If you’ve spent any time reading about animé you will have come across the name “Osamu Tezuka”, almost certainly accompanied by the phrase “Godfather of animé/manga”. And that’s true, as far as it goes. Tezuka absolutely kickstarted post-war animé as a genre. But…it kinda feels like we’re missing something, doesn’t it? How exactly did we get from this:
Well to understand that we need to talk about the other godfather of manga and animé. For Osamu Tezuka created animé as a beautiful, innocent garden. But into that garden, there came a serpent. There came Go Nagai.
Hired as a writer and illustrator for Weekly Shonen Jump in 1968, Nagai became an instant cultural lightning rod and enfant terrible of manga with his series Harenchi Gakuen. An erotic comedy set in a school, the series attracted massive controversy in Japan (damn prudes!) with its boundary smashing depictions of nudity and sexuality in a comic ostensibly aimed at children (sometimes have a point!). Nagai’s entire career has been one long game of seeing what he can get away with. His work is categorised by coarse humour, extreme violence, body horror and a pessimism often bordering on nihilism.
Also, Nagai is notorious for a, shall we say, somewhat cavalier attitude to the ethics of depicting sexual assault against women. To put it another way, much of his work is rapier than a full orchestral production of Blurred Lines at the Global Fencing Championships. Shit. Gets. Messed. Up. And his influence cannot be overstated. If you’ve ever watched some disreputable animé late at night and found yourself wondering…why?
Go Nagai. Go Nagai is why.
Go Nagai is why so much of animé is so violent, so weirdly horny and frequently so goddamned awesome. It’s a…complex legacy, to be sure. And much of Nagai’s work is definitely not for me. But he also blazed a trail that was followed by many of the most important and respected creators in the medium, like Katsuhiro Otome and even (I would argue) Miyazaki.
Now, the most important part of Nagai’s oeuvre is the massive Devilman franchise, a constellation of manga, animé adaptations, remakes and spin-offs. There’s a lot of overlap and differences between the various iterations but it usually goes like this; Akira Fudo is an ordinary Japanese schoolkid who gets recruited (or sometimes just duped) by his childhood friend Ryo Asuka into a war to protect humankind from demons. In order to do this, Ryo has Akira become possessed by an ancient warrior demon named Amon to fight other demons. Akira then becomes a superhero named “Devilman” (pronounced “DEEEEEEVILMAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNN!!!!”). From there, the story usually proceeds through a few monster of the week episodes with certain series-standard demons appearing to get the every-loving demonic shit kicked out of them before taking a sharp left turn with humanity becoming aware of the existence of demons whereupon things get fucking dark.
Very violent. Very horny. Not for everyone. Go Nagai.
Now, there have been several animé adaptations of the original 1972 manga. There was the ridiculously toned down seventies Toei series which was kinda like if The Human Centipede was remade as a Saturday Morning Cartoon about a bunch of people who change into a giant centipede to fight baddies through the power of friendship. Then there was the far more faithful (and pretty damn kickass) OVA in the eighties, a couple of other OVAs in the nineties and early aughts and finally the subject of today’s review Devilman Crybaby, a mini series created by Science SARU for Netflix. Now, one of the reasons I pushed this review back to Halloween (other than just to have a horror themed review for Halloween) was that I knew nothing about this franchise and had a suspicion I would need the extra prep time. And I’m glad I did. Devilman Crybaby was an absolute juggernaut when it was released, becoming one of the most watched and successful animé series in years with a rabid fanbase. The kind of thing you really need to research and read up on before you come out with something like “I watched it and I didn’t really care for it”.
Anyway. I watched it.
Obligatory “no I’m not doing a point by point recap of ten episodes of intricately plotted animé”. I’m just going to make some broad strokes observations.
Okay, my first big, pretty much insurmountable problem is the animation. Particularly in any scene with the demons. With a few exceptions the demons in Crybaby just look like absolute dogshit. Crudely animated and unimaginatively designed.
For fuck’s sake, Adventure Time, a show with a deliberately simple and cutesy art-style, has scarier, more detailed demons.
I always find the argument “we did it this way deliberately as an artistic choice and it just coincidentally happens to be cheaper and easier to animate” to be less than convincing. But sure, it’s absolutely possible that this was a deliberate choice. Actually, the fact that the demon scenes are so much worse than the rest of the series animation-wise lends credence to that. But here’s the thing, even if it was a deliberate choice? Sometimes choices are bad.
Deliberately making an unfunny sitcom? Bad choice. Casting Mark Wahlberg as a scientist? Bad choice. And making an adaptation of a series famous for body horror and skimping on the detail? Bad choice. There are many horror sub-genres that benefit from a “less is more” approach. Body horror is not one of them. Body horror demands detail. With body horror, it’s go moist, squishy and disgustingly explicit or go home. Compare the designs above with these designs from the 1987 OVA.
