Devilman Crybaby—It’s Really Good*

The following contains minor spoilers for Netflix’s original anime series Devilman Crybaby

Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Studio: Science Saru
Release: January 2018
Episodes: 10

There’s a moment in the fifth episode of Devilman Crybaby where, when fighting a demon woman named Silene, Devilman yells, “If you want to get fucked that badly, I’ll fuck you!” He then tears off one of the wings growing out of her head, then launches them both into the air.

While spinning wildly through the air, they bite and claw at each other, both of them bleeding profusely and Silene screaming and growling in anguish. She screams, “Damn you!” furiously as Devilman undulates into her, before another demon intervenes and they fall to the ground.

This is scene illustrates one of the more troubling aspects of Devilman Crybaby—the pervasive violence and sexuality occasionally overlap to upsetting results.

Devilman Crybaby is a modern adaptation on the 1970s manga Devilman. Akira Fudo is a timid, average high schooler whose childhood friend, Ryo, wants to prove to him the existence of demons. Together they attend an orgy called the Sabbath, where demons begin to overtake the bodies of the people in attendance, resulting in a violent bloodbath. A demon named Amon attempts to take over Akira’s body, but instead they merge, making Akira a devil in body but a man in soul—Devilman.

After becoming Devilman, Akira’s body goes through a jarring transformation, which most people notice but are weirdly blasé about. His voice drops, he becomes taller and more muscular, his appetite explodes. Previously the worst runner on the track team, he suddenly excels. He becomes incredibly popular with the girls at his high school—there’s even a hilariously uncomfortable shot where a bunch of girls stare at Akira’s junk in his running shorts.

Akira’s transformation into Devilman affects most acutely his relationship with Miki. Miki’s parents let Akira live with them while Akira’s parents work overseas, and Miki is their teenage daughter. Miki is part love interest (and a few other characters) and part Akira’s surrogate sister. Miki, as the plucky, beautiful, idealistic girl character actually has some refreshing moments. The camera doesn’t take her nearly as seriously as the narrative does, and she fronts one of the most impressive sequences in the show in episode nine. Akira can’t tell her about becoming Devilman, nor can he put into words the repressed desire for her he grapples with, and so their relationship becomes strained.

Devilman Crybaby is, in a lot of ways, a show about puberty—specifically the main characters trying to understand their pubescent desires. The show is unbelievably sexual, showing just about everything it can except actual genitals (though there is phallic imagery abound). Full-frontal female nudity, tits galore, a god-forsaken orgy (literally), female masturbation (more than once), wet dreams, and a sequence of sex between two men which I so did not expect, I was impressed. I don’t think I’ve ever—ever—seen a mainstream anime that even implied sex between two men, let alone showed it.  Even Yuri on Ice!!!, with it’s revolutionary kiss between Viktor and Yuuri, is PG. While the erotic subtext is there, the relationship is chaste. Not to say that Devilman Crybaby is a paragon of LGBTQ+ representation, but the prevalence and explicit nature of its homoeroticism within most of the main cast is noteworthy.

As a viewer and reader, I prefer sex to gore any day of the week, so a lot of the violence in Devilman Crybaby was too much for me. Because while it is a show about desire and growing up, it’s also a show about tragedy, sacrifice, and empathy. Akira becomes Devilman, a terrifying, detestable demon, so that he can save people. “Akira always cries for other people,” Miki says. Akira retains his humanity despite his demonic body by empathizing with other peoples’ suffering and trying desperately to save those in danger.

But to show his sorrow, his crybaby side, they must show the suffering, and like with sex, the show does not hold back. Episodes four and nine have some key sequences that were almost too much to watch. And what I grapple with in Devilman Crybaby is surprisingly similar to what bothered me about mother! The violence—be it the monster of the week-style episodes of the first half of the series or the Lord of the Flies societal collapse of the last—is gory, tragic, and cyclical. It’s tragedy after tragedy for Akira, and it doesn’t leave much room for hope.

Beyond that, the exploitative nature of the violence is hard to reconcile. In a later episode, a group of men corner Miki while she’s walking alone, and it is implied they are going to attack or rape her. In that moment, she hopes for Akira to come save her. How does this coexist with the fight with—and sexual violence towards—Silene?

It’s a troubling contradiction, and it’s why there’s an asterisk in the title. “Good” requires a footnote, because this show, while it has obvious merits and truly powerful emotional storytelling, also has a darkness to it.

Stepping back a bit, visually the show is consistently arresting, though the quality has some moments. Personally, I’m not too bothered by seeing budget or time constraints in animating the static scenes, where characters are just sitting and talking or thinking. The setpiece fights in Devilman Crybaby were incredible across the board, and the style of character animation was distinct. The director worked previously on Ping Pong: The Animation, one of the most stylish shows ever, and you can see that style here as well. It also had a couple interesting moments of camerawork during dialogue early on at school. There was just a pan where I didn’t expect to see it, and it impressed me.

Briefly, I really enjoyed the show’s music. I like the opening theme a lot, and there are a couple raps in the show that were awesome.

I will also say that pacing- and explaining-wise, the show leaves something to be desired. Some parts of the show I found difficult to follow, and the tonal transitions—as well as environmental and societal changes—felt jarring. This show is, after all, only ten episodes, which is a peculiar length. Most anime cour are 11 or 12 episodes, and I think Devilman Crybaby would have benefitted from another episode, just so that it felt more natural. Of course a show like this demands the viewer to suspend disbelief, but when such wild themes and changes are thrown out, a viewer needs a bit more time to adjust.

And I think all this contributes to this show feeling very singular: it’s a Netflix show. It’s an anime on Netflix, but it is a Netflix original. It skips the opening theme for you, there are no commercial break title cards, and it doesn’t have an end credit sequence. It’s R-rated, high-budget, well-produced, stylishly-directed, daring. Netflix has developed other original anime, Neo Yokio and Castlevania, but those were focused towards western audiences. Taking a series as longstanding and widely loved as Devilman and making it their first Japanese-produced, Japanese-targeted original anime is a bold move. In format, pacing, content, and direction, it takes on a different identity from television anime. It’s streaming anime, and so it is different. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and I think most of Devilman Crybaby proves that anime made for streaming can be phenomenal. But there are some irreconcilable elements that people who produce and watch anime need to think about going forward.

There is so much I didn’t talk about in this review. My feelings about this show are complex (I didn’t talk at all about my thoughts on Miko or Ryo), but I don’t want to get into any more specific spoilers. And I don’t necessarily want to dissuade anyone from watching this show. If it sounds up your alley, go for it. But I can’t think about this show without thinking about the eternal male gaze in anime, and how it really does muddle things narratively. I hope that high-profile, high-popularity shows like Devilman Crybaby are a good way of critiquing pervasive issues that poison good shows like this one.

Rating: W: 4, A: 9, S: 3; Overall Rating: 7.5/10

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