Akira Fudo is a nice guy with a scary friend. Ryo Asuka knows about demons. They're real, they're monstrous and the only thing that can defeat them is another demon. As a mere human Akira Fudo is just another possible victim, but if he were to give his soul to a demon then he might become unimaginably powerful. Of course if his heart isn't sufficiently pure then he might alternatively lose control and become a monster. It's his choice. What does he want to do? Akira accepts Ryo's offer and becomes the human host for a demon called Amon. Together they are Devilman, mankind's champion against the legions of Hell.
The original Devilman anime was a 1970s kiddie show, not without its own hallucinogenic merits but a million miles from the visceral power of Go Nagai's manga. These OVAs are far more faithful, to the point where the third episode can be hard to watch. They're actually two unrelated releases, a two-part 1987 OVA that's normally just called Devilman and then a further episode thirteen years later from a completely different production team. Nevertheless I've lumped them together because basically they're the same thing. They don't quite tell the whole story, but together these three episodes comprise a beginning, a middle and an end. What's more, none of them are fully satisfying as standalone episodes and I think they're far better as a whole. They're certainly unlike the TV series, having their own continuity and their own supporting cast.
Even the lead character is fundamentally different from his TV equivalent. This Akira chooses to become Devilman and thus not only retains his human identity but likes to think of himself as the dominant partner in his symbiosis with Amon. However in the TV series a monster simply killed a man and lived in his body. His powers are different too. The old Devilman could only either be human or demon, but the OVAs blur the line between the two. His human body is also capable of superhuman feats and he can take the transformation to different stages instead of just having to be one thing or the other.
Episode one (Birth) is beautiful but confused. It's theoretically horror, both in terms of psychology and gore. A good man discovers that inhuman monsters want to destroy mankind, sells his soul to the devil and becomes just like them. What's more Akira gets an impressive degree of character development. At the beginning he's the kind of whey-faced guy who'll accept a beating to save a rabbit, but before long he's blowing away demons and getting shotgun-happy. It's interesting character work.
On the other hand the music is fun but inappropriate. Potentially horrifying scenes are undermined by jolly music as if this were an action movie. Similarly the rabbit-slashing punks who confront Akira at the beginning have been saddled with character designs that make them look like comic relief. Oh, and the episode begins with wacky goofiness that depicts Hell as an Edgar Rice Burroughs confection with dinosaurs and fairies. In fairness you can never have too many nude butterfly women with nipples, but even so this episode tends to be less intimidating and scary than just plain weird.
It's absolutely gorgeous, though. With a lavish budget and character designs by Kazuo Komatsubara, these two 1987 episodes look better than many movies and blow everything else in the franchise completely out of the water. There are also some nice directorial touches, for instance making lovely use of quiet moments in which we just linger on the characters.
However I have no complaints at all with episode two (Demon Bird Sirene). This episode gets everything right and is incidentally pretty extreme with the nudity and ultra-violence. Essentially it's three episodes of the TV show rolled into one, but with far more character development. Some of this gets personal. At the start Devilman's horrified by having to kill a bunch of innocent people including his mother, but by the end he's massacred goodness knows how many people just as collateral damage in his battle with Sirene. That battle incidentally involves our hero trying to beat to a bloody pulp a naked woman, albeit one with wings and claws. You know, just in case you'd forgotten this was a Go Nagai anime.
It's getting darker. Devilman's fights are incredibly violent, with one or two moments that made me wince. There's even creepy horror imagery. However the quieter scenes are fantastic too, with production values every bit as good as in episode one. Any scene with Miki is fantastic. The character is theoretically just a distraction from the important business of shoulder-pulping and dismemberment, but she's amazing. She can act! It's a proper performance from an animated character. There's a moment where Miki propositions Akira and he replies, "Your dad would kill me." Look at her expression. You can see the reaction in her eyes, just for a split-second, which tells you what she really meant when she chirps, "Just kidding." She's staggeringly good, not to mention more likeable and less shrill and bitchy than the TV version could sometimes be.
Then there's Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman. Um.
As far as I can tell, this is widely regarded as a load of rubbish. To quote my friend... "It's a bloody mess, badly animated, poorly directed and about as coherent as a weasel in a cuisinart. It helps if you've read the manga, but even so some things are best left to the imagination. There's a scene from the manga which is a kick in the gut and then some, but on screen it's... ummm. I had to look away."
