This article does not contain outright spoilers, so feel free to read it whether you’ve experienced any incarnation of Devilman or not. It does however imply the directions things take, so bear that in mind if you want to go into the series completely ‘blind’.
My title means a few things, but one of them is that this isn’t an article about what Go Nagai’s Devilman (1972) actually, factually, is. It’s about the life and meaning things take on when we absorb them, which in a way is the only meaning that actually matters in the end, and is often—certainly with me and this comic—not at all something the author intended the thing to be. But these self-discovered takeaways can still be incredibly impactful.
This is very largely a queer reading, a field in which I am but a learner, but I am queer and I do read, so here we go. Some who know me may cry, “Iain! Must you make everything gay?” Well, I like to see myself in things and to have as much fun as possible. But in a specific sense, I’m afraid that I must make Devilman gay, moreso than was intended in planning, for it to be anywhere as impactful as it is. I refer not merely to the actual, factual act of homosexual love around which the whole story revolves, so if for you Ryo’s love for Akira amounts to no more than a piece in the grand tragedy of the whole tale of folly and overconfidence and short-sightedness and falsehoods, I understand completely (nor am I here to decry the romantic aspirations of Miki, Sirene and so on). What I mean is that to me the whole of it, from aesthetic to story, theme and character, certainly in both the original manga and many (not all) of the spinoffs, resonates with The Queer Experience.
An aside: Positive—Nagai’s works very often feature characters who are undeniably Not Straight and/or Not Cis. Negative—He very clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this regard most of the time. Asuka Ryo is one of the better examples, in that not so long after the original manga concluded, Nagai did Shin Devilman, which cleared up the awkward way Ryo’s infatuation was phrased in said original and set down that no, the man is just gay. Which is not to say Shin Devilman is entirely marvellous, beset by cultural insensitivity as it is …
That’s about as smooth a transition as I could’ve asked for into the meat of this article, which begins thusly: Some adaptations of Devilman are good. Some adaptations of Devilman are Devilman to me. These two things quite often don’t overlap.
There are certain things in the original that make it what it is to me. A big one is Ryo and everything about him. I mean that seriously; the way he skulks about in a big coat, always ill at ease with the world, his drastic approach to morality in the face of a terrifying situation and the way his confidence in it is not as strong a front as he’d like it to be, and the fascinatingly bizarre way he emotes—and that’s before getting into the manic-doomed-love and living-a-lie stuff from later on. In one twisted, scheming package there is the quintessential feeling of this manga. His visage has come to capture the desperation, the faint hope, the moral muddiness, the impotent rage, the short-sighted folly and the queerness that is my Devilman.
I think that’s a good expression of it, “My Devilman”. And I’m not the inventor of this idea: Go Nagai himself is. The anthology Neo Devilman is a collection of stories set during and around the events of the original, each one written and drawn by a different artist. A few are by Nagai himself. “Canon” is a silly question at this point, especially given the mutually-exclusive nature of many of the stories contained therein, but they are certainly all “official”. They all demonstrate their own author’s individual take on the setting and characters, and put together give the impression of the original story as something of a mythological canvas, with several extended status quo’s punctuated by dramatic events that transition between them, between which any number of things may have happened. Characters are stretched this or that direction, the visual style varies hugely, and so on. And they are all valid. I like that a lot. I’m certainly not into every story in Neo Devilman, but some of them I consider pretty much essential. Because they’re ‘my Devilman’ to a T. So it goes.
