Crisis on N Earths: Devilman Crybaby S1E1 “I Need You”

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing!

There’s a story–an urban legend that’s hung around anime fandom for decades–that Lex Dunbar likes to tell at conventions. It goes like this:

This guy was going to his first con, and he wanted to go all out: he wanted to cosplay. He was a pretty big, buff guy, so he decided to cosplay Devilman. He put enormous effort into it, and the results were excellent: horns, wings, fangs, head-to-toe red body paint, no clothes except a pair of shorts.

The convention was held at one of those huge Midwestern conference hotels, the kind that can host two or three large conventions at once, and this year it happened to be sharing its space with an evangelical Christian prayer retreat. The guy’s room is on the top floor, and the convention is way down at the bottom, so he’s got a long elevator ride. After going down a few floors, the door opens, and he sees this little old lady waiting for the elevator, clutching a Bible.

And the little old lady sees him, in his amazing Devilman cosplay. Her eyes widen in horror, and her knuckles turn white she’s holding onto that Bible so hard. And the guy says, in the deepest, most sinister voice he can muster, “Going down?

The woman just stands there. The elevator doors close, and down he goes to the convention. Eventually he notices that there are ambulances parked outside and asks his friend if something happened.

“Oh man, didn’t you hear?” the friend replies. “Some old lady was waiting for the elevator, and she suddenly had a heart attack and died!”

Dunbar’s researched this story, and according to them the earliest versions they can find aren’t about anime at all: they’re set at a science fiction convention, and the cosplayer is dressed as Tim Curry’s devil character from the movie Legend. That’s not the point.

The point is that up until now, that story, and a prior, vague notion of what the character looked like, was the entirety of my knowledge of Devilman. So I entered this anime having essentially no idea what it was about.

Which turns out to be a pretty good approach, because it is clearly trying to be deliberately disorienting. First episodes of anime do that a lot–the first episode of Baccano!, for example, is essentially incomprehensible, then slowly starts to make sense retroactively as the series unfolds. But Devilman Crybaby does it differently: Baccano!confused the viewer by presenting overwhelming quantities of information, an enormous cast, and quick-cutting, complex images that tended toward sensory overload, while Devilman Crybaby focuses on just a few characters with a deceptively simplistic, slow-paced visual style and narrative. However, just as the viewer is lulled into complacency by this simplicity, the narrative throws in a strange reference or horrific image, before finally culminating in the nightmarish Sabbath.

It is, in short, probably not an accident that this first episode shares a title with the final scene of End of Evangelion (specifically, on-screen titles immediately before the final scene of that film read “Neon Genesis Evangelion One Last Final: I need you”), which is likewise slow, quiet, relatively simple, and utterly shocking.

In this confusing, almost hypnotic episode, it is tempting to latch onto the familiar. The equation of sex and debauchery to violence, for example, is a staple of horror. The aesthetic of carnival is the grotesque; the violation of social boundaries is reified in the violation of the body’s limits. So too is the colonialist depiction of an ancient Amazonian tribe–Othered in both space and time–as secret devils in the process of returning. Once again, that which is socially Other becomes equated to distortion of and violence against the body. But there are hints that there could be something else here, as well, in the person of Professor Fikira.

At least, that’s what the subtitles call him; however, when Ryo speaks to him in English in the flashback to the Amazon, he distinctly calls him Professor Ficula. Latin for “little fig,” the word may well be a reference to the Biblical fig leaf, donned by Adam and Eve to hide their suddenly shameful bodies. In other words, Ficula (or Fikira) is a costume being worn by something grotesque. But another interpretation is more interesting: that his name is a reference to Ficula religiosa, the bodhi tree. It was while meditating under the bodhi tree that the Buddha attained enlightenment; perhaps it is under Fikira–that is, inspired by and learning from him–that someone is seeking enlightenment.

The obvious candidate is Ryo, who is easily the most compelling character in the show so far. By all appearances he is, and has been since childhood, a violent, amoral killer who cares nothing for the rules of society–and thus cannot become a demon, because for him there is no transgression. If one’s entire life is carnivalesque, then one cannot experience the carnival. He thus tries to get his childhood friend possessed by Amon, so that he can learn more about the demons.

But a more interesting possibility is that it is Akira who is becoming enlightened. After all, the enlightened state necessarily lies outside the norms of society, and crossing those lines is the entire point of carnival. The “crybaby” of the title is almost certainly Akira, and refers to his profound compassion, to the point that he cries not for his own sadness, but for the suffering of others. Compassion, however, is not a weakness; it is a source of immense strength.

Strength enough to contain a demon, perhaps. And what would a compassionate demon be? One outside normal society, labeled grotesque, Other, and yet determined to protect and bring healing–that sounds like enlightenment to me.


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