Synopsis: Akira Fudo’s life is forever changed when he finds himself reunited with his childhood friend, Ryo Asuka and taken to an underground party called a Sabbath in the hopes of summoning a devil. After getting possessed by one of these devils himself, Akira finds himself with a powerful new body, but still manages to retain his human heart. Now living as a “Devilman”, Akira works with Ryo to hunt down other devils, and to keep their existence from being exposed by society at large, but can there really be such as thing as a demon with a heart?
It’s been a couple of years since Netflix first announced their intent to add their own exclusive anime to the service, and the first of these has finally arrived in the form of Devilman Crybaby. Crybaby serves as a brand new adaption of Go Nagai’s classic Devilman manga, and one brought to life through critically acclaimed director Masaaki Yuasa, who has brought us such works as The Tatami Galaxy (still waiting on a physical release there, Funimation) and Ping Pong the Animation. Go Nagai is unquestionably one of the most influential manga authors to have ever been in the industry, and Yuasa has consistently been one of the most visually creative directors I’ve seen in anime, so needless to say that I was pretty eager to check this out. What I ultimately walked away with though, was an experience that both for better and for worse, was one I certainly won’t forget.
While I’ve ever actually had the opportunity to read the original Devilman manga, much less any of Go Nagai’s works in general, I do know that he’s had an almost infamous reputation for graphic content, and it certainly shows in this series. Right out of the gate, the show is an unapologetic storm of crazy ultra violence, and equally insane sexual imagery that feels more akin to a late 90’s OVA, than a modern anime production. Whereas it would normally be expected for Yuasa to tone down some of this material to make it more palpable for modern audiences, he instead chooses to do the exact opposite. Yuasa fully embraces the overly sexual nature of Nagai’s work to the point where he actually ramps up its intensity, and the result is equal parts fascinating, and understandably overwhelming. Make no mistake: this series is about as hard of an R-rating as it gets, and its easy to see how Netflix was an ideal platform for this project, because there’s absolutely no way it would have made it onto Japanese television as is. What keeps all of this from coming off as cheap shock value however, is that much of this imagery is framed as horrific and savage, rather than cool or stimulating, and that framing ultimately has a clear purpose, as it gradually becomes apparent that the series has quite a lot to say, underneath it all.
The show’s first few episodes are its most straightforward, as Akira finds himself transformed into a demon, and works with Ryo to both fight off other demons they come across, and to keep any involvement with them secret. As it progresses further though and we’re given more time to spend with the rest of the show’s cast, it begins to show an almost surprising amount of humanity. Some of it’s strongest examples come in the form of a Miko Kawamoto, a girl whose spent almost her entirely life hiding in the shadow of her friend Miki, and wants to be acknowledged by both her and the rest of the world as her own person, or a group of young rappers who are generally viewed as troublemakers based purely on their appearance. The show does it’s best to make you empathize with these characters and ends up placing a lot of importance on the power of empathy itself, arguing that underneath our individual differences, we are all capable of love, and that love should propel us to reach out and care for each other.
And then, as the show heads into its final act, and the existence of demons is exposed to humanity at large, that argument begins to shift. Hatred and discrimination quickly takes over, and while the importance of empathizing with each other remains as significant as ever, those voices of hope quickly die out in the face of overwhelming violence and cruelty. All of this ends up resulting in an ending so bleak that it’s hard not to walk away from it feeling uncomfortable, and Go Nagai’s ultimate message here seems to be that humanity will never be capable of placing love over hatred until the latter destroys us. As someone who does generally believe that the ability to love and empathize with each other can over come our baser tendencies, I certainly can’t bring myself to agree with this view point, but the presentation here is effective enough that if nothing else, I can at least respect it.
As I said before, Masaaki Yuasa, is one of the most visually inventive directors in anime and his aesthetic is all over this show, but his style can be a little polarizing to general audiences. The production by his studio Science Saru, provides a mix of 2D and flash animation, that manages to deliver on some impressive looking cuts, while combining them with his signature flat art style, giving the series a distinctive look, that while slightly goofy at times, generally helps in selling the show’s graphic imagery. Kensuke Ushio’s soundtrack for the series is equally impressive, as its mix of orchestral and techno music gives the series a sound that matches it’s 90’s OVA aesthetic, and the decision to include a few pieces of Japanese rap, not only helps to make the show feel more unique but allows it to better express its ideas. However the real crowner for the show’s music definitely has to go to it’s opening theme, “MAN HUMAN” by Denki Groove, an instrumental piece that manages to be equal parts catchy and haunting, and never fails to set the mood for the series’ heavier moments (even if Netflix’s autoplay feature insists on making you skip it).
The english dub for the series was handled by SDI Media, and it serves as a pretty good match for the material. Despite being a couple of octaves higher than Kouki Uchiyama’s performance, Griffin Burns is a solid match for the overly empathetic Akira, while Kyle McCarley makes for an equally impressive Ryo, making every ounce of the character’s twisted attitude a delight to listen to, and allowing the two performances play off of each other pretty well. The rest of the cast is also pretty solid, with some standout performances from Doug Erholtz as the sleazy reporter Nagasaki, and Cindy Robinson as the temptress, Silene, with the only major outliers being Dorthy Fahn as Taro, and Anne Yatco as Miki’s mother, as both sound a little too much on the stiff side. It’s hampered down a little by some multicasting for a lot of the bit parts, but all in all, if you’re looking to check out the show in English, you should be in for a good time.
Even with Yuasa’s general track record when it comes to interesting content, I was still pretty amazed at just how much was packed into this, and it made for one heck of a wild ride. While the show’s conclusion might have been a little too nihilistic for me, there’s no denying it’s powerful, and while I may have came in expecting mostly just violence and sex, what I walked away with was a much more human story than I could have possibly imagined. Devilman Crybaby is not an easy show to watch, both for it’s graphic content and its final moments, but it is undeniably a work of passion, and that passion shows. From it’s incredible direction, to the heavy hitting nature of the material itself, this show was quite an experience, and while it left me with a lot of mixed emotions, it’s one I’m ultimately glad I saw through to the end.
Available for streaming on Netflix