The Legacy of Devilman

2018 is going to be a very special year for fans of Go Nagai’s Devilman series.

This post is part of the 12 Days of Anime 2017 project, where anime bloggers post everyday for 12 days leading up to Christmas. Check this post out for more information.

Masaaki Yuasa, director of acclaimed shows and movies such as Ping Pong the Animation, The Tatami Galaxy and Lu Over the Wall as well as a guest director on the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time, is returning to direct Devilman Crybaby – the first Devilman anime that will fully adapt the original 1972 manga.

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Devilman Crybaby key visual

Since Yuasa is one of my favourite directors currently working, I was immediately intrigued in this new Devilman project. To sate my curiosity, I decided to read the original manga and was not disappointed. If you’ve read the manga, it should be no surprise that it went on to spawn many iterations for many years – even almost 50 years later with Crybaby. In this post, I want to explore what makes Devilman so compelling and influential for so many creators, and why it’s legacy has persisted for so long.


Go Nagai

In the history of anime and manga, there are few that are as influential as Nagai. The only people that share a similar status to him are such legendary creators as Osamu Tezaku and Hayao Miyazaki. Devilman itself has had a massive influence on many creators, such as Berserk’s Kentaro Miura, and remains one of the most influential horror manga ever made. Beyond Devilman, Nagai is recognised as one of the founders of the mecha genre, with his manga series Mazinger pioneering the “pilot inside giant robot” concept which would later be popularised by Mobile Suit Gundam.

Not content with simply sitting on the proceeds of his wildly popular series, Nagai has continued as a creator his entire life, still being active today. He wrote and drew many sequel manga to Devilman at the time, such as Devilman Lady and Shin Devilman, helping to expand the mythos and keep fans of the original satisfied. Moving into his old age, Nagai has stopped drawing art but still continues to pen stories. He wrote the story for the sequel manga Amon: The Darkside of Devilman, which fills in an important gap in the original story, and also for Devilman G – a retelling of the series for a new generation.

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Devilman vol. 1 and 2 covers – Devilman/Akira (left) and Silen (right)

Devilman is unique in this sense, since it has adopted a model over the years very similar to Western comics, in that new creators are brought on and allowed to put their own stamp on characters and settings. With Nagai allowing other creators to take his properties and adapt them in their own ways, such as Devilman Neo, an anthology manga penned by many different authors to explore the Devilman mythos, he has kept his series constantly innovative and fresh. However, it would be inaccurate to say that Devilman has completely adopted the Western comic model, since Nagai still participates in the furthering of his properties, as well as most likely supervising closely what is done with them.

Such activities by Nagai have constantly kept Devilman in the public eye, even decades after it’s original publication. It has always allowed the story to expand, both in terms of mythos but also in terms of demographic and appeal – with Devilman G in particular a bid to win over new fans to the franchise. Without someone like Nagai and without his relentless temperament, always creating and contributing to the medium, even by delegating the work to others, Devilman would almost certainly not have persisted as long as it has.


Art direction

It’s hard to imagine Devilman being as good as it is without Nagai’s stellar illustrations. Since the tone of the manga is so relentlessly dark, especially as the story goes on, the dark style Nagai chose to utilise suits the series perfectly.

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Many of the panels are very light on detail – preferring to omit backgrounds and instead focus on the main object of the panel. At the beginning, Nagai makes us of backgrounds, especially during the scenes where Miki is being bullied whilst Akira is helpless to stop it, but as the series goes and becomes darker, that darkness is also reflected in the omission of detail in favour of pure black. Akira’s character design also makes us of this shifting art style, as his jet black hair begins to become one with the background – often leaving only his eyebrows and eyes as the main focus of the panel. This is also feeds into the representation of Akira’s slow descent into evil and madness, as the borders between the darkness and him becoming blurred, quite literally.

Although many pre-modern manga series do look unique to our modern eyes, since manga artstyle had not yet been standardised as it has been now – Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure comes to mind – even among those Devilman stands out as particularly unique.

