Devilman Crybaby - Go Nagai, Netflix, 2018
Devilman - The apocalypse by Go Nagai
Here is a new category of articles that I have been craving for some time and which will allow me to publish a little more regularly. Here, we will talk about some works that have been outstanding at least for some time or whose cultural content is important.
In short, we are going to get out of the heavy files to enter into reviews of works in particular, all media combined. And to start we willopen the ball with a classic of manga history little known outside of Japan: Devilman.
First, let's introduce the author to better understand the context of its creation.
Go Nagai, born in 1945, is a prolific mangaka (manga author) whose career began in 1967 and who created a number of works that have had a considerable influence on their release and even more in the long term.
Among his masterworks we can notably mention Cutie Honey (1973), Mazinger Z (1972) and his various spin-offs including the UFO Robot Grendizer series (1975).
His first hit was also one of the first for the young magazine Shonen Jump in 1968, now the undisputed champion of manga's biggest hits. Harenchi Gakuen was already a comedic but engaged criticism of the education milieu presenting a heroine far from the models of discreet and personalityless girls presented at the time. His positions earned him fierce criticism from all quarters, especially because the magazine was aimed at a teenage audience that he was accused of corrupting.
In this context where these hateful reviews gave the young mangaka permanent nightmares, he decided to orient his following work for an adult audience where he could denounce the dark and violent side of society and its constant need to find a culprit.
This is how his most successful work according to him (and still recently ranked in Japan in the top five of the most iconic manga in history), appeared in 1972 under the name Devilman.
Initially, it was an animated adaptation of Nagai's previous work, Mao Dante (or Dante the Lord of Demons) loosely inspired by Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy (which we'll obviously talk about in more detail one day).
Since the animated adaptations are generally less dark than the original works, animation studio Toei asked Go Nagai to rework his script to suit a larger audience, including making its main protagonist more physically human. The final version was so altered from the initial work that it was renamed Devilman and Go Nagai started drawing this new work again, the first chapter of which appeared a month before the first episode was first broadcast (out of 39).
Once again darker and more mature than the animated version from which it came, the five volumes that make up the series are the real idea that Go Nagai wanted to infuse into his work, namely a violent anti-war plea.
The story revolves around Akria Fudo and his best friend Ryo Asuka. Akira is a weak and whiny high school student who is nicknamed "crybaby" so much he withdraws when he face the slightest conflict. But his life will change in a few hours when his childhood friend resurfaces to reveal to him the secret discovered by his archaeologist father: the first race who have populated the Earth, the devils and demons, resurface after millennia of sleep to regain its domination of the planet by merging with all life.
The two teenagers have no choice, to avoid being destroyed by monsters who know they have discovered the plot, they will have to merge themselves with demons in the hope that their will and their sense of justice will allow them to surpass the will of the monsters by borrowing only their powers to turn them against their congeners.
If Ryo will ultimately not be possessed by any demon, Akira will obtain the strength and powers of Amon, a mighty warrior feared among his fellows. He will then be able to unleash all his power against the armies of demons who will try to destroy him at the same time as humanity.
He just accepted to become the worst of all in order to have a chance to win against evil.
To fully comprehend the message of the work, it is necessarily necessary to talk about the end so those wishing to discover it are invited to skip the next two paragraphs, because we are going to quickly summarize it.
From the start of his possession, Akira discovers the pleasure linked to his new overwhelming power and his passion for combat is more and more pressing. After many clashes to protect humanity, his violent nature becomes difficult to control despite the many traces of "humanity" he witnesses in his enemies.
For his part, Ryo ultimately discovers that his true identity is none other than Satan, a fallen angel for having opposed God when he decided to destroy the demons he had not foreseen in his creation... Satan had therefore modified his own memory to believe that he was himself human in order to live among them and thus discover their weak point. In doing so, he fell in love with Akira, but nonetheless decides to annihilate humanity so that the demons can survive. In fact, in the fight that opposes them to God, they have merely struggled for their survival. But now he knows that the end of humans will come from within, because he has seen how easily they can be manipulated to tear each other apart without the slightest remorse.
