The 70s were a golden age for Go Nagai. Mazinger, Devilman, Cutie Honey, and Violence Jack were all wildly successful manga, all of which would spawn sequels and receive TV adaptations, sometimes even entire video games. These licenses have remained relevant to pop culture for over 50 years now; a true testament to Nagai’s visionary work.
And then there is Demon Lord Dante.
Releasing in 1971, Demon Lord Dante preceded all of Nagai’s hit manga that would follow in the coming years. In fact, it provided a lot of the DNA from which these later series drew inspiration; to the point where it’s basically a prototype to Devilman.
While the manga was successful on release and praised for the usual qualities of Nagai’s work, it didn’t see any kind of follow-up in the years after and faded from pop culture quickly. In 2002 there was a reimagining of the original manga that took the story in a more exciting direction. Later that same year, Demon Lord Dante would finally receive an anime adaptation, courtesy of the studio Magic Bus. An anime that made the curious decision to adapt the old manga instead of becoming a tie-in for the new one.
Before we bite into the meat of this article, I’d like to disclose that I did not finish this series. I got just over halfway through before the sheer boredom got to me, spurred on by the anime’s disastrously poor visuals and equally laughable voice-acting. It’s not just an adaptation of a manga from the 70s, it also kind of feels like it’s stuck in that era quality-wise.
One hilarious example is this scene below. A bunch of cultists are being shot and it’s just a slow-panning shot of a still-image with an animation loop for the bullets. A low-effort scene on its own, turned into an unintended bit of comedy genius by the most generic, cartoon sound-effect imaginable for the gunfire.
Putting aside the anime’s actual quality, the question that hangs over Demon Lord Dante is whether or not it matters at all which series did it first.
When I called Demon Lord Dante a prototype for Devilman, that wasn’t some kind of witty media analysis: these series really are almost identical. Names may differ between both series—although some are recycled as well—but characters, plot devices, and visual designs are all eerily similar.
Ryo Utsugi is basically a post-transformation Akira Fudo. He is a gruff high school delinquent who lives together with a family centered around their beloved daughter, with whom Ryo has some romantic tensions. He loves to ride motorcycles and laze about, but his quiet life of boredom changes when he meets an old friend that reveals to him the existence of demons. Ryo unwillingly becomes involved in their plot to invade Earth and wipe out mankind, and soon becomes possessed by a demon himself. Will he give in to his newfound bloodlust or cling to the lingering fragments of his inner humanity?
Visually and story-wise, that is a lot of overlap.
Still, one could argue that this is Demon Lord Dante‘s rightful claim, since its manga predated Devilman. It did all of these characters and storylines before, so who am I to present it here as if Dante is the off-brand copycat.
While linear time is certainly on Dante’s side, we can’t ignore how history unfolded. This anime adaptation is 30 years late to the party and tries to pretend as if Devilman hadn’t thrived in its absence. While Demon Lord Dante languished in obscurity, Devilman remained a staple of shounen manga for years. These ideas and characters were fleshed out over the course of dozens of reboots, retellings, and adaptations, greatly expanding upon their original premises. How did they ever expect a vanilla take on this story to still work in 2002?
Keep in mind, both The Apocalypse of Devilman and Devil Lady had just concluded 2 years before this anime started. They couldn’t have released this at a worse time.
Not helping the anime’s case is how it differs from the original manga. It goes out of its way to invite even more comparison to Devilman by pushing the encounter with Sosuke forward, which makes him feel even more like a copy of Ryo Asuka from Devilman, at least in story purpose. As a subsequent result, the actual start of the manga is delayed by several episodes, which leaves the anime without a coherent premise for a third of its runtime. Combined with the bargain bin production values, that alone is already a death sentence for this series.
This anime was dealt a cruel fate and probably would’ve been better off either adapting the new manga or accepting its lot in life as a stepping stone. Its influence could have comfortably lived on as an inspiration to Devilman, but this one attempt to break away and establish an independent series may have condemned it to eternal insignificance.