Nagai’s character designs are one example of this. His blocky drawing, often at times rough looking and unrefined, lends itself to the brutal nature of Devilman. Akira’s design, with his bouffant hairstyle, strong eyebrows and prominent sideburns, is unrefined but incredibly iconic. Amon also looks like no other demon in manga – with his facial features seemingly at one with his face and red accent lines accentuating them, giving him a hellish look, like he was carved out of magma and brimstone and forged with pure evil. Many people have taken Devilman’s representation of demons and tried to emulate it, but none have come close to the unique flavour to Nagai’s artwork. Although it can seem unrefined at first, quickly they come through as truly inventive.

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Furthermore, because of the unrefined yet unique nature of Nagai’s character designs, his characters are extremely expressive. I’ve already touched on Amon, with his truly hellish look. The other demons, like Silen, also showcase this untampered terror that comes from the depths of hell. Her grotesque form combined with the way Nagai is able to convey her emotions through her face during her fight with Devilman also produces a feeling of terror wholly unique to this series. Furthermore, Akira’s descent into evil is emphasised by the subtle changes in his character design – his eyes become more pronounced with thicker, black lines surrounding them, as well as his eyebrows which grow longer and become more blocky, giving him a more ferocious edge than his previous cowardly self.

Devilman’s visual presentation and art direction as a whole is incredible. Nagai’s artstyle perfectly fits the dark tone of the story, as well as allowing for a unique visual presentation through panel art and character design. Even though the art is perhaps unrefined by modern standards, it is ultimately able to stand the test of time and engage people even today because of it.


Tone

Even among ‘darker’ manga, Devilman stands out for being particularly so. In comparison to Devilman, Berserk seems relatively light-hearted – and it’s this particular tone that has allowed Devilman to persist in the hearts and minds of those who have experienced it.

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The premise of Devilman paints a bleak picture. Humans are under attack from demons, who are helpless to stop them, and only a human who has given up his humanity and merged with a demon can hope to fight against them. Unlike the Devilman anime, which paints Devilman as a tokusatsu hero, the manga presents Devilman as almost no different from the demons, engaging in the same kind of egregious violence and possessing the same ferocious temperament, the only difference being that he fights for the sake of humans. There is no heroic tone – just a dark sense of violence and madness.

Similarly, this dark tone also gives the series a brooding edge. When Akira merges with Amon to become Devilman, Ryou wonders if he has really helped give birth to a hero for humanity, or humanity’s greatest enemy. Throughout the series, we see Akira’s descent further into demonhood and away from humanity as he starts to crave battle, and becomes more and more violent in his temperament. Under the surface of the story there is constantly a threat looming, giving the whole tone an oppressive and brooding edge. This is unsettling as a reader, and creates a real sense of suspense that grips until the series’ end. Part of this is why Devilman is so readable today.

Finally, the feeling of hopelessness that seeps into every pore of Devilman is truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Immediately the humans are established as hopelessly disadvantaged in the war against the demons, who have powers far beyond anything a human is capable of. Despite vowing to protect his humanity as best as he can, Akira’s slow descent into evil is heart-breaking and pessimistic, showcasing the ultimate evil that lies in the human heart.

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The ending also is perhaps the most hopeless aspect of all, with the apocalypse occurring despite Akira’s efforts, and even though Satan does technically win against the humans, they too realise that they were simply being used by God. Nothing ends happily, and portrays a very bleak and hopeless vision of the future. It’s these elements that make up the iconic tone of Devilman, which has touched the hearts of many readers throughout the years, and doesn’t appear to be letting up any time soon.


Themes

Nagai didn’t choose to make the story hopeless simply just for the sake of it, however. Every element of Devilman was specifically chosen in order to explore it’s key themes – making it a surprisingly thematically rich manga, especially considering how short it is.

In his essay about Devilman, Nagai stresses that the key message of Devilman is anti-war. Affected by the Vietnam War, which was still ongoing during the time of Devilman’s publication, Nagai wanted to make a manga that would showcase the futile nature of war. Akira represents those conscripted into any war, not just the Vietnam War, since he is inducted into the war of demons and humans by turning himself into Devilman. He accepts this role in the war, but wishes to act in a dignified and moral manner – that even though he has become a demon, he will not fully give up his humanity and will fight for humans.

