Anime Examination: Sex, Death, and Devilman: Go Nagai - Part One

Go Nagai is one of the most influential creators in anime and manga, having pioneered both the super robot and magical girl genres with Mazinger Z and Cutey Honey, respectively. He was also one of the first artists to make ecchi/erotic horror more of a mainstream genre and he cemented his infamy with his grotesque and epic manga series Devilman in 1972. The manga was extremely controversial due to its adult themes and extreme gore and nudity. It has been adapted several times over the years with series and OVAs in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s with various levels of quality

Devilman (1972)

The first anime series, which ran for thirty-nine episodes, was initially supposed to be an adaptation of Go Nagai's earlier manga Devil Man Dante. Toei Animation wanted something a little more toned down and  Nagai came up with the concept of Devilman. Though he helped with the scripting of the anime, he didn't write most of it--that was handled by Masaki Tsuji. Nagai was writing the manga at the same time that the anime was being produced, so the two diverge greatly in both tone and story beats. The anime is more of a lighter superhero type tale with Devilman fighting a monster-of-the-week, and the ending is much happier than the manga version. While the animation is a bit limited, the aesthetic is fun and the Nagai designs look unlike anything else that was out at the time.

Devilman: The Birth (1987)

This was an OVA (Original Video Animation) that covered the first volume of the manga and is one of the most faithful anime translations of the original source material. Both this and the sequel OVA Devilman: Demon Bird Sirene were directed by Umanosuke Iida who worked closely with Go Nagai to develop the story and character designs. The animation quality is fantastic, and there are a lot of shots that use interesting color compositions and camera angles. I absolutely love the dark fantasy aesthetic in this version. Many animators who worked with Studio Ghibli did animation on this production which is interesting since it's full of gratuitous sex and violence. As far as the adaption of the story, The Birth follows the manga pretty closely, much more so than the 1972 iteration. Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor) did the score and it's excellent, with some rousing themes and background music. The Birth covers Akira Fudo's transformation into Devilman and a lot of the backstory behind the demon invasion.

Devilman: Demon Bird (1990)

Unfortunately, this entry is a bit weaker than its predecessor story-wise but it amps the action way up. The animation quality is still outstanding and the action scenes are well choreographed. Devilman's fight with Sirene, a proud and vicious female demon, is one of the most memorable moments from the manga, and this OVA does it justice. One of the more interesting aspects of Devilman is the villains are just as fleshed out as the protagonists and have their own motivations and personalities. Moral ambiguity is prevalent in almost every situation and continues all the way up to the very end of the story. Unfortunately, these OVAs would be the only adaptations of this story up until 2000 with the release of Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman which was handled by a completely different team.

Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman (2000)

Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman was meant to be a continuation from the previous two OVAs, but so much time had passed it wasn't a seamless transition. It covers most of the remaining story of the manga, when humanity is decimated by the demons, but it failed to adapt the true ending of the manga, instead choosing a more anti-climatic non-ending. The demon battles are well done, but it feels a bit more generic than the other ones. It's also condensing much more material into a shorter run-time so it feels rushed.

DEVILMAN crybaby (2018)

This newest version of Devilman was produced as an original Netflix series, helmed by avant-garde director Masaaki Yuasa (Ping Pong, The Tatami Galaxy, Kaiba). It’s an reinterpretation of the original manga with an entirely new art style as well, though there are still hints of Go Nagai’s iconic character designs.

Devilman is an extremely dark tale full of psychological and existential horror and it was a heavy influence for anime series such as Berserk and Evangelion, both of which deal with similar themes. The story follows Akira Fudo who is a teenager in high school. His mysterious childhood best friend Ryo Asuka returns to Akira’s life to tell him that a race of demons has returned to the earth to take it over and the only way to stop them is for Akira to fuse his body with a demon and gain his powers. Akira thus becomes Devilman, with the body of a demon and the heart of a human. He has to fight the various demons in the city and figure out what their master plan is. However, Akira’s family and eventually all of humanity are in grave danger.

Since this anime was never intended to be shown on broadcast television, it is chock full of uncensored blood, gore, nudity and sexual acts. DEVILMAN crybaby is hardcore and not for the faint of heart, but the extreme content is not just there for shock value as it contributes to the overall narrative. This is a story about how everyone needs to work together to achieve peace (to conquer their literal demons) and that, sometimes, love and goodwill isn’t enough to save the ones you care about.

The world is chaos. The universe is death. Quite frankly, this is one of the most nihilistic and bleakest anime series I have ever seen and every character is put through the maximum amount of suffering. The ending of the manga is one of the most infamous of all time and it was incredibly ballsy of Go Nagai to go that route back then, and the anime interpretation is equally as tragic and beautiful. Though there are some lighthearted moments they are few and far between.
The animation was done by Yuasa’s indie studio and it’s unique looking — a departure from the style of most of the anime on the market right now. It’s deceptively simplistic but the colors, lighting and angles are creative and artistic and the editing for the scenes is clever.

The fight scenes are epic and when it gets hot and heavy it reminds me of Trigger style animation with everything being elastic and distorted. The score by Kensuke Ushio is fantastic, utilizing synthesizers — with a distinctly synthwave flavor — and bombastic choral pieces in equal measure. Everything about this show is top-notch; though, at only ten episodes, it feels a tad rushed pacing wise. I don’t know why they didn’t use the standard 12-13 episode arc but at least there’s no filler. Netflix has a certified hit on their hands as well as an early contender for one of the best anime series of 2018.

--Michelle Kisner