Crypt of Curiosities: DEVILMAN OVAs

2018/02/16 22:57:31 +00:00 | Perry Ruhland

Go Nagai’s 1972 manga Devilman is one of my favorite things in the world. Despite being released in 1972, I am hard-pressed to think of any comic that affected me as deeply and personally as Devilman did when I first read the story of the young Akira Fudo, a pure-hearted teenager who fuses with the ancient demon Amon, turning him into a violent, impulse-driven demonic hero Devilman. It has basically everything I could possibly want from art: queer themes and characters, a riveting story, stunning art, a fascinating world, and lots and lots of demons dying in excessively violent ways at the hands of a demon-human hybrid. It’s incredible.

It’s also not limited to just the realm of manga. While the manga was publishing, Toei was working on their own animated version of Devilman—a decidedly much more child friendly take on the story which has the titular character transformed into a more traditional superhero who fights against the demon king Zennon with the help of very goofy powers. It’s Devilman in name, sure, but it’s not really Devilman. To find that, we have to look elsewhere. We have to look to the OVA (original video animation) trilogy.

These three short, direct-to-video anime films were the first true adaptation of Go Nagai’s Devilman, generally following his story while making some key differences (more on that later). The series spans multiple directors, casts, and animation stylings, but has one thorough throughline: they are aggressively, unashamedly Devilman.

The first OVA, Devilman Vol. 1: The Birth, was released in 1986. As the title suggests, it follows the first volume of the manga, setting up the world and showing the origins of Devilman. And it wastes no time, either—after a brief but memorable intro sequence showing grotesque angels and demons waging a bloody, apocalyptic war in a primordial Earth, we’re launched right into the thick of it with our protagonist, Akira Fudo (voiced by Sho Hayami). Akira is essentially your standard shonen protagonist, cut from the same cloth that brought us the likes of Goku or Naruto. He’s kind, he’s honorable, and as a brief sequence showing him defending a rabbit from a gang of bloodthirsty, nigh-murderous bullies demonstrates, he’s more than willing to endanger himself for an innocent life.

But everything changes when an old friend shows up: the mysterious Ryo Asuka (Yû Mizushima), a sunglasses-wearing, duster-sporting, gun-toting drifter, a young man whose been holed away in his house with his scientist father—a father who, just recently, got possessed by a demon, killed his family, and lit himself on fire. Ryo, haunted by the outburst, pulls Akira way from his best friend, Miki Makimura (Jun Konomaki) and leads him to the abandoned Asuka house to gain demonic powers to defend humanity. Things, predictably, do not go as planned, and before the duo can properly prepare, they’re headed on a one-way path to Akira’s transformation and the start of an all-out war against demonkind.

First, let me get this out of the way. Devilman: The Birth is only fifty minutes long and was meant to set up an entire series, so the first half of the movie is incredibly heavy with exposition. In just twenty-five minutes, the OVA has to establish the main characters, the history of the Devilman world, explain just what this universe’s version of demons are and how they work, and set the stage for the epic saga to come. It’s a lot to cover in such a short time. Yet, by some miracle, it never feels like a drag. It has Goldilocks pacing: not too fast, not too slow, just right.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the uniformly fantastic visuals constitute a good chunk of what makes this first half work as well as it does. Devilman: The Birth is never boring to look at, and when the exposition dumps get at their worst, the animation wisely cuts to incredibly stylized flashbacks to do some of the heavy lifting. The art design is a very close approximation of Go Nagai’s incredible art, but the new addition of striking color choices and fluid motion really shakes things up, turning an already beautiful work into a shotgun blast of visual nirvana directly to the eyeballs.

But that’s just the first half. From the second demons attack onwards, Devilman: The Birth turns from enjoyable, exposition-heavy fluff to one of the greatest action horror films of all time. The back half of The Birth is nothing short of a ride, an audio-visual exercise in glorious excess that practically never takes its foot off the gas. From frenzied shootouts against demons to an absurdly operatic dialogue exchange in an elevator to hell to the first time Devilman draws blood, The Birth’s second half is a rollercoaster of non-stop, glorious action horror fun.

Plus, this second half is where Devilman: The Birth’s demons get their chance to shine. For the unfamiliar, Go Nagai is something of a master of creature design, and Devilman shows him at his best. While the series’ best monsters aren't featured in The Birth, they’re still Devilman designs—deceptively simplistic creatures that combine grotesque twists on biology with incredibly on-the-nose Geiger-esque hyper-sexual flourishes. If that wasn’t enough, most of them also get their own body horror transformation sequences, putting the animation budget to great, gory use.

Of course, the monsters don’t just stand there. A good part of what makes Devilman: The Birth work so well is that it’s clear the team perfectly understands how to balance action and horror. Fights are beautiful and well-choreographed, sure, but they’re also terrifying in their own way—there are legitimate, violent consequences to every fight, and even our heroes brawl like bloodthirsty monsters (which, for the record, does not go unnoticed by the characters).

