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.
Ryo, it’s revealed, only brought Akira along so that he could be possessed by the demon Amon, perhaps the most powerful of them all. Newly endowed, Akira slaughters all the other demons present. After waking, he finds himself almost entirely changed – harder, faster, stronger and sporting some serious sex appeal. But his empathy remains, allowing him to hang onto his human heart and become something that is neither fully demon nor quite human. He is Devilman.
This potent metaphor perfectly illustrates one of the key critical readings of the Devilman franchise – the demonisation of youth culture. Here we have youthful hedonism erupting in horror and bloodshed, as the drug-takers and revellers morph into mockeries of human beings. Later, after Ryo has revealed the existence of demons to the world and glories in the chaos that follows, paranoia reaches fever pitch. He further stokes the flames by reporting to the masses that anyone can become a demon, and dissatisfaction is the catalyst. This is the zenith of the series’ central metaphor, returning to the generational revolution taking place when the original manga was first published in 1972.
Dissatisfaction is part of the teenage experience, with hormones boiling over and the body undergoing its most significant alteration. During this most caustic time, we are almost strangers in our own skin, so full of anger and the pain of growing up. Part of Akira’s transformation is mirroring the journey of adolescence, both in his uncontrolled rage and newfound feelings, to the massive changes to his body. He even sprouts masses of hair in new places and experiences wet dreams. This dissatisfaction and sense of anger with no place to put it is felt, in one way or another, by all of the series’ teenage characters. Four apparent delinquents act as the Greek chorus for the ten-episode arc with their freestyle raps forming a kind of theatrical narration. Younger still, Miki’s little brother idealises Devilman as a manga and anime hero, as he searches for meaning and attempts to discover his place in the world. But left to his own devices, he too becomes a demon.
As society collapses, Akira makes a stand as Devilman, defending the barely conscious bodies of those believed to be demons from their attackers. His tears fall as he throws his arms wide, ready to endure the agony of humanity’s hate and suspicion, and becomes a martyr as they throw their rocks and bottles. Simultaneously, his best friend, Miki Makimura, is typing an online manifesto, proof of Akira’s human heart. A boy in the angry throng throws down his rock and embraces Akira, followed by another. It quickly becomes apparent that Devilman is the patron saint of young people, and not the barbaric, blood drunk force that bore him.
If it’s the purpose of young people to inherit the earth, then Ryo denies them this rite of passage. After Akira confronts him, Ryo reveals himself to be Satan. There at the beginning of days, the fallen angel has seen the earth ravaged in holy light once before for the fallout of his past transgressions. The generational gap between him and Akira is all of creation. The final battle for the earth sees Akira lead his Devilmen – those demons with human hearts – and all of youth culture behind them, against Satan and his forces, primeval denizens of the planet. As Akira falls to the superior forces, his Devilmen sacrifice their own forms so that he might triumph. But Akira too is bested by Satan, who is left the last living thing on the earth before it is again burned clean by angels.
Youth will always bear the fear and mistrust of older generations, a pressure cooker for the birth of new demons. But there must be horror and destruction before beauty, and so every teenage Devilman will face the dichotomy of Nagai’s tale – whether to collapse under the weight of fear, or push through the pain for the sake of a better world.