Written By Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
I remember first reading the Devilman manga, written and illustrated by Go Nagai, when I was in middle school. My friend originally recommended me Berserk, and after finishing the latest chapter back then I felt compelled to look for other manga that are similar in style and story. And Devilman is similar to Berserk all right; indeed, the tone is so gloomy and dark, full of anti-war allusions and imageries that even now, after nearly half a decade since publication, its shocking values remain very much the same. The manga left me so much of an impression that when I found out that it has been adapted (one more time) into a 10-episode anime on Netflix called Devilman Crybaby in 2018, I did not bother to watch it. I did not expect the grim atmosphere and the overall dark fantasy theme could be replicated perfectly on screen; in fact, Devilman has raised the bar very high in violence and gore for contemporary manga at the time, which were initially directed only at young readers, and tried as much as it could, the first attempt to bring it on the TV screen in 1972, very early in its publication, was not a very faithful one. So I have my doubts, but after finally getting around to watching it, I’d say with confidence that Devilman Crybaby has exceeded my expectations. Not only is it able to capture much of the tone of Go Nagai’s original work, which makes it one of the most faithful adaptations of the manga to date, it also extend and update the story to fit the 21st century setting, and adds a layer of depth to the main characters, which was something the manga struggled to do.
The premise of Devilman Crybaby is simple: Humans and demons have been living together since ancient times, but only the latter is aware of the other’s existence – until now. Pure-hearted high school student Akira Fudo (Koki Uchiyama) lives peacefully with his long-time crush Miki Makimura (Megumi Han) and her family, is surrounded by friends who care about him, and trains hard to earn his place in the school’s track-and-field club. Yet everything changes when he is reunited with his childhood friend Ryo Asuka (Ayumu Murase), who insists that the world will soon be invaded by races of deadly demons. The only way to defeat them, he believes, is to allow a human and a demon to bond with one another and become a supernaturally powerful hybrid, and he decides to use his old friend to test this hypothesis. Akira suddenly becomes a powerful key in this eternal battle between humans and demons, a medium between two worlds, a “devilman” that has both the enormous strength of a demon and the kind heart of a human.
Devilman Crybaby is considered much darker than your average Netflix anime; it can be hard to stomach, and is definitely not for the squeamish. Its over-stylized and even gratuitous depiction of sex, gore, and violence serves both as a faithful callback to the Go Nagai’s original manga, and as its own signature element that separates it from its source material. Along their way to uncover the existence of demons, Ryo and Akira find themselves in a rave-lit orgy party full of neon, drugs, and nudity readily and openly exposed. Different spectrums of color are blended together to create a feast for the eyes that is both lavish, outlandish, and disturbing, all at the same time. I suspect this use of color is intentional: it reflects the “animal” part of humans that has now been laid bare, one that is not only sumptuous and rapturous in nature, but also ugly and discomforting. In fact, the theme of whether humans and demons are different from each other, and in what way is prevalent throughout the anime, and the question of identity is raised frequently. As a devilman, is Akira Fudo both a human and a demon, or neither truly a human nor a demon? In that extravagant party, it seems the only thing that separates humans from demons is their humanoid appearance, which makes for a unique experience when the demons “inside” them crawl their way out kicking and screaming, violently turning them into the worst version of themselves, yet not so different from who they actually are.
Not only spectacular in terms of animation, the series also touches on a number of issues that are very 21st-century relevant, and does so with a surprising tenderness that bounds to stir the audience from the inside. There are opinions that the anime is nihilistic, both in the idea and the execution. Characters die, and they usually die in the worst way, and at the worst time possible. Those who survive are so overwhelmed with guilt and despair that they become only a shadow of their former self, and their struggles are made personal to even the most hard-boiled audience by the series’ haunting and emotional soundtrack. Its depiction of LGBT characters are genuinely humane and relatable, it being embraced wholeheartedly instead of being reduced to just background noises. Other significant themes and tropes such as toxic masculinity, nuclear family, faith and religion, paranoia, and social prejudices are either subverted or deeply delved into, establishing layers of complexity that separate Devilman Crybaby from contemporary anime with similar cynicism, such as Shiki or Berserk. Friendship is also a recurring theme throughout the series; while the friendship between Akira and Ryo is characterized as one that is established by trust and eventually ends with betrayal, the relationship between Miki and her friend and rival Miko is defined by jealousy, but reaffirmed by love.
Many might be put off by its NSFW story and the bizarre animation style, but for a Netflix anime, Devilman Crybaby shows great potential. This is not to say that I am happy with every aspect of the series. With only 10 episodes, the show feels rushed at times, presenting plot point after plot point but giving the audience hardly any time to reflect on their devastating impact. Many of the lesser demons, whom Akira defeated in the manga, made their appearance on the show as well, but the screen time they are given is so little that they felt trivial. One particular avian demon, who appears in multiple episodes (unlike most others who only get one) and gives off a sense that she might be a serious threat, has a character arc that escalates, climaxes, and finishes entirely in one episode with little or no impact being carried on into the rest of the series.
Yet these criticisms seem small in the grand scheme of things, and whether you like the anime or not, you will still have to go through its rollercoaster of emotions, from jaw-dropping to heart-breaking in just a split moment that is an episode, and these experiences, like the characters and their struggles, are unforgettable. Devilman Crybaby is a visual escapade that is brutal, bloody, and unforgiving, all at the same time, but like the devilmen it depicts, it also has a heart.
Image courtesy: Netflix