For example, take the entire final sequence: a stunning, layered brawl between the newly awoken Devilman and the demons in an underground satanic club. It’s as pretty as any high-end anime fight worth its salt, but it’s also M.D. Geist levels of hyper-violent, with our hero popping heads and tearing beasts apart like they’re made of putty, all while innocent bystanders find themselves maimed by stray attacks. It is as pure as action horror can get, equal parts blood-pumping and stomach-churning. Really, the last 25 minutes of Devilman: The Birth walk that tightrope perfectly—something most action horror films fail to do in the course of an entire feature-length runtime.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Devilman: The Birth is that it was a first. Not only was it the first proper adaptation of Devilman, but it served as the directorial and screenwriting debut of Umanosuke Iida, who previously had cut his teeth working on Lupin III and Miyazaki films. And what a debut it is. Devilman Vol 1.: The Birth is a masterclass in animated pulp, and easily one of the finest, most self-assured examples of action horror ever put on screen.

Four years later, Iida would be back with Devilman Vol. 2: Demon Bird, the direct follow-up to The Birth. Picking up shortly after the end of The Birth, Demon Bird finds Akira adjusting to a new life of battling demons as Devilman, while Akira heals from his injuries in the climax of The Birth. While the two ready themselves for the upcoming war between demons and humanity, the humanoid, winged demon Sirene (Yoshiko Sakakibara) vows to avenge Amon by killing Akira in the cruelest way imaginable—and Miki’s family is caught in the crossfire.

For the most part, Demon Bird is focused on the other side of Akira’s life, parts that were briefly touched on in The Birth, but never really went past brief asides. Quite a bit of time is spent showing Akira’s life at the Makimura household before Sirene’s forces tear it apart, both showing how fusing with Amon has changed Akira’s personality and fleshing out his relationship with other characters. Even Ryo, who unfortunately spends most of the OVA stuck in a hospital bed, gets a chance to flesh out his dark side, providing a handy bridge from this relatively self-contained Devilman outing to the greater threat.

While the visuals of Devilman: The Birth were great, Demon Bird branches off from its predecessor with its own unique spin on Nagai’s work. Sure, the basic character designs and aesthetic are still the same, but the whole thing is a lot more angular than The Birth's visuals. The big change, however, is in Demon Bird’s shading. Gone are the simplistic (albeit beautiful) block colors, instead replaced with highly detailed, highly impressive shaded tones corresponding to a frankly ridiculous amount of unique light sources for an animated film. Any anime that has shots of downtown nightlife is sure to look good, but with the lighting on display here, The Birth’s brief forays into metropolitan areas are nothing short of absolute visual delights. Hell, the fact that the animation is as fast and fluid as ever is just the icing on the cake.

The revised art style also works wonders for the new monsters which, while nowhere near as sleazy and perverse as some of the designs in The Birth, are still grotesque in their own right. Take, for example, Jinmen, the demon that serves as Akira’s first foe in Demon Bird. Jinmen is a beastly, bipedal turtle who maims and eats humans, preserving their still-living, screaming faces on the back of his shell as sick trophies. And unfortunately for Akira, two of those faces happen to be his long-missing parents.

The battle with Jinmen comes in the first ten minutes of Demon Bird, and it works as a good example of what’s to come. Unlike the better-paced first outing, Demon Bird is basically a series of incredible demon fights with some character work spliced in between bouts. For the most part, it doesn’t work great, feeling a lot less like a cohesive story and more like a bunch of very strong fight scenes and enjoyable character beats Frankensteined together.

However, much like The Birth, Demon Bird is split into two very distinct sections. And while the second half of The Birth was just introducing action to the mix, Demon Bird’s second half is a whole new beast—a massive, beautifully animated showdown between Akira and the titular demon bird, Sirene. And it is glorious.

While the final battle in The Birth was good, the big brawl in Demon Bird blows the first OVA’s crowning action set piece out of the water. It’s 20 minutes of pure super-powered bliss, the sort of outrageous, hyperkinetic action that you just can’t get from live-action films. While the staggering length of the battle could easily make the fight a drawn-out snore, the duel is never just two super-powered beings swinging at each other and occasionally stopping to taunt their foe. Instead, it’s an extremely varied showcase of the full range of both character's unique powers and fighting styles, spanning everywhere from a curiously empty cityscape to a rocky cliffside to the stratosphere, all while never abandoning the clear, economic visual storytelling or absurd gore that made the small-scale battles of The Birth such a treat.

To put it simply, Devilman Vol 2.: Demon Bird is a blast. Sure, it’s a lot messier than The Birth, and it’s nowhere near as good at balancing tones and characters as its predecessor, but it’s still an incredible slice of dark action anime that brings better super-powered combat than almost any other superhero outing on the market.

