Devilman: The Birth (Umanosuke Iida, 1987) and Devilman: Demon Bird Sirene (Umanosuke Iida, 1990)

TO FIGHT A DEMON, ONE MUST BECOME A DEMON!

Prehistoric demons, hideous and pitiless monsters that consume humans body and soul, secretly threaten mankind. Humanity’s only hope is to harness the demons’ power and turn it against them. With the help of his friend Ryo Asuka, the pure-hearted Akira Fudo merges with the demon Amon, God of War and Beast of Hell, to become Devilman, powerful defender of the human race with the strength and abilities of a demon! In Devilman: The Birth and Devilman: Demon Bird Sirène, this hellish anti-hero pits his infernal might against possessed party-goers, squid and spiders monsters, a sadistic turtle creature, and a beautiful and savage winged demoness.

Adapted from the 1972-1973 manga of visionary author and artist Go Nagai, Umanosuke Iida’s pair of original video animations faithfully represents the gory violence and incredible monstrosities that defined the series and made Devilman an iconic figure in Japanese popular culture. Arrow Video proudly presents these classic works of 1980s anime excess on high-definition Blu-ray with both their original Japanese audio and notorious English dub tracks.

Special Features:

  • New High Definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original stereo audio for original Japanese and English dub tracks (uncompressed on the Blu-ray Disc)
  • Isolated music tracks featuring the compositions of Kenji Kawai
  • New optional English subtitle translation
  • New interview with acclaimed author and artist Go Nagai
  • “We All Steal from Go Nagai!” – Directors Guillermo del Toro, Rob Zombie, and Yoshihiro Nishimura on the legacy of Go Nagai and Devilman
  • Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Natsume Fusanosuke and Andrea Marinelli and an essay by creator Go Nagai written on the 30th anniversary of Devilman
  • Devilman: Tanjo Hen – the single volume novel that originally accompanied the OVA in 1987, newly translated and reprinted in its entirety
  • The Demon Bible – the original book published by Bandai in 1990 featuring artwork by Go Nagai, includes original Japanese and new English translations and reprinted in its entirety

It’s time to revisit the Arrow Video label and our poll looking for reader tastes in unexplored cult genres shows anime and wuxia standing as co-leaders! A few different options were considered as an anime-entry point for Arrow Video. The work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri came quickly to mind, but as MMC! has already stumped for his Wicked City (1987), we decided to look elsewhere. (Wicked City would nevertheless make a great Arrow Video title – as would many titles proposed for the seemingly defunct Drafthouse Films label!) Satoshi Kon was also a natural candidate, but we ultimately thought that Kon’s most horror-thriller-cultish titles were a little dense for Arrow Video’s more straightforward selections. Hideki Takayama’s Urotsukidōji: The Legend of the Overfiend (1989) and Hiroshi Harada’s Midori (1992) were even considered, but both felt too graphic and intense for a starting point – plus I’m not sure how much of my time I want to spend revisiting and dissecting either. Ultimately, MMC! landed upon a few different titles all based on the work of Go Nagai and chose Umanosuke Iida’s pair of original video animations (OVAs) of the action-horror manga Devilman!

While Go Nagai’s inspiration Osamu Tezuka undoubtedly stands as manga’s seminal figure, Nagai himself may be a close second in the history of Japanese sequential art. The creator of various iconic characters, Nagai is typically credited as creating and popularizing the ecchi and the piloted-Super robot genres – the former refers to manga typified by a playful approach to sexuality as established in Nagai’s Harenchi Gakuen, while the latter contemplates giant mecha controlled from within a cockpit as established in Nagai’s Mazinger Z and various subsequent works. Nagai also broke with comic book tradition in his Cutie Honey series by developing a female superhero popular with male and female audiences. Now fifty years into his career, Nagai remains active in manga and has assumed esteemed roles as faculty at the Osaka University of Arts and committee member to the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize.

