By Claire Pak
At the beginning of January, Netflix released Devilman: Crybaby, making it the first Netflix original anime to be put out this year. Devilman (in case you don’t know) is an (in)famously gory and violent 1972 manga series by Go Nagai about a sensitive high school guy called Akira Fudo who, after being taken to a nightclub by his cool, smart, and honestly pretty terrible friend Ryo, gets possessed by a demon. He doesn’t get completely taken over, though, and retains his mind and most of his conscience. With his newfound demonic powers, he becomes a “Devilman” (yes, it was the ‘70s, in Japan) and seeks to battle evil demon hordes who want to kill lots of people. Then things get worse. Things involving the apocalypse.
The adaption of the property is headed by animation studio Science SARU, with its founder Masaaki Yuasa as its director. Masaaki Yuasa is one of the most eccentric and distinctive (and polarizing!) animators in the business. Works under his belt include Ping Pong, Kaiba, Kemonozume, The Tatami Galaxy, and even an episode of Adventure Time (“Food Chain”). All of them utilize his signature super-deformed animation, creative and often very weird visual ideas, and some amazing storyboarding.
I say all of this because your tolerance for Devilman: Crybaby will likely depend on your tolerance for ultraviolence and hypersexuality, as well as your tolerance for Yuasa’s style of storytelling. Yuasa’s sense of pacing is more than a little unconventional, and the surreality of many of the scenes is only amplified by his preference for metaphors and abstraction over basically any sort of realism.
The animation, too, cares less about staying on-model and more about conveying a sense of motion or expressing the many emotional twists and turns of the characters’ minds and the narrative, though I would hesitate to call it ugly — like most of Yuasa’s work, the surface-level messiness is intentional, a part of his directorial style, and the show contains impressive compositing, coloring and editing. It should be noted, however, that there are moments where the production falls apart a little, with strange animation errors and oddly stiff movement in some pivotal scenes. Compounded with Yuasa’s predilection for deformed models, the visual execution turns out to be somewhat uneven overall.
But despite all its issues -- whether it’s inconsistent animation, scenes where the story drags or where metaphors get a little mixed-up -- the end result is an off-beat, violent, pulpy, heavily symbolic show that takes what could have easily devolved into trashy sensationalism and creates (dare I say) pop art with some surprisingly effective emotional climaxes.
The show is anything but subtle, treating the term “Devilman” unironically (though not without a sense of humor) while dealing with sexual suppression, exploitation, prejudice, vigilantism, the persecution of the Other, even fake news. All while showing bodies being shredded, consumed, dismembered, riddled with bullets, and more in abstract but often compositionally-interesting moments of gore and sex. Because yes, the show can get completely off-the-rails, blending sexuality, violence and surreality into one colorful, fever-dream blend of profanity (please, do not watch this show in a public space, unless you are cool with dismembered body parts and naked girls on your desktop).
The story shines most, though, during moments of the everyday. Even as the show revels in its sweeping, mythical (even biblical) melodrama, its moments of intimacy and gentleness are what make the story work. Amidst the bloody chaos, the show injects moments of empathy — a boy crying for someone else’s pain, for instance — with a sort of tactile warmth, strange kernels of heart nestled in lurid, provocative spectacle. Because, though the show could easily be described as “nihilistic misery porn,” at the end of the day it holds an unflinching belief in the value of compassion in a messed-up world filled with messed-up people. Humans can commit inhuman acts out of hatred and ignorance, but empathy and love can humanize the inhuman.
Some of the politics in the original Devilman haven't aged too well, and despite the show’s attempts at modernizing elements of the story, it doesn’t shy away from awkward panty shots or other problematic choices (this is, after all, a show that has a demon literally transform a woman’s crotch into a gaping mouth full of teeth). But the show at its core is an outrageously sordid spectacle that blends pulp with artistry to encourage the most basic (but still timely) message: be kind. True, the message is more along the lines of “be kind, and then perhaps the world won’t be overrun by crotch and hair demons and be eradicated of all human life on Earth,” but the point still stands. Devilman: Crybaby has its issues, and your mileage may vary with whether or not it achieves its ambitions, but the heart and gall on display can be admired. Even when we are forced to stare at the twerking naked girls on our desktop.