Why Blue Exorcist: Kyoto Saga sucks compared to the first season
There’s been something… missing in the second season of Blue Exorcist. It’s really strange. The production quality of the second season is high, and it’s adapting a well-regarded arc in the manga. There’s none of the filler that plagued the second half of the first season.
So why does it suck so bad?
I’m not saying that the first season was a masterpiece. It was inconsistent even at the best of times. But it had an irresistible charm to it that made you forget how typical the story is. Much of Blue Exorcist’s merits came down to its animation, which was consistently energetic and dynamic even when the characters weren’t always on-model. The colours were vibrant, and the storyboards and layouts were purposeful and creative, making the anime easy to watch even when there wasn’t much action happening onscreen. In short, it was a good match for the loose character art and detailed backgrounds present in Kazue Katou’s original manga.
The second season, on the other hand, has impressive action set pieces, but outside of a handful of scenes, the characters look terribly stiff and boring to watch. It feels like they’ve lost their personality in the six-year gap between seasons. This series might have taken a darker turn this season, but it’s lost the charm that made it so fun to watch in the first place.
It’s strange to think that a 2011 anime would have better visuals than a 2017 one, but good visuals require more than just “budget” or special effects. It takes a great deal of technique to organise a scene in a way that makes it interesting to watch and expresses the personalities of the characters.
Don’t believe me? Let’s compare the way Rin’s character is introduced in the two seasons.
Blue Exorcist season 1 opens with a tense scene of Satan breaking loose, complete with dramatic choral music playing in the background. The scene then abruptly cuts to this shot of a boy getting punched into a fence.
You don’t get a good look at the attacker’s face at first, but when the boys ask, “What are you? Some kind of demon?” you can see Rin’s profile from behind. The camera’s low angle makes Rin look more imposing than he really is, and it also serves to build up the mystery behind his character.
The next shot focuses on the blood and white feathers of a dead pigeon, which at first glance look like they could have come from an angel. The symbolism helps further establish Rin’s “demonic” impression, which is a very important part of his character.
This initial impression is quickly overturned in the very same scene, however. As Rin is lost in thought, he is suddenly interrupted when a pigeon flies past him, prompting the camera to point up at the lightening sky. The scene immediately looks different once the darkness has cleared. Cleverly, the pigeon’s perspective becomes part of the scene. The high angle in the last shot emphasises Rin’s weakness instead of his strength.
At last we see him for what he really is: a lost and confused boy.
Now that’s a lot of characterisation packed into about thirty seconds of screen time!
The scene after the OP establishes further sides of Rin’s character, but it’s also just plain fun to watch. The anime uses quick cuts to create contrast between the rebellious Rin and his father figure Fujimoto. Rin’s expression gradually becomes more frazzled as his excuses become feebler, while Fujimoto seems remains stern and straight-faced. The way the light reflects off his glasses makes him look very intimidating indeed.
These shots are all setup to a joke where Rin mentions a hot girl, which gets Fujimoto excited.
I really like the layout in this cut. Fujimoto is darting around in the foreground, making it very clear that he’s not so reverent after all, but you can also see Rin’s dumbfounded expression in the background, as well as the shape of the tiny, cramped confessional. Every aspect of this shot completely contradicts the solemn atmosphere established earlier in the scene. Had the cut just focused on Fujimoto’s expression, the contrast wouldn’t have been nearly as humorous.
I could go on and on with this, but basically the layouts and storyboards enhance the scenes even before the animation becomes a factor. The animation is still solid in its own right, but even when it falters during an overambitious cut, the camera movements still make the action look exciting. See for yourself:
tldr; the first season of Blue Exorcist has some pretty decent scene composition. Now compare this to the second season.
In his first appearance, Rin is training his blue flames. The camera pulls back, revealing the blue flames swarming around him, although his features are mostly obscured in the shot. The special effects are impressive, but you don’t actually see much of Rin himself.
You don’t get to see much of Rin in the next shot either. He’s is in the background, and although he’s panting audibly, you can’t see much indication of fatigue in the animation itself. Even when the camera cuts to a closeup of him wiping his forehead, you don’t really get the impression that he’s exerting himself.
When Shura enters the scene and begins lecturing Rin about his inability to control his flames, the visuals don’t aid her point. Rin expresses his stubborn and impetuous streak through the dialogue, but you don’t see it on his face at all. This guy has recently lost control of his powers and put the lives of those around him in danger, but he only looks mildly annoyed here, if anything.
The conversation is not that interesting to watch in its own right either, because it only features about three angles and none of them seem particularly well thought out. The scene mostly switches between closeups of Rin’s face and a medium-distance shot of Shura, see below.
In this shot, Rin’s front body is obscured from view, so you can’t see his facial reactions, and Shura is too small and far away to project much authority as a mentor figure. There’s not much movement in the scene either; the animation is mostly restricted to their hair and clothes swaying in the breeze. It’s hard to even make out what the characters are feeling or what their relationships are like from their body language.
In short, the characters might be consistently on-model, but the animation is nothing special at all.
My complaints don’t just apply to that particular scene. If the second season had stayed true to the characterisations that were established in season 1, Rin would have moved around more energetically in general. Shortly after the scene I described above, for instance, Rin attempts to jump into a crime scene by producing his credentials. Instead of waving his student card around excitedly as I imagine he would, he just points to himself a few times and grins. It’s not out of character per se, but this Rin seems subdued even when the narrative is trying to establish his happy-go-lucky attitude.
The lackluster visuals might explain Blue Exorcist has lost its charm this season. Gone are the snappy cuts and smears. When the characters move, they seem so slow and deliberate compared to their S1 counterparts. Everything that was fun about Blue Exorcist’s animation has been replaced by stiff drawings. Many fans have described the second season as an improvement in the animation department, but I just don’t see it.
Oh, and while I’m here, can I complain about the filters for a bit? Every TV anime uses post-processing and filters these days, but I feel that Kyoto Saga has gone overboard here, perhaps in an attempt to disguise the lifeless character animation. The colours are sober and muted this season, and the entire anime has an oddly sterile look about it that contradicts the colourful world set up in season 1. It’s not a “mature” aesthetic either; it just makes the anime look flat.
Some of you might be wondering, “Who cares as long as the story is good?” But here’s the thing – I think that the story is garbage because it has been presented so poorly to me. I don’t give a single crap about the characters this season because I can barely grasp their personalities. When most of the scenes are boring to watch, it drags the pacing of the entire show down.
There could be any number of reasons behind the decline in quality, but I suspect that the change in directors probably has something to do with it. Tensai Okamura might be a tensai (genius), but Koichi Hatsumi sure as heck isn’t. That guy also directed Deadman Wonderland, in case you were curious.
Better luck next time, Hatsumi-san…