Devilman is one of the most influential manga ever written. You cannot understate the impact that Go Nagai’s initially simple story of a boy forced to house a demon on its genre or the medium it was created within. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration or even a stretch to say that without Devilman, we would have lost out on dozens of other definitive shonen manga.
But before 2018, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who had read or even cared about Devilman. At most you could see it thrown around in passing with many of the other greats in academic debate, often in the same vein as Dragon Ball or Fist of the North Star. However, it would be the same kind of way I would say that I loved Crime & Punishment to my friends with literature degrees. Other than a bit of a cult following around the manga, the simultaneous anime adaptation, and the hilarious English dub, Devilman was a relic.
And it stayed that way until it was adapted into a ten-episode web anime, released by Netflix, produced by studio Science SARU and directed by Masaaki Yuasa. This new series, titled Devilman Crybaby, faithfully follows the plot of the original manga, with many aspects updated for modern audiences, as well as a heaping dose of explicit content and the idiosyncratic character animation Yuasa is known for.
And more manga from the ’70s should get anime adaptations, especially if they haven’t gotten one already. We have had a bit of a renaissance in the last few years, of anime that update their source material, like Dororo and Parasyte the Maxim, and there’s no reason we can’t have more. There’s a smart and easy to follow format, if only more production committees would look to Devilman.
Devilman, both the manga and anime, follow Akira Fudo, who remains the same between both stories. Either way you experience Devilman, Akira is a kind, compassionate boy with a pure heart, and the only major difference that Crybaby makes is that, well, he’s a crybaby. Akira feels the pain of others so strongly that seeing someone else suffering immediately cranks the waterworks.
Akira reunites with his childhood friend, Ryo, who has discovered the existence of demons. In this world, demons largely resemble their biblical counterparts, with emphasis on their ability to possess and mimic other people. These shape-shifting monsters have existed since the dawn of time, and are slowly killing and transforming more and more humans. Though Akira doesn’t know it yet, Ryo lured him here to fuse with Amon, an incredibly powerful demon.
Ryo, in his research of the demons, believes that a person with a sufficiently pure heart can join with a demon and maintain their personality. His plan is a success, and Akira absorbs Amon’s power without bending to the demon’s will. And if you’ve seen a shonen anime in your time, you know the only thing left is to use that demon’s powers to fight other demons. It’s a super basic shonen setup that was probably a lot more groundbreaking before every other anime came along and used the same idea.
And the problem with being one of the first stories to use a concept is that they don’t do as much with it. Akira fights Sirene early on, Amon’s former lover, but there’s no back and forth like you get with Yuji and Sukuna, and it’s not like they had a relationship prior to fusing, like Denji and Pochita. The first couple episodes are a bog-standard shonen battle anime, so it’s a good thing that it isn’t just the first few parts.
Another change in Crybaby is that Akira and his friends are members of the track club, so footraces are one place where the animators really get to flex. Other than that, the fights are excellently choreographed, animated, and the variety of demons and their powers allows for a wide range of possibilities. The animation is just the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen and I love it, but Devilman, particularly Crybaby, doesn’t hit its stride until the second half and especially the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s honestly one of my favorite endings in anime.
When you’re transplanting a story nearly 50 years into the future, you have your work cut out for you, and I’m not talking about just giving the characters cellphones. Devilman was an exemplary piece of anti-war fiction when it was written, but now it has to contend with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, and how that affects people.
Yuasa really taps into the paranoia that rose in response to the War on Terror and predominance of the surveillance state, much like how Nagai tapped into the paranoia of the Cold War. The series drips with the unbearable sensation that no one can be trusted, anyone at any moment can transform into a monster in mere moments. Once the existence of demons is revealed to the public, though, then the panic begins to spread like wildfire.
Within weeks an anarchic dystopia is realized as militias rove the streets looking for demons. It’s only then that you see how fragile our social ties and sense of community are, as people become not only willing, but eager to gun down their neighbors on the off chance that they are demons. Every single thing you learned about the Salem Witch Trials or the Red Scare in school becomes real and believably so overnight.
Devilman doesn’t succeed as a piece of horror fiction because the demons it shows us are really spooky. It succeeds because of how it shows that people will oh-so easily turn on each other to preserve their shaken sense of security. It doesn’t say, “look how scary these monsters are,” it says, “this could be you.” And you can’t just dismiss it, because you understand that their fears are founded at least partially in reality. You know that demons could be anywhere, so even as the militias are engaging in witch hunts, you can’t even safely say that they’re wrong.
The last half of Devilman Crybaby reminds me, funnily enough, of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, just conveniently tailored for a modern audience. In the film class where I was forced to watch so many ‘classics’, usually without the benefit of the context that they were made in. I didn’t understand the sort of fear that went into the creation of this kind of art, and that’s the real reason why we ought to make classic films.
Usually the idea behind a remake is that this IP was popular twenty or thirty years ago but isn’t anymore, that way we can buy the rights for cheap, and no studio will greenlight anything without a noteworthy franchise-able name attached. Thus, we rip an idea from the time and place where it was successful, replace the charming practical effects with lifeless CG, and throw in a generically handsome square-jawed action star. Gross enough to make two or more seuqle,s rinse and repeat.
But that’s not why we should remake a story. Any artistic endeavor should be undertaken only when the people making it have something to say, and Masaaki Yuasa usually does. Devilman the manga could address the issues in its own time, but those themes are bound to fall short when the world has changed more in the past 46 years than it has in all of human history. To produce a Devilman story that would resonate with audiences, changes have to be made.
And Devilman Crybaby is not the same as those stories that resurrect its predecessors and deifies them. It’s not looking to put the manga on an altar in the same way something like The Force Awakens does for the original Star Wars trilogy. Masaaki Yuasa didn’t just want to tell a story on the futility of war, or the way people are all too willing to turn on each other, he wanted to tell a story that was distinctly Yuasa.
That includes some of the strangest ecchi scenes I’ve ever witnessed, and I hesitate to even call them ecchi because the implication of fanservice feels wrong. It’s bloody and gruesome, and begs the question of what it means to be human, and whether or not we just call ourselves human so we can rip that label away from others.
Devilman Crybaby doesn’t exist just because executives sat down and decided it would be the most profitable course of action. Devilman Crybaby exists because artists got together with a real passion for the original Devilman, and like artists have done since the inception of time, they interpreted the world around them into the vehicle for their art. And also some executives sat down and decided it would be profitable, but it’s important that the artists do too.
Devilman Crybaby is far from the first anime I watched, but it’s the first that ignited a real passion in me to watch more anime. Beyond the dozens of “entry-level” anime, this series might have been the first to show me concepts and themes that could not have been achieved outside of this wildly expressive and creative niche. The thing about Masaaki Yuasa projects is that he might be one of the few directors in all of anime where you don’t need to look at the credits to figure out who made it.
So if you loved Devilman Crybaby, and were looking for anywhere else to start on Yuasa’s filmography, maybe don’t try Japan Sinks, but there’s always the wonderful Ping Pong the Animation, or Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, which won Yuasa Director of the Year at the Anime Awards. He’s a weird director whose projects always promise a trip.
If you want to see me tackle more anime with heavy themes or more classic manga, please let me know. Pieces like this and my review of 86 are becoming my favorites to write, and even better if you guys like to read them. Plus, it’s always a bonus to be able to dive back into some older manga in preparation for these essays. Although, looking back, I didn’t talk nearly enough about the original Devilman manga.
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