Well, here we are at last. Since this is a new anime, I should probably do a spoiler warning up front because that’s just polite. Having said that, if you’ve read the past few Devilman reviews you know most of the story already. Crybaby is a complete adaptation of the Go Nagai manga, but an “updated” one, taking place in the modern day and avoiding a lot of the goofier shit in the previous adaptations, though it adds some goofy shit of its own. It is a “gore and tits” anime, but perhaps not as leering as productions of that sort usually are. You could see it as a Tarantino style treatment of the classical elements of that genre, the hard edges are smoothed over with artifice and a vaguely anarchic sort of humour. It is a “cool” piece of animation, and in some ways its distaste for being uncool is what makes it not work as well as it could. It is often belligerently self-aware, but it also can’t decide between sincerity and irony, it seems to be uncomfortable with its source material and with itself, and compensates by donning a thick armour of bravado. Maybe this is appropriate to the themes of pubescent insecurity running throughout, but the creative team pulls the rug out from under itself probably a dozen times too many for that perspective to really bear scrutiny.
I don’t want to give the impression, though I probably have, that I think Crybaby is bad. On the contrary, it is a bit of a mess, but a very engaging one. I don’t think I have felt so compelled to keep watching something since JoJo, and while this is a fraction of the duration at ten episodes of twenty-five minutes apiece, it was the desire to see what would happen next that meant I usually let the next episode timer run down on Netflix, something I don’t often do. I know the story of Devilman well enough by now, but the show manages to be stylistically intriguing and unpredictable enough that even though I knew what was coming most of the time I wanted to see how those things would be handled. Of course it was interesting to see how, for example, this new series would present Jinmen or Sirene (that’s Shernu for all you shitdubbers out there)—and in fact Jinmen is treated very differently, the fight has greater emotional resonance for Akira because not only is his mother’s death mask trapped in the shell, Jinmen is actually possessing his father—but the main draw was just to see it do its thing away from all of that.
The art style is quite different from the source manga. That’s been a given among all the adaptations so far, but Crybaby makes a point of differentiating itself from its predecessors. Akira is drawn post-fusion as a supremely lanky brooding teenager with a chin of great magnitude, borrowing just a little from the original character designs for Violence Jack, where every man has a jaw that could be used to crack walnuts. A sort of slice-of-life approach is taken to making becoming a devilman analogous to going through puberty. In Nagai’s manga, fusion or possession is supposed to be representative of the draft, because the manga is anti-war. I was looking up the Go Nagai wiki to confirm some of this stuff and it turns out they know about as much as I do (and they write these things with even less certainty—I guess Nagai is just kind of vague about this stuff), so I guess it doesn’t matter. Anyway, yes, puberty. Akira transforms into a desirable(?) young man with a bulging crotch and an immense appetite, and every girl except Miki, who in the shitdubs of yore almost word for word says “I wish Akira would soap my tits”, seems to lust after him. It’s a strange nod to the harem genre that goes nowhere, but that seems to be the show’s bread and butter; lots of avenues explored with eyes only, rarely does an entire foot make it in. It’s a kind of eclecticism that can feel a little half-baked at times: Hiroyuki Imaishi on an off-day, an especially apt comparison given the show’s approach to sex, violence, and comedy.
While at its best the art direction delivers a kind of vibrant expressionism in which bold unnatural colours heighten drama, it can trip itself up and overwhelm the writing. The real underlying conflict of Crybaby may well be not Devilman vs. Satan but direction vs. script. Director Masaaki Yuasa is undoubtedly clever, but I feel like this cleverness is sometimes indulged for its own sake rather than out of any artistic necessity. Visually and tonally the show turns on a dime, and the contortionist aesthetics maybe needed reining in a little bit to maintain the pathos that the tragic elements of the story need in order to function properly. When the final scene rolls around, what should be an emotionally impactful conclusion comes off a little light because the show has simply played around too much. While it is a full adaptation of the Devilman story, I think it could have benefited from slowing down a little bit and adding more quiet character moments, especially between Akira and Ryo, so that the reveal of Ryo as Satan, and the tragedy of his betrayal, really hits home.
