A devil killed Akira Fudo and stole his body so that he could come to Earth in it and destroy mankind. However fortunately for us mortals, this led him to discover girls and motorbikes and so he decided to betray his demon buddies in hell. These days he lives with the Makamura family, including one particular girl (Miki Makamura) who's arguably the unwitting saviour of mankind. Understandably he hasn't told them his secret. They think he's just a bit of rough. They don't know that upon shouting his own name ("Devilman"), he can transform into a winged blue monster with a fondness for ultra-violence.
Straight from the mind of Go Nagai, it's a kiddie cartoon to make Cutey Honey look normal. The five-volume manga is an orgy of dismemberment, mutilation, stabbings, beheadings and "tongues in new places" hermaphrodite angel action, culminating in a bloodbath and a literal apocalypse. No one gets out alive. It's got a visceral power that's hard to ignore, but it demonstrates why Go Nagai makes people nervous. He himself regarded Devilman as his greatest work and was shocked that people preferred Mazinger. Scarily Devilman was developed from another manga called Demon Lord Dante, with the specific brief from Toei animation of toning it down for the sake of creating a cartoon hero for TV.
That's the manga. Bizarrely the anime took all that and made it kiddie-friendly, with results that could be best described as a bit of a mess. A more faithful adaptation exists in the form of three OVA episodes, but this 1972 incarnation is more like Mazinger Z with demons. It has fart jokes, Scooby Doo endings and stupid comedy characters. Even on a visual level it hurts your head, with cartoonish 1970s animation that's fun and colourful but a tad inappropriate for demons. Devilman himself looks like a Marvel superhero or a Mexican wrestler. As in giant robot shows, he even shouts out his attack name ("Devil Wing! Devil Kick!") before doing anything, which you'd think was a bit of a disadvantage in combat.
Nevertheless at heart it's basically The Exorcist. Even kiddified Go Nagai can still make a Western audience spill their drinks. In episode one Miki's dress splits down the front from collar to crotch and Tare-chan wets his pants (a running gag), while Devilman murders Akira (for his body) and Akira's father (for laughs). And he's the hero! The bad guys are even worse, causing thousands of deaths (train and plane crashes, cannibalism, demonic possession, etc.) in scenes that sometimes feel like genuine attempts at horror. Episode six's deaths include incineration, electrocution by power cable and drowning in boiling wax. Then episode eight has nudity and flagellation as Devilman captures the villainess and tries to torture information out of her.
To be blunt, the show's big problem is its hero. You don't care about him. He's an obnoxious vandal who starts fights and causes trouble, but in a tedious low-key way. He's never allowed to be evil enough to be interesting. It's rather dull. What's more, the episodes are all the same. Devilman acts like an idiot at school, then a monster shows up and they fight. Sailor Moon and Cutey Honey had a similar "monster of the week" format, but there you could identify with the characters. Devilman doesn't even really have any goals, except to go on living with Miki. He doesn't seem interested in mankind or to dislike the other demons. Amusingly in episode four he's cheering on catastrophes and happy for devils to devastate the Earth, just so long as they don't do it near him. The first third or so of this show is a freakshow with no real emotional content and it took me ages to fight my way through it.
Then he changes.
In those early episodes he's a twat and you don't particularly care whether he wins or loses. However over time, almost imperceptibly, he becomes sympathetic. What makes it confusing is that the show doesn't build this into a character arc. Devilman just quietly alters. No modern show would do this. They'd make drama out of it, perhaps by playing with the audience's assumptions or his perceptions of himself. They'd do something! At one point I was wondering if the production team had planned these changes or whether 'twas simply a hasty fix for something that wasn't working. (Then I remembered the 1970s Cutey Honey TV series, also blatantly made up as they went along, and the question answered itself.) One surprise for me was that there was never any struggle with his inner human, who remained dead as a dodo. Theoretically there's only Devilman in there, although one of the later TV episodes has a line about a human soul corrupting his demonic one.