Go Nagai’s self-identified life’s work is Devilman, an anti-war allegory wrapped in a demon-versus-human horror/adventure. Originally developed as a 1972 prime-time, animated television series for Toei Animation and inspired by Nagai’s own manga series Demon Lord Dante (Maō Dante), Nagai contemporaneously presented the Devilman character as a more mature, transgressive, and violent figure in the manga that debuted in Weekly Shōnen Magazine just a month before the TV show. Nagai felt that the magazine’s older audience needed a deeper and more intense story that offered more than the evil-versus-evil format of the television program, and the paper version of Devilman is steeped in the melodrama, the gore, and the sexuality characteristic to Nagi’s work. Devilman has since flourished in manga, anime, novels, and films, becoming one of Nagai’s best known and most beloved creations. Umanosuke Iida’s pair of OVAs has the distinction of being the most faithful anime adaptations of Go Nagai’s original 1972-1973 manga, even offering improvements on Nagai’s characterizations and plotting.

The first of these OVAs, The Birth, adapts the first volume of the Devilman manga, but opens differently by presenting a Fantasia-like depiction of prehistoric Earth, full of gossamer winged fairies floating serenely through the air until monstrous flora and fauna begin feasting on and merging with the sprites in the most brutal and agonizing manners. Take it as a declaration of 1980s manime excess, of youthful (and nubile) innocence cannibalized for gory, unrepentant spectacle. This opening sequence sets the tone for the OVA – violent, grotesque, and slightly prurient – and presents a vision of Devilman‘s central conflict to come – of a world of demons that once dominated our world and aim to do so once again. It also encapsulates the experience of The Birth‘s central figure, Akira Fudo. Akira is a nice boy who lives with Miki Makimura’s family (Akira’s family having died during an Arctic exploration after uncovering something monstrous frozen within a glacier) and who is too sensitive to either recognize her affections or respond to them. He is, however, strongly principled, putting himself in peril to protect a pet rabbit from some thugs looking to kill it, yet refusing to engage the men in violence. Like those slight and fragile fairies who defend themselves with destructive force, Akira’s meekness belies the strength and power that allows him to stand up to the thugs and eventually do battle with demons.

The purity of Akira’s character leads to the return of his old friend Ryo Asuka, an angry young man recently orphaned after his archaeologist father went mad. Ryo brings Akira back to his old, dark mansion of a home and reveals to him that demons are real and are intent on destroying humanity. He posits that mankind’s only hope is for someone truly pure of heart to merge with a demon, harness its power, and destroy demonkind. After narrowly surviving various demonic encounters around the Asuka estate, Ryo leads Akira to a subterranean rave beneath the mansion attended by addicts, loose women, and ne’er do-wells. This modern day sabbath is intended to summon demons through the various party-goers, and Ryo achieves his goal of strobe-lit body horror. Akira becomes possessed by Amon, demonic God of War and Beast of Hell, but he controls the monster and uses his newfound power to decimate all the demons conjured. Amid the carnage and devastation, The Birth closes with an anguished Akira holding an unresponsive Ryo in his arms.

Akira is noticeably changed by Demon Bird Sirène, released three years after The Birth. His larger size, heavy eyeliner, and propensity for sleeveless shirts declare him as someone no longer accustomed to being pushed around. This second OVA is light on story and heavy on violence, with Devilman facing off against Jinmen (a gigantic turtle with faces of his human victims embedded on his shell, moaning and pleading in anguish), Ghelmer (a large, insect-like water-demon that preys upon Miki), and Sirène (a bare-breasted bird woman with detachable claws and massive wings extending from her head). Iida’s adaptation of the second volume of the manga (the duel with Sirène) and part of the third (the confrontation with Jinmen) is all killer, no filler; full of violence, monstrosity, questionable sexuality, and brilliant action spectacle. Devilman and Sirène pitching and rolling between buildings and through the sky is expertly presented. If it’s reminiscent of Miyazaki’s classic flying sequences, consider that Umanosuke Iida was an animator at the newly established Studio Ghibli when he took on the Devilman project and various Ghibli animators like Yoshinori Kanada, Kazuo Komatsubara, and Shinji Ootsuka, as well as color designer Michiyo Yauda, contributed to Devilman‘s production. By the end of the second OVA’s prolonged battles, Devilman and Sirène are both defeated, but only Devilman survives, inverting the conclusion of The Birth by waking in the arms of Ryo.

