Gō Nagai is nobody's idea of a subtle and nuanced artist. For decades he's been a reliable supplier of broad, outlandish mainstream entertainments ranging from the raucous (the various Mazinger series, Cutey Honey) to the nose-wrinklingly extreme (Violence Jack, Kekko Kamen). Masaaki Yuasa, on the other hand, has worked on the fringes, merging psychedelic imagery with thought-provoking storytelling (Mind Game, Tatami Galaxy, Kaiba). Devilman Crybaby occupies a fascinating space of Venn diagram overlap between the two: its story concept and much of its imagery are Nagai's, but its sensibilities and overall flavor are unquestionably Yuasa's. For a show that goes over the top and beyond it, the net result is not mere anarchy but an embodiment of Oscar Wilde's musings about the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom. You'll also not want to snack on anything while watching it.
Blood and guts in high school
I haven't read the original Devilman manga (it's slated to be issued in English later this year by Seven Seas), but Crybaby apparently follows the basic outlines of the original story fairly closely. The "crybaby" of the title is Akira Fudō, a plaintive kid for whom tears come easily, although they come most easily at the sufferings of others rather than himself. His friend Ryo is the more intelligent and composed of the two, but also the more cold-blooded and casually indifferent to suffering; he's the kind of kid who pins living butterflies to cards and smiles to himself as they writhe. But somehow there's a bond between the two boys, perhaps the kind that can only come from the space that exist between opposites.
One day, when Akira is in high school, Ryo returns after years of being overseas and making discoveries that have changed him all the further. He leads Akira to an underground party where it's rumored that evidence of demons can be found. They do exist, all right: they appear and begin ripping the partygoers to shreds. Then Akira manifests his own demonic side, and tears the demons up the middle like he's shucking pistachios. He's now "Devilman" — half human, half demon, with the heart of the former and the strength and impulses of the latter.
The "new" Akira turns everyone's heads. It would be hard for him not to: he's taller, more rakishly masculine, outruns everyone else on the track team, and has the strength of a whole platoon of soldiers. But he still has Akira's "crybaby" heart — in other words, his compassion for others and his concern for his friends. Yes, even Ryo, whose calculating attitude towards Akira's newly unleashed powers inspires skepticism. But Ryo seems to be the only one who has even the least inkling about what Akira is now, what he is capable of, and what he is up against.
One thing Akira knows without having to be told is how with great power comes great responsibility, and said responsibility includes protecting those close to him. He tries to do so with his parents, and while their deaths at the hands of other demons breaks his heart, it also galvanizes him all the more not to let something like that happen to his childhood sweetheart, Miki. She's as loyal to him as he is to her, doubly so when the truth of demons and the existence of Devilman become public knowledge. For Miki, Akira is Akira first and the beast second, and the beast she has seen puts his power in the service of defending mankind from demonkind.
If only Akira's struggle remained that simple. It grows unimaginably more complex for him when the full dimensions of Ryo's plan become plain: not to have demonkind arise and cleanse humanity from the face of the earth, but to show how demonkind arises from humanity itself, to use that to stoke fear, to set each against their neighbor, to foment a reign of terror that Akira cannot counter with his brute strength alone.
Roads of excess
It's something of a myth that if you bring together any two artists of great idiosyncracy, the end result will be work informed by the best parts of either of those people. More often than not, it isn't; there's a reason supergroups don't tend to last longer than an album or two, tops. The sizes of the egos involved all but guarantee the project won't last. My theory is that you'll have better luck when the collaborations involve an art form or a venue where the people involved have had more practice subordinating themselves to a larger design. Manga creators take strong cues from their editors, while the main job of an anime director is to pick the right talent for given aspects of a show and coordinate between them. But in both cases there's still plenty of room for personal vision to manifest.
What's remarkable about Devilman Crybaby is how the best of either artist — Nagai and Yuasa — strongly complements the aspirations of the other. Nagai loves to orchestrate Grand Guignol excess and grotesque character designs (e.g., the quadruple-amputee "human cattle" from the manga incarnation Violence Jack). Yuasa is more childlike than bad-boy, with dreamy meditations on the substance of one's life and the contents of one's heart, all expressed by way of non-linear narrative and the kind of optical overload that Stanley Kubrick used to melt the projector in the last segments of 2001: a space odyssey.
At first this comes off mostly as an excuse to channel each artist's visual excesses through the other's sensibilities — e.g., the club/rave scene in the first episode that turns into a nightmare of mangled bodies and bloodshed. Yuasa also brings the monster designs in line with the kid's-drawing aesthetic he's used before in Mind Game and especially Kaiba; they look goofy at first, but the story they are used to tell gives them a horrific edge. Later on, though, all this becomes more about Yuasa using Nagai's vocabulary of images — the ugliness of the demons vs. the innocence of the humans, the carnage on a cosmic scale — to do full justice to the ideas behind them.
The real story here is about insiders vs. outsiders, about how the nail that sticks out is sometimes not just hammered down but wrenched out entirely. The easy insight for all this comes early enough on — it's the humans that are the real monsters, not the demons, or at the very least it's not demons who have the monopoly on diabolical behavior. But the tougher insights come later — how do you fight monsters that are your neighbors and family and friends, especially when it isn't physical strength that seems to matter?
My friend Eric Frederiksen mentioned to me in conversation how some artists are great conceptualists, but other artists are great executors. No one remembers a single Bob Kane/Bill Finger Batman story, but we sure as hell remember The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. Likewise, Nagai has always struck me as being more ingenious than insightful, but I admired the way he never shied away from going really big and totally over-the-top. I wondered if the raw energy of his work would be diluted in Yuasa's hands. If anything, Yuasa found how to amplify it while staying true to its pulpy, adolescent-fantasy origins. I also smiled at other touches that seemed to have been Yuasa's idea, like a gang of punk kids who aspire to be rappers and serve up a Greek-chorus commentary on the goings on by way of their rhymesaying.
The most disturbing parts of the show, the ones that linger in the mind most after it's over, aren't the scenes of rip-up-the-middle carnage. Rather, it's the smaller moments of emotional pain, things that might have started with Nagai but which Yuasa brought to their full flower. Consider the scenes where Akira discovers the deaths of his friends at the hands of a mob, and finally turns on his fellow humans — or the moment when Ryo finds out, at the end of everything, that all he's managed to do is lose the one friend in the world he could truly call his own. They point towards what in this story amounts to a kind of wisdom: Maybe the real way to beat the devil is to break his heart.