As a standalone OVA, that's fair. However as the capstone of the whole epic, I thought it rocked. All these horrified reactions show that the production team nailed it because that's what this should be. Horror. There are lots of so-called "horror anime", but even the good ones are usually just haunting or emotional. I fail to understand how anyone could describe Blue Seed as horror, for instance. However here some of Go Nagai's most extreme material yields an experience to bear comparison with cinema's big boys, producing visuals easily up there with the likes of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. I don't know if I'd call it scary, but it's certainly playing in that league... and I couldn't approve more. This is what Devilman should be. Its mere existence improves episode one, for instance. Frankly any story with the balls to end up here can do whatever the hell it likes en route.
The world it depicts is similar to Dawn of the Dead, but with demons instead of zombies. It's the same kind of urban apocalypse, except that here civilisation collapses faster. Some of these humans don't even deserve to survive. Sure enough they don't. Some of this is just plain repulsive, which underlines the horror since you're aware that there are absolutely no holds barred. You can't assume that the good guys will win, or even survive. Far more likely is for them to get their heads pulled off and their internal organs eaten while they're still twitching. There's also a sick sexual twist to some of the violence, such as an acid-spitting breast attack or Devilman tearing off a demon's breasts and eating them.
The fight scenes are fun too. It's like The Exorcist meets Superman, which is a combination I suspect still hasn't been done outside anime. They don't just throw cars. Think trains.
It even works on an emotional level, although admittedly many reviewers haven't been able to see past the gore. Together these three episodes have awesome character development for Devilman, from a nice guy to a scary hero to... uh, this. As the title suggests, it ends up as Amon versus Akira. The former is truly bestial. However surprisingly the episode also depends on the Akira-Miki bond. Miki always had an odd place in Devilman's world, being an ordinary schoolgirl with no connection to the horrors of his hidden life. In the TV series, she was Devilman's only tie to mankind. In many ways she represents Akira's humanity and he's surreptitiously loaded almost all of his emotional needs on to her. Personally I found her story moving, although she probably gets too little build-up here and you'd probably want to be acquainted with the character in advance, even if it's just from the previous OVAs. People who watched this cold and thus weren't primed seem to have thought it was bollocks.
The problem is that it's incomplete. We can feel Go Nagai building up to the final epic confrontation between Akira and Ryo, the friend who made him into Devilman back in the beginning... but we don't get it! The OVA ends on the Akira-Amon fight, which is enormously frustrating. You can feel the missing climax, like the stump of an amputated limb. In fact it's so annoying that I'm going to spoil the manga's ending here, so that anyone watching these OVAs can at least know how the story's meant to end. Alternatively you may prefer to mentally write over this information if you find it too bleak, but it's your choice. If you want to avoid spoilers for the manga, turn back now. Last chance. Spoilers galore. Ending ahoy.
Akira also guest-stars in one of the Cutey Honey OVAs, for what it's worth. Cosplay City goes nicely with the Devilman universe's degeneration into urban hell, presumably slotting between episodes two and three of these OVAs, but it's very much a Cutey Honey adventure and I couldn't particularly recommend regarding it as a proper Devilman episode. It contradicts nothing, but it doesn't particularly belong either. Apart from anything else, there's no Miki.
Okay, that's enough warning. Back to the manga. Basically, Ryo is Satan. This is never spelled out in the anime, but one can guess that the truth is something along those lines and it's still a lot of fun. Devilman confronts Satan... and loses. Satan kills him in a battle that destroys the world, then repents and creates the Slumking to punish himself. In turn this leads into another Go Nagai series called Violence Jack, the reviews for which practically melted a hole in my computer monitor.
Taken as a whole, these three episodes are awkward but epic. They combine to make one of the most staggering stories you'll ever see in a three-episode anime, even if they don't do so completely or sometimes even very well. They're full of Go Nagai's trademark energy and tastelessness, but they're also far more serious than much of his work. They're a rich broth of imagery, passion and wild excess, overflowing with violence and horror. I wouldn't bother watching them unless you can track down all three episodes, but if you can then it's a hell of a ride.