Exorcism is a bizarre and unsettling thing. Filmmaker Scott Derrickson certainly understands that, which is why he keeps making movies about demonic possession. His newest, Deliver Us from Evil, isn’t exactly getting the best critical reception. Granted, neither did The Exorcism of Emily Rose and that movie remains a hoot to re-watch. Regardless of quality, exorcism and Catholic-inflected horror has its own inherent draw. The images are often compelling by their very nature, particularly if they’re composed well. This isn’t a cultural subgenre simply because The Exorcist made such an impression on its own back in 1973, though that obviously helped.
With all of that said, you may not want to risk Deliver Us from Evil even if you are, like me, something of a nut for profane and terrifying Catholic imagery. I have an alternative for you. Stay home and watch some Blue Exorcist, a Japanese animated series currently available to stream for free on Hulu in its entirety.
What’s the appeal? Exorcism isn’t actually owned by Western European Christianity. As the inimitable Shohreh Aghdashloo testified in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, demonic possession is a thoroughly international phenomenon. Blue Exorcist is based on a manga of the same title by Kazue Kato, who could easily have built something entirely out of East Asian mythology. Instead, he created a fascinating blend of different cultural currents. In adapting the books into an animated series, director Tensai Okamura and the animators at A-1 Pictures have continued that blend. It is still very much inspired by the Catholic horror films of Hollywood and its principal exorcists are at least officially connected to the Vatican. Yet the setting and much of the iconography is all over the place.
The plot doesn’t actually diverge all that much from your standard fantasy hero origin story. Rin Okumura is a young man who has grown up in a monastery, raised and protected by a very important exorcist. It is revealed in the pilot that Rin isn’t just any old orphan: his father is actually Satan. Yet instead of submitting to his wicked destiny, our young hero decides to become an exorcist himself and fight his biological father in honor of the Church Father who brought him up. He ends up at a school for exorcism. It’s a peculiar combination of Harry Potter, The Omen and The Matrix.
The narrative itself actually isn’t that much of a draw. The tension between Rin and his brother Yukio is interesting and mostly well written, but it’s not particularly difficult to predict how the initial story arc is going to go. The real reason to watch Blue Exorcist is the artwork, the barrage of odd-looking monsters and creatively illustrated landscapes. The True Cross Academy, where Rin studies, evokes the excessive and monumental diversity of color and space of the bathhouse in Spirited Away. The initial confrontation between Satan and Rin is preceded by an assault of enormous malevolent mushrooms, who are temporarily held back by a very uniquely dressed scarecrow. The ever-changing bestiary is often the cornerstone of a show like this, and the design team at A-1 rise to the challenge.
Finally, the driving factor really is the unique take on exorcism. The blend of Western and Eastern ideas, images and myths is an excellent starting point. On top of all of these traditions, represented through both plot and style, Blue Exorcist develops new mythologies of its own. Its shots are plentiful with strange characters and inspired architectures, and its hero encounters a whole slew of odd villains and odder friends. Check it out, starting with the more visually interesting second episode, “Gehenna Gate.”