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Quick tempered and fond of a good scrap, 15-year-old Rin Okumura has grown up being called a ‘demon child’ but it's still a shock to discover that he is, in fact, the literal son of Satan. When his guardian, Father Shirou Fujimoto, dies defending him against demons, Rin defies his hellish heritage and enrols at the True Cross Academy, determined to become the world's strongest exorcist. Starting any new school is a challenge, but Rin's got it tougher than most. Not only must he master his deadly demonic powers and fight the forces of darkness, but Rin also finds himself in the unenviable position of being instructed by his genius twin brother Yukio, who is already a teacher at the Academy! Then there's the question of how Rin's fellow classmates - shy Shiemi, hot-blooded Bon and haughty Izumo - will react if they ever discover his true parentage...
Adapted from the manga series by Kozue Kato, at first glance Blue Exorcist has much in common with other shounen action series of recent years, particularly when it comes to its stubborn, demonically-descended protagonist Rin Okumura. Like Bleach's Ichigo Kurosaki, Rin's a scrappy young delinquent whose tough-talking personality hides a caring and heroic nature; like the main character of Naruto, his body is the vessel for a terrible power that once spawned disaster, leading him to be hated and misunderstood by the world at large. As does Ichigo, Rin quickly discovers his mysterious powers leading him into a hidden supernatural realm of intrigue and danger, making new allies and enemies as he goes. It's a common enough set of tropes in contemporary manga and anime that it's easy to become jaded over it, but fortunately Blue Exorcist has just enough gloss and verve to set itself apart from the pack.
The differences lies for the most part in the production. Animation studio A-1 Pictures have been quietly carving a niche as makers of superior television anime, from the superb sci-fi drama Birdy The Mighty: Decode to the bold series of original works under the 'Anime no Chikara' banner, and while they might not have the pedigree or cachet of peers such as SHAFT or Gainax, their work is uniformly impressive. Veteran director Tensai Okamura, best known for Darker Than Black, orchestrates a fine production with some frequently gorgeous visuals - the classrooms, gardens and byways of True Cross Academy show a level of detail and realization that wouldn't look out of place in a Hayao Miyazaki film. Kato's character designs too have occasional flashes of brilliance, particularly in the form of demonic headmaster Mephisto Pheles, a grotesque Willy Wonka figure swathed in absurdly vulgar finery.
With all the visual and directorial talent on display, it's a pity the story being told isn't as arresting as the presentation, but on the strength of its first volume Blue Exorcist offers relatively few surprises. The secondary characters don't inspire much excitement, particularly weedy Shiemi whose ridiculous shyness isn't much substitute for a personality, though the series' unwillingness to subject her and the other female characters to gratuitous fan-service is commendable. Even the obligatory beach episode is relatively restrained, though it's perhaps a sign of a lack of confidence that leads Blue Exorcist to deploy such familiar formula (a cooking episode and one centred on the acquisition of a cute pet/mascot are also present and correct) in the hopes of retaining the audience's good will.
With this first half of the TV series adapting the first three or so volumes of the TV series, it's not easy to say whether Blue Exorcist will emulate the success of Bleach, which took off in a quite unexpected direction after its first season and went on to become one of the best-executed shounen series ever made. While the production values for Blue Exorcist are far superior to what Bleach had to offer in its early days, the plot and characterisation seem a little thin and simplistic in comparison. As a fun action show, though, it's enjoyable and shows promise - here's hoping the second season delivers more.