Aside from the obvious anti-authoritarian streak running through the whole thing, from several angles, the next most-obvious ingredient in this queer reading experiental soup is all the monstrous imagery. When confronted with the attitude that you are not natural, not proper, unholy, an unnatural thing, there are many recourses with which to mentally cope. Reclaiming, owning this ‘monstrous’ idea is a common one, I’ve found. If there is a god, I refuse to believe it discriminates like that, but if your idea of a god considers me a monster then call me a screaming fang-toothed demon any day of the week. (This idea doesn’t always involve the religious angle but I’m leaning into that version given the subject matter.) I’d be remiss to not mention the transformation imagery as well—whether into an enormous demon free of inhibition to wreak havoc, or the distinctly more ‘beautiful’ transformation into a certain character’s ‘true self’ from the final arc, there’s a lot for a repressed queer or trans kid to identify with, no? Especially as the manga enters its later stages and the ever-increasing number of Devilmen are forced to hide that which makes them different or else retreat from ‘polite society’ altogether (a society which cannot tell them apart from the true monsters). For some this latter option isn’t so bad. I’m sure there are points in many of our childhoods when we wished we had an Akira Fudou to rock up in sleeveless leather and say: “You’re not a monster. You’re something amazing, and you’re not alone either. Come run wild with the demons.” Even as things get grimmer and grimmer, the sense of “camaraderie, at last!” among them is electrifying.
Anyway, as mentioned, this feeling doesn’t necessarily always equal actual quality. For instance: Devilman Lady, the official sequel to the original manga, regrettably. It is … bad. It is seventeen volumes of horribly exploitative monster porn in large part, and the rallying cries you may have heard not to read it are pretty sensible. And yet I have an attachment to it that prevents me from discarding it entirely. Because it is, still, my Devilman. It has the hellish-monsters-and-weird-faces aesthetic, the characterisation hits the specific beats I need them to, the queerness persists no matter how overtly bungled, the divine and the demonic are out in full force, and it is—unrestrained, maybe? That’s not necessarily a good thing, indeed some restraint in order to focus on the demon-fighting aspect might have been what was needed to make it, you know, actually good … but that full-on all-in aspect is part of the feeling I need from a Devilman thing. So as unpleasant as it is (honest warning, do not read it), it remains one of the works that inhabit this series’ mental space in my mind.
And on the other hand, take the original anime from the 1970s. I haven’t seen it yet, because it doesn’t seem to me like a part of what I experience Devilman to be. Nothing draws me inexorably to it like with most other media to do with any of these characters. Again, this isn’t to do with quality—from what I hear, it’s a very well-regarded classic hero show! And classic hero shows are a jam of mine, so I’m sure I’d find enjoyment in it and probably will when I eventually make time for it (I’ve seen one of the associated movies and liked it!). But as much a tale of a rebel as it still purports to be, I pick up nothing of quite the same feeling of the outcast from it, certainly not so repeatedly and so cosmically. Maybe it’s that it only allows for its hero to be a lone noble rebel rather than start a movement? Normally I’m all for the theme of heroism through shouldering a burden to spare others from it, but as I’m in the process of expounding, that’s not what I need this series to be about. Ryo’s absence from the anime was not a deliberate choice, I know, but it is perhaps the most major thing to me.
Let me make my most biased statement yet—Akira without Ryo is not so much Sherlock without Watson as Watson without Sherlock, in terms of the enormity of what’s missing. And of course, to the best of my knowledge it is entirely straight, not just in text (which it certainly is), but in subtext. Never does the story take the revolutions of other incarnations to become something other than the hero fending off undesirable invaders from our wholesome society, in order to live a happily ever after with his girl. In the manga and the works more derivative of it, we must confront that we are as bad as the demons, only better at hiding it. The lone hero cannot protect us, though Akira is no less noble for trying. We must embrace and become the unfamiliar that we fear, or perish. And the ending is not so picturesque for anyone.
It’s not much fun, but that I can have this feeling echoed back from an outside source is very precious to me. And it rings far truer to the queer experience than the more conventional tale it almost was. Desperation and resistance and living as well as you can despite no guarantee of success, not just in the ‘there’s only a 1% chance of getting through that asteroid field!’ sense, but no, really, the narrative will not save you.
I’m not here to say that these things are ‘better’. But they are ‘Devilman’.