Manga auteur Go Nagai casts an incredible shadow over the realm of Japanese animation and illustration. He has been a strong crafting hand for the two mediums since the 1960s, boasting a creative influence and figure of something equivalent to Stan Lee. Since 1967, Go Nagai has helped plant the formative seeds in the realm of what have become very familiar genres in Japanese popular media: mecha, magical-girl, horror, and the pornographic. By far, his most controversial and possibly most enduring creation is Devilman, a darkly subversive manga and anime series that originally ran in 1972 – 1973 in Japan and ignited a storm of controversy due to its frenzied depiction of violence, sex, and the occult.
The plot to the Devilman series is such: two boys (Ryo and Akira) find discover the existence of demons in the world, and seek to combat them, by having pure-hearted Akira become a powerful half-demon (a devilman) without losing his conscious. This eventually sprawls into a full blown war between the demon and human species that consumes the world and Akira and Ryo’s friendship.
At the time, Devilman pushed the boundaries of what was possible in popular manga, in both visceral and thematic content. Not only did the series distill Go Nagai’s hyperactive energy through over-the-top violence and sex, but lurking under all the juvenile posturing were more adult themes, with deeper allegories between the conflicts of the demon and human worlds to the many different conflicts within our own. The original manga ended as an explicitly anti-war series, with Go Nagai emphasizing an atmosphere of paranoia and societal destruction in conjunction with the ongoing Cold War. It is also notable for being one of the first series to display a fascination with Christian mythology.
The original 70s anime adaption of Devilman was a much toned-down series aimed at children. The 2018 Netflix adaptation Devilman Crybaby is the first full-length adaptation of the series that is faithful to the original manga, helmed by Masaaki Yuasa, the creator of such similarly offbeat shows such as Kemonozume, which also features an occultist/demonic centered plot. Being an internet original series, Devilman Crybaby is freed to pursue an even more hyperactive depiction of sex and violent content, with an animation style that is often captivatingly disjointed and psychedelic, while exploring the original’s furtive thematic overtures.
Devilman Crybaby is first and foremost a series interested in the duality of human beings. To this point, the main characters, Akira and Ryo, are contrasting but complimentary entities; with Akira as a creature of pure human empathy, who literally cries when he senses the sadness and pain of others, and Ryo as his icy, calculating, and amoral counterpart. They are the series’ psychological centerpiece. Akira’s humanistic morality and Ryo’s cutthroat individualistic drive are competing human psyches, simultaneously inseparable and yet inevitably in perpetual, doomed conflict with each other. Their friendship, union, and downfall is the show’s most intriguing and entertaining centerpiece, with ruthless individualism eventually betraying collective morality to the destruction of both.
Similarly, the Demon and Human dichotomy is a thematic divide of impulse versus reason, desire versus discipline. The demons represent all that is instinctual, greedy, and base about human behavior. Humans stand in for reason, civilization, and all that is shared and societal. Early on in the series, demonic possession is also given some overtures to the experience of puberty. Upon being possessed, Akira begins to shed some of his previous naive innocence. His body grows and experiences changes that are often awkward and he is introduced to intense new desires for sex and violent conflict, along with a whirlwind of new emotional states. He even experiences a wet dream. As he grows into his body, he must carefully learn to balance his powers with his natural empathy lest he be overwhelmed by his demonic urges. Akira becomes a representative of a middle ground between the two extremes of human and demon, devilmen. Devilmen represent a sort of besieged ideal, embracing of their new demonic power but able to maintain their human conscious. Liked by neither demon nor human, balancing their base instincts with a shared morality, devilmen are a lonely middleground that is not easily navigated. They only have themselves to rely on.
As the series progresses, the binary between demon and human blurs. The war between the two worlds causes the collective of humans to become rampantly suspicious of each other, fearful that everyone and anyone could turn out to be a demon, a social pariah, a dreaded other. In the original Devilman manga, this social paranoia was used to highlight the mutual fear and suspicion present at the height of the Cold War. In Devilman Crybaby, concerns about the Cold War and world conflict are switched out for social media and internet spectacle and outgroup derision. The main characters are all teenagers and prominently deal with struggles over peer group acceptance. Each teenager wants to be prominent or noticed, but not so prominent that they become a target. The character of Miki “Miko” Kuroda is particularly poignant in this case, as her demonic possession allows her to pursue her rawer ambitions and resentment of “reclaiming her name” against her more socially popular peer, Miki Makimura. Kuroda’s embrace of her demonic possession allows her to compete or succeed Makimura in tracking racing, but eventually renders her an outlaw.
Finally, Devilman Crybaby is steeped in something approaching a Christian gnostic mythos. Religious iconography is prevalent everywhere in the final episodes of the show. Ryo is revealed to be the reincarnation of Satan, a figure in the mold of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, eventually leading a second war against Earth and Heaven. Satan cannot understand love and despises the material world and humans but values Akira, the only creature to have ever shown him acceptance. Part of his subconscious urge to merge Akira with a demon was to create a creature possible of surviving his cleansing of the Earth. Satan completes his mission of purging the Earth but loses Akira in the process after Akira rejects his offer. Satan learns how to love and value others, and achieves enlightenment, but at too great of a cost and too late. God resets the world and Satan and Ryo are doomed to repeat the process again, possibly an infinite amount of times.
Devilman Crybaby is an eclectic mess. An exploration and celebration of various human impulses. The show and Go Nagai’s original work are obsessed with the duality of the conflicting desires of individuality and social acceptance, rationality and instinct, empathy and cold logic, and love and lust. Though they are all doomed, the main characters find redemption and solace in growing up and learning how to love and mutually support each other, no matter who they are. Fittingly, passing the baton is recurring motif in the series’ visual vocabulary. A show featuring literal demons, Devilman Crybaby is very much actually about humanity’s internal war with its own inner psychological demons.