I’ve been endeavoring to fill some of the broad gaps in my manga back catalog – I’ve watched far more anime than I have manga – and one of the particularly significant gaps is in the career of one Go Nagai. While I’m familiar with him as being frequently referred to as “Anime’s Horny Uncle”, or “Perpetually Horny On Main” – not all of his works necessarily seemed to fit with that tonally, Devilman more than any other. So, considering the reputation of that work (and its, shall we say, end of The Elric Saga-esque ending), once the Devilman manga became available in print, I decided that eventually, I would take the time to seek it out and give it a read. Having finally finished reading it, I do indeed have some thoughts. There will be spoilers.
Devilman, as a series, is kind of complicated to discuss. On the one hand, it is a series that definitely fully inhabits the world of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The psychedelic freakout orgy turned bloodbath that Ryo Asuka, the childhood friend of our protagonist – Akira Fudo – stages to turn Akira into a Devilman fits in well with some of the ideas of psychedelic horror that came out of this period both in the US and Italy as well – to enough of a degree that if the Comics Code did not exist, and someone tried to import the manga to the US at the time, I think the story could still have resonated with American audiences, particularly the elements of the counter-culture that would have been most inclined to pick up a foreign comic called “Devilman”.
Where things fit definitely more into Japan’s place in the globe (particularly in the ’70s), is the fact that in the ’60s and ’70s (even more than in the ’80s), Japan was a country that was smack-dab in the middle of any potential nuclear exchange, ideology be damned. So, there is a sense within the story as well of potential inevitability – the awareness of Japanese kids of the risks of a nuclear exchange that could kill them all, without knowledge (whether due to lack of awareness or willful disregard), of the ideologies behind that exchange – leading in to the madness and fear of the growing Demonic threat.
On the other hand – the growing pollution born out of Japan’s post-war economic industrial revival (and America’s own economic boom – which is what led to even Nixon deciding that the EPA was a good idea) – meshes with one of the driving forces of the return of the Demons to this world being the growing pollution of the earth – something that also fits well with the 21st century’s impending doom of global climate change.
Further, the unfortunate witch-hunts around the Devilmen that come to the fore very late in the story have unfortunately become rather timely with modern attitudes of discrimination against LGBT (especially Trans) people. The measures taken to try to identify and imprison Devilmen sadly resonate well with the efforts made by conservative legislators in various Red States to try and force trans people to out themselves and to otherwise legally penalize them for their very existence.
That said, the way Nagai writes and draws women has aged badly in more than a few respects. Miki, Akira’s romantic interest on the one hand is certainly not a passive character by any means, but due to the level of threats faced she ultimately spends much of the series being a helpless bystander, a hostage, or shoved in the fridge in the leadup to the series conclusion to drive Akira to abandon humanity entirely. This violence can often end up being sexualized, with Miki being depicted nude before being stylistically torn apart to represent her murder – ultimately leading to Akira seeing her head on a spike. It could just play like a stylistic decision… but it could also play as a representation of sexual assault as well (so keep that in mind if that’s something that can trigger you).
Even the one female Devilman we get, Mikiko Kawamoto, only gets narrative presence (not agency, presence – at no point do they have agency) within the story prior to being rescued by and eventually joining the Devilman Corps. At this point, they completely vanish from the story.
Also, there’s an interlude that gets added to these editions of a whole bunch of chapters that involve Ryo & Akira traveling back in time to fight various Devils who get involved in historical events (the massacre by the 7th Cavalry that leads to the 7th Cavalry in turn getting wiped out, the French Revolution, Joan of Arc). These all have a real, “I’ve researched these using the first Japanese-language resources I could find at the bookstore and didn’t dig further than that, and indeed fudged things further to fit my narrative,” vibe that isn’t great. It’s not quite at the level of uncritically regurgitating the material for “The Burning Times”, but it’s still not great (and it also perpetuates the toxic myth that Native Americans and First Nations peoples don’t exist anymore).
I’m certainly glad I read Devilman, and I may eventually move on to Devilman Crybaby, but it’s not necessarily something I can give an unreserved recommendation for.
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