(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)
It isn’t controversial to say 2020 has been a hellish year, and you don’t need us to explain why. But given all the awful things that have and continue to happen this year, it finally felt like the right time to explore Netflix’s first anime masterpiece on this column. This is the show that put the streaming giant on the anime community’s map as not only an acquirer of great shows, but as a powerhouse producer that allows for some of the boldest and most innovative anime shows around: Masaaki Yuasa’s Devilman Crybaby.
Based on the popular Devilman franchise from the ’70s created by Go Nagai, the father of the super robot genre, the show follows Akida Fudo’s journey from brooding teenage boy, to brooding half-demon. After his best friend Ryo shows up one day talking about how demons exist and want to destroy mankind, he takes Akira to a rave where he stabs a number of people in order to attract a demon to possess Akira and lend him its powers. But since Akira still has the heart of a sensitive and empathetic human, but the body of a demon, a “Devilman” is born.
What starts as a monster-of-the-week show –where Akira finds and kills a new demon that’s wreaking havoc – quickly evolves into a bleak exploration of bigotry, hate, humanity, and love, as the fear of the “other” causes the whole world to go insanely violent to the point of near extinction due to panic and bigotry. You know, complete fantasy. This show is bleak, and also very much NSFW, so be warned. Though Devilman Crybaby won’t be for everyone, if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best works of animation of the past decade.
What Makes It Great
One name: Masaaki Yuasa. We’ve written about the anime creator before, but he’s such a singular creative force, which makes his retirement all the more tragic. Working off a script by Ichiro Okouchi (known for the equally bleak series Code Geass), Yuasa combines the story’s inherent graphic violence and sex with his signature frenetic, freeform animation style. The result is a show that’s over-the-top while still incredibly gritty, and the personification of “edgy” anime (but in a good way). Though not strictly a scary anime, Devilman Crybaby is definitely horror. There are many grotesque demons, and many sequences of disturbing imagery that make western horror films look tame. The fight scenes, when animated with Yuasa’s animation style, feel like the show holding a mirror to the audience and making them confront their own ideas about violence, making them think about when a fight scene becomes too much to bear.
Then there’s the music. One of the biggest changes Yuasa makes to the original story is that he takes regular delinquents who bullied Akira in the manga and substitutes them with rappers that serve as sort of narrators throughout the show. Yuasa reportedly considered rappers to be the most open of artists, speaking of what’s on their minds no matter what, so he incorporates the raps into the story and gives added importance to these characters. Likewise, Kensuke Ushio’s score gives the show an added layer of personality, as the tracks perfectly reflect the emotion that Akira is going through at any given moment. Ushio’s score ranges from the epic and orchestral, to pounding synthwave that brings to mind video games like Hotline Miami, to heartbreaking ballads that pull at your heart strings.
And yet, no matter how disturbing or messed-up the show gets — and it’s very disturbing and messed-up — it all serves a purpose. The show is all about excess and depravity, showing the inner beast inside every person and whether or not we let it out. It’s no wonder that the main characters are teenagers, and that Akira’s transformation into a demon changes his entire body and personality, reflecting him going through puberty.
Still, all of this is to serve the characters, and beneath all the sex and the gore lies a hauntingly beautiful story of love and friendship. There is a lot of death in the show, but it only works because we know and care about Akira and Ryo’s friendship, or Miki’s family. This latter part especially will break your heart into tiny little pieces.
What It Adds to the Conversation
We mentioned last time that Demon Slayer was part of a new wave of shonen protagonists that aren’t afraid to show their emotions and share their empathy, but Devilman Crybaby takes that subtext and makes it text. The “crybaby” part of the title comes from a small, throwaway line in the original manga referring to its protagonist, but Yuasa turns that into Akira’s entire personality trait. Akira is constantly crying on screen, not just because he’s sad for what’s happening, or out of some identity and self-worth crisis. Like Tanjiro in Demon Slayer, Akira cries for other people, including his enemies.
This becomes the show’s central theme as the second half of the season becomes all about empathy and how the lack thereof destroys our humanity. As the existence of demons becomes widespread, the fear and alienation causes humans to behave violently. Where the original Devilman was an unapologetic anti-war story, Yuasa’s new adaptation is more about bigotry and otherness, whether based on gender, sexual orientation, or simply “acting out of the ordinary.” One of the main characters, Miki, gets bullied and eventually attacked for simply having eyes of a different color than most and for being biracial. Yuasa often adds diversity to his shows in ways that reflect modern Japan better than most other anime, with immigrants and biracial characters often populating his shows. Likewise, the way demons are treated in Devilman Crybaby is a not-so-subtle allegory for queerness, as we see a man say “you’re no longer my sweet son” before pointing a gun at his young boy after he became a demon, or how a man posts on social media that “I told my wife that I’m a devilman.”
The show’s ending is one of the boldest choices in anime since End of Evangelion, which is fitting given how the final episode of Devilman Crybaby evokes a lot of the same imagery from the Third Impact scene in Hideaki Anno’s film, and how Anno was inspired by the original Devilman when he made Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out
This show is definitely a lot, and its depictions of graphic violence and sex won’t be for everyone. But if you’re okay with the show’s levels of debauchery, you’ll experience a masterpiece that manages to make you excited for the new round of dismemberment, while also making you dread what’s coming. Sure, it’s message may be a bit heavy-handed and boils down to the same message as Paddington, but damn if we don’t need another “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right” right now. Devilman Crybaby may be as grotesque and bleak as 2020, but it does show some light at the end of the tunnel, or at least a warning that we shouldn’t let things get worse.
If nothing else, the show is a pretty darn good excuse to listen to one of the most banger soundtracks in recent years.
Watch This If You Like: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Berserk, Fullmetal Alchemist, Demon Slayer.
Devilman Crybaby is streaming on Netflix.
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