Akira, meanwhile, finds it increasingly difficult to understand why he sacrificed everything to protect the humans who disappoint him a little more every day. Indeed, the appearance of demons gradually establishes a general paranoia in humans, which leads to the creation of an inquisition ready to do anything to find monsters.
The turning point comes when Ryo decides to reveal Devilman's identity to the world by airing a video of Akira's transformation on television. Seized with panic fear and in search of a scapegoat, a raging mob sets out in search of the family that shelters Akira and his closest friend, considered to be "the witch" who allowed the demons to manifest.
Far from it, Akira seeks his old friend to understand why he revealed his identity to the whole world, but he will instead witness some humans who preferred to collaborate without remorse with demons rather than trying to oppose them. While Akira tried to keep his human soul in a demon body, others became demons with a human appearance.
On his way home, Akira find all his relatives murdered, lynched by a crowd of fanatics. He has no longer any other reason to fight than a vengeful crusade directed against his old friend.
The end point of the story takes place twenty years later, when humanity has vanished, tearing itself apart, and the final battle begins between the demons led by Satan and the Devilmen led by Akira.
The manga ends at the end of the apocalyptic battle when the archangels appear on the horizon and Satan weeps over the lifeless body of his lost love.
Go Nagai grew up in post-war Japan traumatized by its material, health and cultural consequences. We will come back to this in detail (probably speaking of Rainbow and/or Ashita no Joe) but it is clear that these conditions marked the spirits and many anti-war voices were finally able to be heard after 1945 in a country that was, until then, ultra-nationalist and belligerent. In addition, at that time, the Vietnam War was raging, the world was horrified by the photos revealing the intensity of the fighting and, even more, the scale of the war crimes committed by both sides.
Devilman's story is simple and the message clear: No matter how good the intentions are, using force to fight force doesn't work and most often loses whoever uses it.
This message will often come back in Asian works of the 70s and 80s, especially in the Hong Kong movie starring Bruce Lee Fist of Fury (1972). Readapted with Jackie Chan (1976) then with Jet Li (1994). In this film, the Chinese hero fiercely opposes the tyrannical Japanese invader (very nice euphemism) during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), to show the country's despair. However, the hero dies voluntarily (in the original version) at the end to not legitimize the cold violence he has shown by going unpunished.
Visually, Devilman is directly inspired by Gustave Doré's illustrations for The Divine Comedy mixed with prints of Japanese demons. If his characters are vestiges of the first mangas inspired by Walt Disney's short films, his eerie illustrations mark a turning point in manga history by showing a disturbing and sometimes extremely raw imagery that marks the reader in his disgust for violence.
After the first pages, no more fun. The author considers his work to be a form of horror story illustrating the slow descent into hell of a deeply good and empathetic young man. Violence is never glorified, it is deeply disturbing and the "hero" is presented as the embodiment of absolute violence in combat, to such an extent that the demons he faces appear to us, on the contrary, as the vestiges of a form of innocence doomed to disappear.
For the record, Go Nagai was extremely surprised when he realized the selling numbers of his life's work did not keep pace with his other light tales of robots like Mazinger Z that he had created above all to take a break from his dark Devilman vibe.
But fortunately, his message still marked many Japanese and his visual universe will be found in many works that will follow it. We could cite a number of works openly inspired by it and revisiting the end of the world (Neon Genesis Evangelion) or the different visions of the hero fighting against his demonic nature while he navigates between the forces of "good" or "evil", which can be as extreme as the other (Zetman, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta ...) but one of his most obvious successors will change the face of fantasy in Japan: Berserk.
An icon in Japan, Devilman has since appeared in countless sequels, special episodes, and video game adaptations when not used as an antagonist in other franchises. A new animated series has recently seen the light of day on Netflix: Devilman Crybaby.
If Devilman has aged in his narration of the first volumes and in its graphic style, it remains an outstanding work in the history of manga with a perfectly controlled dramatic and horrific descent into hell as well as a theme that will unfortunately surely always remain relevant.
"There is no justice in war, no war, nor is there any justification for one human being to kill another."
Caleb Hyles - Devilman no Uta.
Original 1972's theme reinterpreted for Devilman Crybaby and, here, adapted in English.