Review of Devilman: Crybaby (2018)
Seen in 2020.
Satan is reincarnated as a kid and has his best friend merged with an ancient demon to protect him from the next apocalypse while pretending to be trying to avert disaster through a series of deranged battles against demons.
Made for the 50th anniversy of Nagai Gō’s debut, it’s remarkably faithful to Nagai’s vision. It’s the same pubertal schlock as the comic, with extra gore and T&A for an older target audience.
Bizarrely, this particular adaptation is directed by The Tatami Galaxy’s Yūasa Masaaki, an artist rather than a craftsman. It shows, and it makes the experience worthwhile. The art direction is a weirdly perfect hybrid of Yūasa’s and Nagai’s respective styles: Ugly characters with blocky butts and very little detail. Everything is flat, unshaded, not the dirty expressionism of “Kick-Heart” (2013). Several demons merge with human athletes who adopt a ridiculous running style developed for the static pages of a comic and equally fit for screencapping meme culture. Though superficially mimetic, the style is intentionally alienating, like Tatami Galaxy and high-culture modernism, but it’s trashy in equal measure. A good choice given the weakness of Nagai’s material.
The original Devilman (Devil Man) comics and cartoons exist in the universe of this adaptation. This, too, is alienating. On the other hand, as another crucial paradox, Yūasa adds skillful Japanese rappers who really help set the tone of episodes 3, 4 and 7, and somehow it’s not alienating.
The basic story is nonsense but I like the escalation. When Ryō begins to execute his true plan, the first step is to prove the existence of demons to the public, on streaming video. The vast majority of stories about underdog heroes fighting conspiracies in the modern day either avoid this step completely or have it fail by fiat. Here, it’s done, it works, there is massive public interest in the evidence, suppression fails, the allegation is confirmed and society is reshaped as a result. There’s a even a little one-frame scene of turmoil in the Oval Office. So far so good. Alas, as yet another schlocky plot twist, blowing the bad guys’ cover is all part of the bad guys’ plan.
The latter plot point is part of an effort to build a larger metaphor on top of Nagai’s own primary metaphor of puberty as demonic metamorphosis. It’s supposed to be about prejudice and sympathy, or the awfulness of humankind, but it’s broken by false equivalence. It’s built on the revelation that some of the demons support and love one another, while some people murder the innocent. Furthermore, there’s a scene of primordial pre-apocalyptic demonic life on Earth where both the merging power of the demons and their vicious competition are visually compared to the reign of the non-avian dinosaurs, implying demons are effectively natural life, not necessarily imbued with metaphysical evil. At the same time, Yahweh (here an unnamed off-screen character) is disparaged for being cold and genocidal, which he is in the Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE).
There are implicit parallels with prejudiced police brutality against marginal youth and the oppression of homosexuals and the homeless. However, it is cynical, if not contemptuous, to compare such human behaviours to the way that demonic possession makes Miki’s little brother Tarō eat both a living dog and his own mother, to his own obvious horror and anguish. In my humble opinion, it’s more natural to be upset about one’s children being coerced into cannibalism than to be upset about love. The discrepancy is too large for the naturalistic dinosaur comparison to make sense.
Given the way the apparent message of tolerance collapses into cynicism, the biblical allusions are appropriate. As in Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), most of the religious content is window dressing, but there is at least one unusual quote from the canonical Bible, on the ear of Malchus. Yahweh’s hate and genocidal resets are very much in the canon; it is curious to see Yūasa include them while following the ban on depicting and naming Yahweh. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned with less fidelity, and when Ryō appears to be reading about Satan in a copy of Revelation (ca. 95 CE), his words are not from Revelation. In that scene, the script uses the motif of Satan as a rebel leader at odds with Yahweh. This piece of theology is hugely popular in Christianity and was already popular at Qumran in the first century BCE, but it’s not in The Bible. Using a satan named Mastema, not “Satan”, it appears in Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE), which did not make the cut.
I interpret some of the final scenes as allusions to NGE itself: Bolts of lightning take the place of Rei’s cross-shaped lights in one cut of animation, and Satan receiving his final revelation with Akira by the shore of a red sea before the world is reset resembles Shinji with Asuka by the sea of LCL after the world is reset.
At the height of the panic deliberately triggered by Ryō, people commit suicide on the street in some very bleak images of Japan reduced to the level of a war-torn country. There are troops and ignorant, corrupt vigilantes on patrol, as well as religious firebrands and psychotics. This aspect of the escalation is impressively intimate for a superhero fantasy, even more so than the brutal invasion of NERV in NGE. As usual in Japanese dystopias, it is accompanied by the threat of US armed forces, here under demonic control and eager to send up their nukes.
In conclusion, Devilman: Crybaby is a charming mixture of old schlock and bold creative control, with the weaknesses of both.