Here is the demon turtle Jinmen in the eighties OVA:
And here he is in Crybaby:
I’m sorry, one of these creative teams is clearly earning their paycheck and it ain’t “the greatest animé of 2018”. Okay, well what about the rest of it? The human-centric scenes, those are great, right?
It’s definitely not as flat-out bad (in my opinion) as the demon stuff but I’d be lying if I said I liked this. There’s next to no variation in line thickness on the models and they come across as kinda flat. I get very little sense of weight and solidity when these characters move. More a personal thing, but sorry, I just don’t jive with this show’s animation in general.
Okay, well, to hell with the aesthetics. A good story’s a good story as long as the writing is…
Alright, let me be fair.
The dialogue (in the English dub at least) is mostly portentous and overly expository when it is not being aggressively dumb. Ryo has a line where he claims that humanity is weaker than the “vast majority of the animal kingdom”. And it’s not immediately followed by someone smacking him upside the head for saying something so OBVIOUSLY AND DEMONSTRABLY FALSE.
However, the Japanese subbed version is MUCH better in this regard (and, honestly, the performances are lightyears ahead too).
But there is still an overarching issue with both versions in that they have a real problem with portraying believable human beings. Look, there are plenty of awful protagonists out there. Cersei Lannister, Walter White, Tony Soprano. But audiences find these people compelling because their actions, while deplorable, stem from motivations that are understandable and, more importantly, clear. It’s fine to have a main character do awful shit, as long as the audience finds it perfectly comprehensible why that awful shit is being done. Devilman Crybaby has a real problem with this. Sometimes it comes from being overly faithful to the source material. For example, the first time Ryo sees Akira since their childhood, Akira is being hassled by some bullies. Ryo then opens fire with a frickin’ machine gun and Akira gets in the car with him and they drive off. Later, Akira is possessed by a demon after Ryo used him as bait and he isn’t angry or upset at this betrayal in any way. Now, both of these elements were present in the original manga…and they were screwy there too. Interestingly, both these points were changed in the eighties OVA (okay, I’ll shut up about it now but it’s up on YouTube and you really should check it out).
Or take this scene for example:
Very famous image. Probably the most iconic shot of this whole series. But here’s what’s happening in this scene. Ryo and Akira have broken into the penthouse of a skeezy photographer who is actually a water demon to rescue Miki, the daughter of the couple that Akira is living with and Akira’s love interest. Akira saves Miki and is holding her unconscious (and naked, obviously) body when Ryo pulls a gun and says that he has to shoot Miki because she knows too much. So Akira charges directly at Ryo while holding Miki’s body and headbutts Ryo so that both their heads start bleeding. And they just growl at each other, with Ryo not doing anything even though he could literally just shoot Miki because Akira brought her into point blank range.
Sure, it’s metal as fuck but these characters’ actions don’t have any correlation to their goals as understood by the audience. Akira doesn’t want Ryo to shoot Miki, so why would he bring her closer to him? Ryo wants to shoot Miki, and very easily could, but he doesn’t.
This all speaks to a larger problem with the series. These characters don’t act consistently and believably, so it’s hard for me to empathise with them as anything other than fictional constructs. Why do Akira and Ryo butt heads until they bleed? Because they’re cartoon characters and it looks badass.
And this becomes a big problem later on when we get to the “shit gets fucking dark” portion of the story. And look, I don’t want to spoil it but…well, let’s just say Devilman Crybaby lives up to the standards for dark horror that this franchise prides itself on. I mean to be honest, it kinda smashes it. Virtually every named character suffers some unbelievably messed up shit. And you know what I felt?
I did not care for these characters in the slightest and when the time came for them to meet their ultimate fates it just felt cheap and ugly and try hard. I just wanted the whole thing over with.
So. Okay, I gotta have some positives, right? Sure I do.
I like the new Devilman design.
I like how lithe and lanky it is, it’s cool.
Some of the ways the animé updates the story is very clever. It puts a focus on social media and how it turns us into metaphorical and (in the cartoon) literal demons. The idea that human beings knowing for a fact that demons were real would be more dangerous and destructive than humans would ever be? That stuff works very well. The final few episodes do succeed in generating a real sense of escalating menace as the world starts to tear itself apart through paranoia and hatred. I got serious Second Renaissance vibes and I don’t say that lightly.
But, even during those high points, I was still thinking “Man. This looks like ass.”
So unfortunately, that’s my final thought on the matter.
Devilman Crybaby. It looks like ass.
Varies wildly from “not my cup of tea” to “who shit in this cup of tea”?
What an odd young man.
Man, I was so invested in his devious scheme to apparently TALK THE WORLD TO DEATH.
Supporting Characters: 04/20
It’s all so so tragic.
Oh, I found something else to be positive about. The music by Kensuke Ushio. Is. The. Frickin’. Tops.
Listen to this. Wait for the drop.
Get a mop.
FINAL SCORE: 40%
NEXT UPDATE: 11 November 2022
NEXT TIME: Come and see what happened when the Chipmunks hit their hair metal phase as we kick off NOVEMBER, THE MONTH OF ROCK!!