order? Most of the regular characters are present, and the script follows the three-act structure familiar to anyone who’s watched an episode of any Law & Order series, but the pacing is slack; the dialogue fizzles where it should crackle; and the actors struggle to create believable relationships between the characters, even as the script demands that they explain things to one another that, presumably, they’d already know from working together. Small wonder that “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman” languished for nearly a year before NBC rescued the show from limbo and ordered a full season of episodes.
So it is with Blue Exorcist, which has a first chapter that might charitably be described as a “pilot episode.” In these opening thirty pages, Kato introduces orphan Rin Okimura, a hot-tempered young man; Yukio, Rin’s snot-nosed fraternal twin; and Father Fujimoto, their guardian. Rin, we learn, is a direct descendant of Satan, and is in imminent danger of going over to the dark side. Father Fujimoto, however, has kept this information from his young charge, seeing fit only to explain the complexities of Rin’s lineage when Satan’s minions try to spirit Rin back to Gehenna, the demon realm. (Like all manga priests, Father Fujimoto spends more time fighting demons than preparing Sunday sermons or ministering to the sick, hungry, and bereaved.) An epic confrontation between Satan and Father Fujimoto leaves Rin’s mentor dead, forcing the boy to decide whether to cast his lot with Satan or with humanity.
There’s no reason why this opening prelude has to be such a bumpy, predictable ride, but Kato seems so intent on relating Rin’s entire Tragic Past in one installment that she trades naturalism for economy. (Sample: “I see you’ve returned. An overnight trip to the job center? How diligent of you.” And how helpful of Father Fujimoto to ask Rin a question to which he already knows the answer!) In the second chapter, however, Kato finds her stride with the material: the dialogue is looser and funnier; the characters’ relationships are more firmly and plausibly established; and she introduces her first genuinely memorable character, Mephisto Pheles. The plot is stock, with Rin vowing to avenge Father Fujimoto by enrolling in an exorcism “cram school,” but Kato enlivens the proceedings with humorous twists and nifty artwork.
And oh, the artwork! It’s crisp and expressive, filled with small but suggestive details. Mephisto, for example, carries a patched umbrella and wears a polka-dot cravat — two minor flourishes that help establish him as a slightly decadent figure, elegant but down at the heels. The not-very-imaginatively named True Cross Town provides another instructive example of Kato’s meticulous and thoughtful draftsmanship: she lavishes considerable attention on architectural details and infrastructure, stacking layers of houses and buildings on top of one another to form a giant urban ziggeraut:
In short, Kato has created an imaginary urban landscape that seems to have evolved naturally over time, with old and new buildings side-by-side and modern modes of transport straddling canals and rivers. That kind of thoroughness may not serve much purpose in the context of a manga about demon fighters, but it lends Blue Exorcist a temporal and geographic specificity that’s sometimes missing in other areas of the story — like the religious bits.
Whatever my reservations about the first chapter, I freely admit that I’d fallen head-over-heels for Blue Exorcist by the end of the second. The brisk pacing, sharp artwork, and cheeky tone of these later chapters convinced me that Kazue Kato is in firm control of her story, and has successfully laid the foundation for the series’ first major story arc. Bring it on, I say!
BLUE EXORCIST, VOL. 1 • BY KAZUE KATO • VIZ MEDIA • 198 pp. • RATING: OLDER TEEN (16+)
lovelyduckie saysApril 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm
I had been debating ordering this series, but decided to hold off on deciding. You probably won me over with the scene of that city alone. Plus I believe this series is even seeing an anime soon? If it’s not currently airing?
Katherine Dacey saysApril 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm
The anime just debuted on TBS, I think. You can view the entire first episode (legally!) at Anime News Network. Here’s a direct link: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/video/12241/
darkstar saysApril 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm
I decided to take a chance on this manga solely based on the cover! And I was happy to find that the artwork throughout was just as good (the drawing of the city was stunning!). You’re correct about the first chapter, but it didn’t bother me too much as the rest of the chapters are much stronger. I’m really looking forward to the second volume.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 24, 2011 at 7:18 am
I have to admit, Blue Exorcist was a pleasant surprise: the description made it sound like 422 other manga about demons and exorcists, but the artwork was terrific. The storytelling, too, really hits its stride in the second chapter; small wonder that VIZ’s preview chapter was the second, not the first!
Jade Harris saysApril 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm
I think a lot of creators just hate exposition so much that they’d rather stuff as much as possible into the first episode just to get it out of the way.When I’m, personally, thinking of stories I either go that route or give no background info whatsoever, my brain just isn’t wired to allow exposition to flourish naturally, I have to eradicate or quarantine it. :3
Katherine Dacey saysApril 24, 2011 at 7:21 am
my brain just isn’t wired to allow exposition to flourish naturally, I have to eradicate or quarantine it
Nicely put! I’m not a fiction writer, but I can imagine that setting the table for what happens in later chapters must be the hardest part of writing any long story. And if you’re under pressure to hook people in just 20-30 pages… the temptation to cram as much information into the dialogue as possible must be irresistible.
BurningLizard saysApril 25, 2011 at 4:02 am
Okay, I’m convinced. I read the sample chapter in Shonen Jump, and if what you say is trustworthy (it is, isn’t it? :P) this is definitely a series I need to check out. I’ll just need to check and make sure my bank account won’t hate me for buying more manga. I’m already committed to buying Toriko as well as all the other series I already own. Then there’s the forever ongoing commitment to buying new One Piece volumes, but that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so I really just consider it one of those guaranteed life expenses. Like taxes.
Also, I didn’t know this until recently, but the anime has aired already and started streaming on crunchyroll or hulu. I reviewed the first episode on my blog, and have to say, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. Definitely worth a look, especially if you like good background music.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 25, 2011 at 9:26 am
Thanks for the tip about the anime; I’m a sucker for good soundtracks. (That’s what got me hooked on InuYasha and Gankutsuou.)
BurningLizard saysApril 25, 2011 at 3:19 pm
It really did help set the mood, and I’m already impatiently waiting for the next episode.
BurningLizard saysApril 25, 2011 at 4:57 pm
Also, I would like you to know that, partially because I can’t wait for the next episode, and partially because of your review, I went and bought the first volume of the manga.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 25, 2011 at 9:18 pm
Mwahahaha! My evil plan is working!
Actually, I have no idea how I’d profit from your decision to buy Blue Exorcist, but I’m glad I was able to nudge you in that direction. I’ll be curious to read your review when it’s up.