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 ever-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.