It was originally Go Nagai’s own idea to adapt his original manga into an anime a decade after its publishing. All five volumes were intended for translation to OVA but Devilman never got farther than Demon Bird Sirène. As it is, Iida’s Devilman films now seem anachronistic to many contemporary anime fans, with its questionable exploitation of female nudity, its high levels of gore and violence, and a dub-track with almost comical degrees of cursing leaving them ill at ease. Devilman is arguably now perceived by the anime mainstream as reprobate and/or something only for hardcore fans of Go Nagai.

Devilman does have plenty to offer beyond its excessive spectacle. I do wonder if current anime fans would better appreciate these OVAs if their connections to Studio Ghibli were better known. As well, Nagai’s allegorical antiwar message deserves greater consideration. For all of Devilman‘s violent content, Nagai was greatly critical of real life bloodshed, remarking that “[there] is no justice in war, any war, nor is there any justification for human beings killing one another. Devilman carries a message of warning, as we step toward a bright future.” And his metaphor was as direct as his moral, noting that “[when] humans transform into devils and demons, what they really are doing is taking up murder weapons and embarking on war” and that “[the] ‘indiscriminate melding of demons with humans’ that we see in Devilman refers to the draft system.” Even with only two OVA adaptations, Nagai’s theme of the corrupting influence of violence can be seen in the changes reflected in Akira between the two films – note the indiscriminate collateral damage allowed by Devilman while fighting Sirène, including his tearing the tail fin off of a passenger jet for no good reason!

I’ll suggest here that Devilman may actually be better appreciated by horror fans than current anime watchers, and that Arrow Video is therefore a more suitable home for the title. I suspect that Arrow’s horror-lifers would find value in the descent into darkness that organizes The Birth, marvel at Nagai’s Hieronymus Bosch-esque monster designs, and revel in the trappings of the OVAs’ era. Arrow Video has yet to approach anime in its releases but these excessive works of the ’80s and ’90s would fit well into the label’s wheelhouse, and with the anime industry shifting away from such content, it may be Arrow Video, and not current anime labels, that is best positioned to restore titles such as these back into print. And what’s more is that Arrow Video, above all other labels, would provide an array of special features justifying the rediscovery of Devilman, finding celebrity fans and content that would restore the good name of Japan’s great demonic anti-hero.

An Arrow Video would release might even be able to piggyback on the 2018 release of Devilman Crybaby, an upcoming anime adaptation of the original manga directed by MMC! favourite Maasaki Yuasa!

Credits: With regard to the special features proposed, Devilman: Tanjo Hen and The Demon Bible (Bandai Entertainment Bible #28 in the series) are both real works and would make great supporting materials. Natsume Fusanosuke is a well known manga scholar who greatly admires the Devilman manga, while Andrea Marinelli is the lead figure to Italy’s Go Nagai fan club (Nagai being particularly popular in Italia), and so they were chosen to contribute booklet essays. The quote about stealing from Go Nagai was said by Guillermo del Toro and so it’s used as the title for a piece presenting appreciations by prominent directors. del Toro is a big fan of Japanese pop culture and Go Nagai. Rob Zombie has used footage of these OVAs in his stage shows and even references Devilman in his song “Super-Charger Heaven.” Yoshihiro Nishimura, the director of Tokyo Gore Police (2008), admires Devilman enough to have openly expressed his desire to re-adapt it and correct the wrong done by the 2004 live action film. Lastly, the score by Kenji Kawai (composer to Ghost in the ShellGantz, and numerous films by Hideo Nakata) is among his most appreciated and so we’ve included an isolated score track.

Thanks to everyone who voted in the MMC! poll that resulted in this post. You’re direction was greatly appreciated and you’ll hopefully see a wuxia proposal for Arrow Video shortly. This post owes great debts to the Devilman Wiki, d373’s (DoA)nimation, S. Smith’s essay at The Hooded Utilitarian, Alessandro Bombini’s essay at The Bottom Up, karleenmary’s essay at Coherent Cats, and Neko-chi’s reviews at The Beautiful World.

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