After Demon Bird, the Devilman OVA series took a ten-year hiatus, and when it returned, it was completely different. Released in 2000, Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman was a huge departure from the series thus far. It has a different cast, a different crew, a different director, a different tone, and a different art style. It’s also, unfortunately, very bad.

Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman picks up way after Demon Bird, jumping right to the final chapters of the final volume of Go Nagai’s Devilman manga… kind of. Because while the first 15 minutes or so are fairly accurate to the manga, the rest is an incredibly loose adaptation of the 1999 manga, Amon: The Dark Side of Devilman. This time around, we follow a grief-stricken Akira (Shini Takeda), shaken by the events of the previous, unseen and un-recapped chapters, who goes into a state of shock so intense that Amon (Akio Ohtsuka) wrestles control away from him. With Akira briefly out of the picture, Amon sets off on a one-man (demon?) quest to kill Ryo (Tomokazu Seki), and just about anyone else who gets in his way.

It all unfolds in a manner that more recalls M.D. Geist than anything else, with a bunch of loosely connected excuses for violent schlock flowing from one scene to the next. But while M.D. Geist at least sticks to a consistently goofy, comically grim downward spiral into increasingly violent set pieces, Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman balances its indulgent gore with some incredibly poorly done stock shonen tropes, complete with the final battle being fueled with the power of friendship and consistent tearful flashbacks to Akira and Miki’s battles—flashbacks that’d be a lot more effective if we had any more context to how we got here. Even someone like me, who considers himself significantly attached to the characters, had a hard time caring.

Unfortunately, the action’s not much good, either. Sure, there are bright spots here and there—Amon’s token big battle against a horde of demons and a house raid early on have their moments of great choreography—but for the most part, the action’s just a mess. It lacks the restraint and weight that made the fights of the first two Devilman OVAs any good, instead opting to have characters throw around energy blasts willy-nilly like Dragonabll Z characters. There’s a spectacle on display, sure, but it’s just a whole lot of visual noise.

On top of all this, there’s the issue that Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman just looks worse than the other entries. The shading of Demon Bird is out, and along with it goes the vibrant color palette and distinct character designs that helped The Birth stand out so well. Even the character designs have taken a hit, taking the angular designs of Demon Bird to a level of near parody. Seriously, nearly every profile shot shows off characters’ jutting, incredibly sharp noses—a look that really doesn’t mix well with Nagai’s character designs.

Nowhere is this discrepancy in the quality of the action and visuals clearer than when the film features a flashback to the club battle that capped off Devilman: The Birth—just done in Apocalypse of Devilman’s new style. So what you get is a flatter, duller spin on one of the best assembled action beats in action horror history, lacking any of the clever cuts, smart plotting, or distinctive imagery that make The Birth’s battle so good. Instead, you just get a level of gore that crosses over from being disgusting or even hilariously schlocky to just being eye-roll worthy levels of edgy. In a wide shot, Akira rips off a female demon’s breasts and eats them while the camera lingers, and I can’t help but groan.

In fact, almost all of Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman feels like it only exists to be as aggressively edgy as it can. The gory, soul-crushing final chapters of Nagai’s manga work like gangbusters in context (I have no shame in admitting that younger me cried himself to sleep after binge-reading the series), but when plopped down on their own and handled this poorly, it just reads like a cheap attempt to shock. The addition of pointless, constant threats of rape in almost every early sequence focusing on humans just hammers home how hard Amon tries to shock its audience—but really, it just can’t deliver.

I don’t like being harsh in these articles, I really don’t. But I’m just strained to find good things to say about Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman. The direction, story, visuals, action, and even horror touches are so significantly worse than the first two OVAs that I can’t heartily recommend it as a followup, and the story won’t make a lick of sense to anybody who isn’t already familiar with the full plot of Nagai’s Devilman. It’s worth watching for completionists, but for people who aren’t starved for Devilman content, I see little reason to visit this one.

Unfortunately, Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman would be the last of the Devilman OVAs, and the saga would never be completed in proper. Thankfully, there are still some damn good Devilman works out there. Earlier this year, Netflix premiered the ten-episode-long Devilman: Crybaby, an excellent reimagining of the entire manga that hits all the sweet spots while bringing the source material’s queer themes and obsession with sexuality to the forefront. Plus, the original Devilman manga is getting a new release in a few months, which officially makes 2018 an incredibly good year to finally get into Devilman. Besides, you could always just turn back to the incredible first two volumes—just avoid the laughably bad English dubs (or go all in on them if you want a good chuckle), sit back, and have a blast.

Oh, and there was a live-action Devilman movie made in 2004, directed by Hiroyuki Nasu, the guy behind a string of adaptations of the Be-Bop High School manga. But that’s a topic for another day.

Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Shaw Brothers Do Tokusatsu