Once or twice the show threatens to have actual developments. There's a three-episode run around the one-third mark where Devilman gets the crap beaten out of him in a breathtakingly nasty battle and only survives because a secondary bad guy went berserk and caused a catastrophe. That episode concludes with an epic piece of imagery, then in the next episode they kill a regular! Maybe. For the first time with this show I immediately watched the next episode to see what happen next. Later on a demon becomes a good guy and an ongoing character, then in the concluding episodes they definitely kill a regular while Devilman is in fear of having his identity revealed to Miki and thus having to abandon his human life and never see her again.
Even that wasn't the real ending, though. Devilman returned in Mazinger Z vs. Devilman, a silly 1973 crossover in which he's basically the guest star in a bog-standard Mazinger episode. Disappointingly the following year's Mazinger Z vs. The Hell General wasn't a sequel. It's fun, but it gives the impression that the production team secretly think giant robots could beat up demons any day of the week. However I enjoyed its last line, which has become my new catchphrase to say to Christian fundamentalists. "Devilman will always live in our hearts."
The cast grows over the course of the show. Minor characters return and become regulars, while the strongest relationship might be that of six-year-old Tare-chan and his "girlfriend" Miyo.
The later episodes are less formulaic. There are some interesting ideas buried away in there, with monsters and weirdness that wouldn't disgrace The Twilight Zone. Demons can steal (and use) human heads, or send the local school into another dimension. One particularly strong episode went to Tibet to teach us about their culture before a demon turned the locals into undead stranglers and machete-wielding slashers. That episode's most startling moment might be a mother taking an axe to her own children. However for me the most shuddersome image in the series was a slug demon slithering over a small boy and licking him with a tongue as big as your arm. Ewww.
Bizarrely all this horror is always sitting alongside dumb slapstick comedy. Even Scooby Doo didn't go this low. There are piss and fart gags. Things I Learned From Watching This Show #106: hospital staff tie lead weights to troublesome patients and throw them into the sea. Devilman's schoolteachers in particular are tediously absurd characters and so bone-headed that one episode actually uses that as a plot point against the monster. This show sees nothing wrong with cutting straight from comedy for four-year-olds to panty shots and/or video nasty material like a circular saw in the belly. Even I winced at some of the latter.
Oh, and the female Devil General's clothes all jump off and fly away in episode 34. They're demonic clothes. You'll be interested to learn that if women are blue and evil, they're allowed nipples.
For those of you who can't get enough Devilman, three OVA episodes exist which are much more faithful to the manga, plus a 1998 TV series called Devilman Lady. There's even a loose sequel called Violence Jack which has drawn reviews that are extreme even by Go Nagai's standards. "By all that is holy, don't ever consider watching it, not even for a second." "Ghandi would be driven to kill the makers of this anime." They also made a Devilman live-action movie in 2004, but you don't want to see that. Apparently it's rubbish.
Personally I'd say this show got worthwhile around the halfway point, with a few episodes that manage to be genuinely interesting. However even then it's very much a historical relic, steeped in Essence of Seventies. It's obviously for children, designed to head straight for their subconscious and make them act out Devilman's special attacks as they sing his hilariously macho theme song. Of course Go Nagai can't draw human beings to save his life, any more than Leiji Matsumoto could, but that doesn't stop him producing great-looking anime. It's crude and primitive, but the character designs are appealing and everything's wild, vivid and strangely fascinating. Also his girls are cuter than Matsumoto's.
For me, Devilman isn't a patch on Cutey Honey. It always seems at war with itself, or with what it wants to be. So much had to be discarded from the manga that the TV series could never fill that hole, despite a few interesting efforts in later episodes. However if you can fight your way through that opening stretch, there's a lot of fun on offer here. If nothing else, I'd like to see this screened in the Bible Belt of America. Let's start with Alabama and Tennessee...