If at any time the human race is invaded, permeated or otherwise undone by exterior forces, it’s likely that the threat already exists from within. Whether that’s for observation, reconnaissance or a simple prelude to invasion, who could say, but this unseen enemy is a blank canvas, allowing respective societies to project their own fears onto them. The plot of DEVILMAN crybaby hinges on enemies hidden within plain sight and, deeper still, inside the troubled heart of humankind.
The principal antagonist of the series is generational, specifically youth culture. Simply embracing teenage life as we understand it in the west is countercultural in Japan, a country with a conservative social agenda, and cultural norms which favour the wellbeing of the masses over the individual. To understand this in the context of DEVILMAN, we first need to go back four decades to when Go Nagai’s influential manga first appeared.
In the seventies, Japan was on an upward curve. Following the end of World War II, American forces were stationed in the land of the rising sun, bringing democracy and economic prosperity at the end of a loaded gun. The culmination of the conflict put a fiery full stop to the Showa era and ushered in the nation’s current political epoch. By 1951, the American forces had predominantly pulled out, leaving Japan an independent state, and by the seventies there was something stirring in the nation’s youth.
The seventies saw young people in Japan embracing a sense of communal solidarity for the first time, setting themselves apart from their elders. It also marked the beginnings of street fashion in Japan; something we might take for granted in Britain or the US, but was revolutionary. More important still was the political shift taking place, with young people shunning the social and political values of their forebears and searching for new meaning. This generational divide was at odds with the status quo and group-mentality, creating strife between teens and their parents. As with rock ‘n’ rollers in the US and the punk movement here in the UK, this manifested as fear and moral panic, and suddenly the enemy hidden in plain sight – the ‘demons’ – were young people. After all, it’s teenager Ryo Asuka in the Devilman manga who reveals himself to be Satan.
DEVILMAN crybaby is a revisionist retelling of Nagai’s manga, offering an avant garde malaise of beauty, viscera and socio-political commentary. Crucially, it retains the fear of the young, the generational divide and the paranoia of an enemy unseen living among us. Demons exist, and Ryo, a teenage prodigy and professor, has proof. At least, that’s what he tells the titular crybaby, Akira Fudo.
Dissatisfaction clings to Akira, with his middling athletic ability, unrequited crush and his absent parents. But it’s not for himself he weeps, instead he cries for others, with such an inner empathy it borders on the profound. The two teens, always at odds with each other, were childhood friends, recently reunited. Upon his return from the Amazon, Ryo reveals he has first-hand experience of demons which, he says, are primeval creatures with xenomorphic abilities. It isn’t limited to South America, with the world a stage for demons, always on the periphery, a dirty secret which world leaders hope to keep from the public. Ryo, however, has other plans and drags Akira along with him to expose them.
They attend a local night club called Sabbath – a hedonistic hot bed of bare flesh and narcotics, a technicolour orgy which Akira finds himself an unwilling participant. With a pill forced down his throat, and Ryo bizarrely beginning to cut and slash everyone in sight with a broken bottle, Akira transforms. Blood in the air brings the demons to the surface, and here flesh loses all definition, bursting into a grotesquery of bulbous skin, limbs and hungry mouths savagely tearing and ripping at one another.