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Yet as the series goes along, Akira becomes corrupted by the war and his power, and the realities of war break him as a person, and eventually he loses faith in both humanity and the war against demons. In war, ultimately men are forced to become monsters – and either wind up dead or broken as humans. Nagai’s series warns us about the realities of war, urging us to move towards a world of peace.

Beyond Nagai’s words themselves, many more themes are present in Devilman. One important theme contained within the journey of Akira Fudou is the fundamental question of the nature of humanity. Even though Akira merges himself with a demon, he attempts to hold on to his humanity and act in a “right” manner, killing demons for the sake of humanity’s survival. Yet as the series goes on, he loses this humanity. As readers, we are forced to pose the question – why? Did Akira give up his humanity completely when he became Devilman and was only attempting to act in the manner of a human? Or was Akira’s human heart too weak to resist the evil of demonhood, eventually causing him to give into power?

Furthermore, the actions of the human race themselves prompt further questions. After World War Three, where most of civilization is destroyed, the remaining humans set up anti-demon squads to hunt down humans suspected of demons, including Devilman. Driven to madness by fear and paranoia, these squads begin killing humans indiscriminately – including Akira’s love interest, Miki. Driven to despair by this, Devilman declares that “humans are the true devils”. The actions of the humans in this sense clearly draw parallels to the Holocaust, the Salem Witch Trials and the Great Terror of the USSR, which further reinforces Nagai’s proposed anti-war message.

But in addition, these developments make us consider the nature of the human heart – are we evil, deep down, and when we are driven to the edge our true evil colours appear? Or is the human heart simply weak, not being able to cope with the effects of war and therefore needs to cope with violence and persecution? With our continued destruction of the environment, to say nothing of the genocide we have committed as a race, are humans the real demons, the real evil of the world?

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The manga itself does set out to take at least some of the blame off of humans and onto forces beyond our control, however, namely onto God. In the story, Satan, a fallen angel, leads the demons to try and take over the world since they view the demons with sympathy, being looked down upon and forced into hiding by God with His creation of humans. But upon succeeding, Satan realises that they have just acted in the same prejudiced way as God did – ridding the world of humans as God once did, simply because they viewed one species as more deserving as the other. The final panel then shows the coming advance of God and the angels, who are supposedly coming to get rid of the demons once and for all, a situation that Satan created since they made the demons come out of hiding to destroy the humans.

Satan, although unquestionably the antagonist of the story, is not fully to blame for their actions. God essentially used Satan to create a situation in which He could destroy the demons once and for all, something He wishes to do since He did not create the demons. Consequently, Akira’s defeat at the hands of Satan was not entirely his fault, since he was attempting to go against the will of God. Furthermore, if we view the human heart as something inherently weak and susceptible to evil, his fall from grace due to the effects of war was also something unavoidable. The humans’ actions too, in massacring their own due to paranoia, can also be viewed somewhat sympathetically.

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All of this puts into question the value of our actions and their significance on a larger scale. If we are controlled by a god-like figure, who dictates our every move, then our actions don’t have much meaning. Or, if we are merely victims of circumstance, can our actions be excused as such? Much like Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, Nagai joins the ranks of writers who explore the meaning of human will in a larger context, and very often draw pessimistic conclusions. One work which was inspired by Devilman, Berserk, also explores this question of fate and the significance of man, but comes to a more positive conclusion – that a strong will can break the ties of fate. Devilman very much disagrees with this, positing humanity as rather insignificance in a larger context.

It is these thought-provoking and relevant themes that have helped keep Devilman as influential now as it was when it was released. The world has not changed much from the world Nagai was writing in – war still rages in many corners of the globe, and the value and nature of humanity is being challenged more and more with the progress in scientific discovery and the development of technology, namely AI. Despite being written in the 1970s, Nagai’s masterpiece still has so much to say almost 50 years later – and people are still listening.


Further reading:

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