#1 One of the oldest shounen hits
First releasing in 1972, Devilman is one of the oldest shounen series that remains relevant to this day. Go Nagai’s hit manga and its various follow-ups have had an enormous impact on the medium as a whole; inspiring countless other stories. Over 50 years later, the original Devilman remains captivating in a way that few other series could ever hope to be.
It tells the story of Akira Fudou. A timid young man who is one day exposed to a terrible secret. Demons existed in this world, predating even the earliest of humans. They are creatures who lust for unending violence and who wield power that outclasses even the mightiest weapons in existence. If left unopposed, our race will surely be doomed.
Akira’s only hope of preventing our imminent demise is to sacrifice his own humanity. He and his best Ryo partake in a ritual to summon one of these demons and fuse with them. In doing so, Akira becomes one with the demon warrior Amon. He gains the incredible power and ferocity of demonkind, but retains the mind and soul of a human. He is a new kind of creature: a Devilman. But will this power be enough for a single person to oppose all of demonkind? We shall see…
Despite its age, the original Devilman manga remains incredibly good; a shounen masterpiece. It has a compelling hero in Akira, who is destined to face off against a cast of amazing villains. The action scenes look amazing and several plot twists sent shivers down my spine. Do not let its age mislead you into underestimating this manga.
#2 It’s very different from the anime
One of my most critical reviews to date is for the anime adaptation of this very manga. It began releasing suspiciously soon after Devilman began publication. As a result, the story and tone of the anime diverged from the manga almost immediately. Resulting in a different (and rather mediocre) show.
The anime is more of an episodic superhero story. Each week Akira faces off with another demon and beats the snot out of them within that episode. Some of these fights play out similarly to their counterparts in the manga, but are cut down significantly and interspersed with a lot of filler. As a result, major characters like Sirene end up with just as much spotlight as throwaway extras. To top it off, the anime added a lot of slapstick and other goofy comedy bits; making the tone very inconsistent.
The manga is a different beast entirely. Its story develops the individual villains much better and affords far more time to their arcs and battles. The confrontation with Sirene alone eat up well over a hundred pages. The manga fleshes out her backstory and relationships alongside a lengthy, suspenseful battle. It’s a night-and-day difference.
On the whole, the story is also far more coherent. The Devilman anime is attached to its status quo. No matter what battles Akira fights or what plots he foils, humanity carries on none the wiser. Any changes are reset by the next episode. This is not the case with the manga. Here the story continuously escalates as demonkind ramps up its invasion. The world is plunged into chaos and conflict, which becomes downright apocalyptic in the later chapters. Beloved characters are permanently killed off and plot twists carry real weight that isn’t magically erased come the next chapter.
If you felt that the anime was too childish and repetitive, then give the manga a read. I guarantee that it’ll be a very different experience.
#3 Sex, drugs, and violence
Go Nagai has always been one to push at the limits of good tastes. His stories explored many controversial topics, for which he faced a great deal of pushback. His perseverance in the face of this criticism expanded the range of what manga could be about. What society accepted from manga. Our hobby owes him a great deal.
Devilman played a huge role in this too, but in a way that surprised me. 50 years later, this manga still feels more daring than what we’re used to seeing even in modern series. Devilman would still be controversial if it released today.
Violence certainly plays a big part in that. The action in Devilman is exceptionally brutal, which helps sell the demons as a world-ending threat to our species. Humans and fellow demons alike get absolutely gored. Dismemberment, impalement, beheadings, skin-melting acid, and being eaten alive are par for the course here. There is also ample amounts of body horror, which remains effective despite the oldschool artstyle. Making this even more touchy, the violence isn’t limited to just demons and adult extras. Actual children and even infants are regularly among the victims.
Devilman also drew inspiration from the hippie subculture active in Japan at the time. Particularly by the hedonistic side of it. As such Devilman features sexual themes and full nudity, casual drug use, and more than a little alcoholism on top of that. Sounds like a good time, if it weren’t for all the death and misery.
#4 A more genuine Miki
Something which irks me in many of the later revisions of Devilman is how they treat Miki Makimura. She is Akira’s friend and love interest, who in most versions of the story is presented as a little too perfect. Even in the 1970s anime she is depicted as a girl of unmatched beauty and charm, who is also super friendly, smart, and beloved by everyone. Traits that carried over to most of her incarnations across the series.
Here, in the original manga, Miki is quite different. She starts off as something of a bully to Akira. She teases him relentlessly and quite clearly doesn’t think much of him. He’s a cowardly weakling, a crybaby unfit to be called a man. This betrays a degree of shallowness in her when Akira merges with Amon and she changes her attitude overnight. Miki is taken by Akira’s newfound macho behavior. She swoons while watching him pick fights with other students and showers him in praise.
Rather than being a bad thing, I find this adds flavor to the character. Miki is a teenager, who aren’t exactly known for being perfectly-adjusted and reasonable. When her childhood friend turns into a tough guy overnight, she sees that as a straight improvement. She’s infatuated with him. Maybe that love is shallow—the product of youthful stupidity. Even so, it’s a major influence on the story going forward. It lies at the heart of both Miki and Akira’s character development.
#5 Unintended hilarity
As much respect as I have for Go Nagai, I have to admit that the bloke is strange at times. His writing isn’t always the most coherent and his art has an inescapable goofiness to it. Qualities that make Devilman unintentionally hilarious at times.
All of human life may be at stake, but that is hard to appreciate when some of the demons have vagina lasers or some of the most cartoon villain monologues imaginable. Even the protagonists sometimes can’t escape this. I love that image above. You’re not missing any context. They’re just casually driving around, an awkward silence between them, which Ryo breaks by loudly screaming about his father’s recent death.
Ryo is the king of awkwardness, but even without him there are so many silly moments in Devilman. Future adaptations attempted to smooth these out, for example by making the reveal in the picture sound a lot more naturally dramatic. I consider that a downgrade.
#6 Interesting politics
The manga’s approach to sexual content and drug use aren’t its only controversial elements that hold up to this day. The manga’s politics were pointed back in 1973 and remain relevant today. Though saying that makes me more than a little depressed.
A major theme throughout the manga is that demons are not mankind’s only problem. The very idea that demons exist and could be hiding among mankind is itself a threat. It preys on people’s paranoia, reignites their every fear of the other. Everyone who is different from you could be a demon in disguise. You better take action.
Demons are powerful, but it is the divisions within mankind that allows them to succeed. Divisions that can be political, sure, but also historical or ethnical. Devilman was written amidst the cold war with nuclear armageddon looming over people. However, it also touches on antisemitism and discrimination against other minorities. Even in the face of an overwhelming foe, we cling to bigotry and hatred. We waste energy chasing after silly paranoia even though a real, tangible enemy looms on the horizon. Dr. Rainuma’s speech is iconic, mainly because the audience is helplessly aware of how misguided it is:
“People have grown ever more dissatisfied with the status quo of today’s society! With no outlet for relief, that pent-up discontent will build until it transforms a person into another being entirely. Kill them! Kill all malcontents! Anyone dissatisfied with the status quo must die! Purge all the Indians! We must consider all blacks to be potential demons! The Arab insurgents have to be killed off now! Anyone who has participated in a protest movement must be a dangerous malcontent! And the Jews haven’t forgotten the atrocities of the holocaust! Kill them all!“
More like this…
Devilman Grimoire: The ultimate version of Devilman.
Cutey Honey: Another timeless classic by Go Nagai.
Parasyte: Mankind faces an existential threat that can hide within society.