“Isn’t anime for kids?” is a question many of us will have no doubt dealt with at some point in our lives. Sometimes it’s just a polite question, sometimes it’s meant as mockery, but it’s a difficult can of worms all the same. Animation is so clearly linked to children’s entertainment in the mind of the mainstream public, and it’s a difficult point to contest if you’re watching the likes of Yuru Camp when it’s being asked.
I recall an awkward point in our history where people flooded the web with screengrabs of ultraviolent and ecchi shows, challenging detractors to watch those and still claim anime is for kids. It certainly wasn’t a highpoint for our community, but if that attitude still lingers, then the fans of ultraviolence recently found a new weapon in Netflix’ Devilman Crybaby.
Based on a manga famously considered to be the best apocalypse story out there, Netflix’ adaptation is true to its source in the sense that it features violence, gore, sex, and demonic imagery. It wouldn’t be the first time that Devilman is adapted into anime, but Netflix’ go at it has put Nagai’s name back in the minds of many anime fans. This makes it an ideal time to actually look back on his career and the interesting changes that led to Devilman‘s creation.
Nagai started creating manga in the late 60s, during which his work consisted mostly of short comedy stories with quick conclusions. A pivotal moment in his career was Harenchi Gakuen, a series that ran from 1968 to 1972 and would be his usual, comedic-type of story. However, Japanese society just about lost their collective shit over the manga. The sexual influences present in Nagai’s work were considered not done in a medium that, in the eyes of Japan’s people, was meant for children.
It’s no understatement to say that Nagai became a controversial figure, with parents, teachers, and the usual busybodies protesting his work. This escalated to the point where people were trying to prevent magazines with his stories from being distributed, and actually had some success in doing so. Nagai was neither amused nor intimidated.
While he would continue to write funny stories and the 70s would also see him create mecha licenses like Grendizer and Mazinger, Nagai’s immediate response to the controversy was to double down on everything. He wanted more violence, more nudity, and he wanted to take the piss out of society. For me, the most interesting work born from this period is Gakuen Taikutsu Otoko, known in English as Guerilla High.
Released in 1970, this 3 volume story features a student uprising against a failing education system. Teachers respond by taking up arms and gunning down rebellious students. It doesn’t take long before the situation gets out of hand and rebel groups sprung up, of which Mondo leads one. Mondo is a psychopath wandering Japan, going from school to school and massacring the teachers there, whereupon he frees the students and makes them part of his temporary armies. Temporary in the sense he gets them killed by the dozens.
While it’s not visually stunning in terms of violence, the grim subject matter of students shooting up their teachers (and vice versa) is a controversial subject that’s still touchy to this day. The manga is blatantly pandering to this controversy, especially volume 1 which tosses in some torture and features a female teacher that just exists to be almost raped in every scene that features her.
With a total of 3 volumes, the story does take a bit of a turn after the first and begins to focus on the rivalry between Mondo and two other rebel leaders, which also tones down and retcons the more extreme sides of their personalities. It has its moments, but it’s very much a manga that lives on shock value and serves the singular purpose of being socially unacceptable. While it’s not a good manga, it is very much an important one.
It takes a lot of effort for society to change its perception of media and Nagai was, almost singlehandedly, attempting to make that change happen. He wrote numerous stories and never backed down from pressure. We owe it to Nagai and other controversial creators like Hideshi Hino that violent manga gained traction and became normalized. Guerilla High might not have been great, but it was followed up by Demon Lord Dante, Violence Jack, and, of course, Devilman. Alongside Cutie Honey and Nagai’s mecha series, these are all titles you still hear referenced in interviews today as sources of inspiration for younger mangaka and anime directors.