Having said that, the show does do a really good job of showing that Ryo, rather than just being a cold and unapologetic man of questionable ethics, is not quite human. There is something of the serial killer in his development, his recourse to violence against innocents as a child, for example. His back story as presented here is more in line with the manga than the old OVAs, where they didn’t get much past the first arc, but there are some significant changes. Instead of his father being possessed by a demon and going batshit crazy, this time around Ryo is a super-rich scientist whose colleague becomes possessed on a research expedition in South America. He also doesn’t ramble on about Dante, which I think we can all be thankful for. Satan’s awakening suggests that he was in fact placed on Earth as a human infant, there is no mention of parents or anything to suggest earthly ties, he simply came into physical existence at some point, and was befriended by Akira before being adopted (I guess) by the demon Psycho Jenny, an odd choice given that her human form is the least convincing of all.
Going back to bulging crotches for a moment, Crybaby is much more sex-oriented than its predecessors. Previously there was nudity, yes, but no actual sex. Here people just can’t stop banging. There’s dream sex, real sex, demon sex, gay sex, masturbation, rape, necrophilia, semen splatter, and enough bare (and typically bouncing) breasts to fill a decade’s worth of Playboys. I get the impression they tried to get some of Devilman Lady in there, which is pretty much devoted to ogling the main character and showing her in situations of sexual distress as much as possible. Lady, both in its manga and anime forms, also makes itself felt in the show’s featuring of sports and modelling as key plot points for Miki and several other characters. However, the show also avoids the overtly misogynist tone of Nagai’s work, and while women are killed, some quite graphically, there is no emphasis on their suffering over anyone else. Women are vulnerable insofar as everyone is, but there are several instances of women fighting back or being just as fucked up as the men, particularly after Ryo initiates the apocalypse by broadcasting heavily edited footage of the sabbath, which this time around is actually the street name for a Dionysian underground club scene popular among the Japanese youth.
Also popular among the Japanese youth, apparently, is rapping. There is a lot of rapping, which is used to deliver commentary on the state of the world as the series progresses. This comes courtesy of a street gang, which initially looks to be the new version of the thugs who bully Akira in the manga, but eventually its members befriend Miki and gain Akira’s trust. While they are generally presented as good guys, the writing does a nice job of making them individually varied. At least one member never speaks, and he later joins with the mob that assaults the Makimura house during the apocalypse, having previously tried to shoot Akira when seeing the broadcast of the sabbath footage. The “leaders” of the gang are the most honourable and courageous, sacrificing themselves to try and save Miki, which as we know doesn’t go so well. Unlike Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman, Akira is not consumed by Amon when he discovers Miki’s corpse and instead retains his humanity through all his struggles and loss. While he loses the final battle with Satan, he teaches Satan a lesson about love, albeit one which is tragically too late to prevent the end of the world.
It’s unclear after the world is shown made anew if this will lead to Violence Jack or to Devilman Lady, both of which are presented as two alternative futures for the recreated world. Jack is supposed to be the reincarnation of Akira in a world where Ryo made himself an impotent slave to the Slum King (the reincarnation of the demon Xenon/Zennon) as penance for killing Akira, but then in Shin Violence Jack Slum King himself is shown to be Akira, or… something? I think this whole “review Devilman things” thing has imbued me with a morbid fascination for Go Nagai because I’ve started reading Violence Jack in earnest. Devilman Lady is basically “what if Akira was a woman who got raped a lot and Ryo was a woman also?” and I don’t really understand what the point of it is. In any case, given that the final shot of Earth starting anew is presented as a definitive conclusion, it seems like we won’t be getting Violence Jack Crybaby. And what a mercy that is.
I think Crybaby is good but flawed. It has an exciting visual style, but this frequently overwhelms plot and character and the show feels somewhat unbalanced as a result. The central relationship between Akira and Ryo is portrayed decently overall, but the emphasis on style can leave a bad taste in the mouth as the resolution of their conflict feels a little synthetic and taken at a glance rather than in depth. The show ultimately undermines itself because it’s too busy trying to be cool when it should be serious, and while Nagai is hardly the best manga writer out there, his story and the Akira/Ryo relationship is one that is tragic and does have pathos, which the show fails to fully capture. However, I don’t think this makes Crybaby not worth watching. Despite the problems I have with it, what prevails is the charm of a work that gets slightly out of hand in deference to a powerful and outspoken creative vision. It’s eminently watchable, easily the best adaptation of Devilman yet made (and probably the last one we’ll see for a good while), and I feel confident in making a recommendation on that basis.