Devilman Crybaby: How the Better Angels of our Nature Can Constrain the Lessor So

Devilman Crybaby image

WARNING: This post contains spoilers.

Devilman Crybaby (“Crybaby”) is a recently released Netflix Original, the latest iteration of an old Manga story, Devilman, from the 1970’s.  The essential premise of the story is that humans and demons co-exist on Earth, with demons possessing the ability to ‘merge’ with various creatures, as a survival mechanism, and them merging with humans over the years.  The protagonist, Akira Fudo, was able to defeat the heart of a demon who attempted to merge with him, thus resulting in Akira harnessing the body, strength, and powers of the demon while maintaining his own heart and mind as a human (though, it is clear as the story progresses that the demon does influence Akira’s heart and mind in some ways, driving his more animalistic impulses).

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the way Crybaby explores impulses versus reason.  Demons generally stand in for the Freudian id—pure impulse driven creatures who desire little else than self-preservation and self-satisfaction.  Humans stand in for reason, civilization, and order.  However, as a war between demons and humans breaks out, this binary decays, with humans retreating into some of their most disgusting, violent, xenophobic base impulses, and demons showing love for one another.  At war with demons, and with the knowledge that the demons can possess the form of any human, people become paranoid and attack each other.  Anyone could be a demon, and those associated with demons are treated as morally equivalent to demons themselves, resulting in mass torture and murder of various people accused of being or associating with demons.  In contrast, there is a scene Crybaby where one demon sacrifices his body to save another demon that he loves, resulting in the characters asking themselves whether demons possess the ability to love or not.

In fact, one of the most fascinating (and topical) illustrations of the irrationality of humans is embodied in one character’s easy manipulation of humans and Akira’s ineffective appeal to human reason.  In one scene, one of Akira’s best friends, Ryo, is able to easily stoke the fear of humans by revealing the existence of demons to them and making false claims about how any person can spontaneously transform into a demon.  In another scene, Akira observes people torturing a group of tied up humans.  Akira attempts to engage the attackers with reason, pointing out that if the people they were torturing were demons, they would easily transform into their demon form and slaughter their attackers.[1]  Akira also points out that by attacking humans, they are essentially abandoning all moral principles, becoming demons themselves.  The audience completely ignores him, continuing to pelt the people with rocks, and now pelting Akira, too.

In contrast to the humans and demons—which represent false extremes—stand the devilmen.  Devilmen are those humans who resisted the parasitic demons attempting to assimilate them, thus, like Akira, gaining control of the bodies and power of the demons while maintaining their human consciousness.  Akira makes it his project to seek out the devilmen, informing them that there are other devilmen out there and that they need not be afraid.  Humans tend to treat the devilmen as the same as demons, drawing no distinction between the two.

The show never explicitly explains how a human host defeats the invading demon spirit, but it strongly implies that the capacity for empathy disables the demon.  To illustrate, in an early episode in the series, Akira confronts his father who has been consumed by a demon.  Akira implores his father to fight the demon and refuse to be taken over by him—after all, Akira easily overcame his demon.  His father appears to fight back effectively for a few moments, only to have the demon completely re-take control and mock Akira and his father, stating that a human could never defeat a demon.  Why was Akira able to easily defeat his demon while his father was so easily defeated?  To answer that question, we need to establish what we know about the characters.

Akira is the crybaby.  As a child, he becomes best friends with a cold child named Ryo because he is incredibly empathetic with him.  Akira involuntarily cries anytime he sees another person crying, whether the person is physically present, a group is merely talking about the person, he sees an image of the other person, or if he can even sense that another person is experiencing emotional turmoil but repressing it.  Generally speaking, this device is used almost as comic relief, as Akira is incredibly powerful but is seen bursting into tears in public because he sees another person experiencing an emotion even without showing it.  However, it also illustrates that Akira has an exceptional capacity for empathy and consideration for the feelings of others.  This aspect of his personality is also expressed in Akira’s strong moral principles, attempting to protect the weak from the strong and generally refusing to kill humans who attack him.

In contrast, Akira’s parents (in the show, not the Manga) have essentially abandoned him so they could travel the world.  They appear to be part of Doctors without Borders, or some other humanitarian cause.  This makes them good, extremely intelligent people, but, as a viewer, Akira’s parents appear to be completely selfish and cold.  They have abandoned their child in Japan, left him to be raised by one of Akira’s mother’s friends, and rarely ever come into contact with him.  We continually see Akira experiencing abandonment issues as a result of his lack of contact with his parents.

Knowing this about the characters, the audience is left to infer that reason and intelligence are poor weapons against the demons.  Instead, those with extreme capacities for empathy are able to overcome the mind of the demon.  The minds and hearts of highly empathetic people are, likely, hostile environments for the soul of the purely selfish demons.  Logically, if a person attempted to pursue murder and violence as pleasurable lifestyles, but they were able to feel the pain of the people they were attacking, the person would be racked with guilt and feel completely torn.  Thus, when the selfish demon invades an empathetic person, the empathy drives them out, or, at least, renders the selfish impulses of the demon inert.

This concept of a devilman as a Platonic balance between our animalistic impulses and strength with consideration for others drives the conclusion of the show as well.  Throughout the show, we observe a dynamic emerge between Akira and his best friend Ryo.  Ryo is an eerily brilliant, adventurous, care-free character, almost like Nietzsche’s ‘blond beasts’ who pillage and murder in glee, but forget and move on the next day.  When they are children, Akira is caring for a very sick dog that Ryo wants to put down with a box cutter, and the two fight over whether Ryo can do it.  When Ryo eventually kills the dog, Akira sobs inconsolably while Ryo stands over him asking why Akira is so sad.  Ryo’s perspective is interesting—he does not embody a bully who works hard to drive Akira’s empathy out, but instead questions him academically, truly trying to understand why Akira is so sad about the sick dog being dead.  Instead of explaining, Akira insists that Ryo is crying, too.  Ryo’s eyes widen and he is taken aback by this accusation.  Ryo says it is obvious he is not crying.  But Akira insists that Ryo is crying, too.

In the last episode of the show, it is revealed that Ryo was Satan this entire time—not the traditional biblical satan of pure evil and malice, but a beautiful, ideologically-driven angel, who wants to battle god on behalf of the demons to justify their right to exist.  Ryo reveals that he intentionally orchestrated the merger of the greatest demon warrior with Akira so that Akira would survive Satan’s purge of the world, and jubilantly invites Akira to join him in ruling over a human-free world.  Akira violently rejects this offer, pointing out that, because of Ryo, Akira’s family and lover have been murdered brutally.  Ryo is taken aback by Akira’s rejection of his offer, but seems somewhat cold and indifferent to Akira fleeing.

After the two battle for a long time, the show cuts to the scene of Akira telling Ryo he is crying, too.  It then shifts to an image of Ryo and Akira’s faces, while the two appear to be lying next to each other on one of the last unbroken rock fragments on Earth.  Ryo pleasantly recounts their childhood experiences and discusses how beautiful the stars are, then turns to Akira and asks Akira to join in the conversation.  At this point it is revealed that Akira has been dead during the entire conversation, and Ryo did not realize it.  Upon discovering this, Ryo is racked with grief but confused by the flood of emotions.  He begins begging Akira to feel his feelings for him and explain what he is experiencing.  When Akira does not respond, Ryo sobs all over Akira’s body and squeezes him tightly, begging that he not be dead and crying that he is now alone.  At this moment, God’s angels invade the Earth and appear to destroy it once again, as they attempted to destroy demons and Satan millions of years before.

This exchange illustrates that Ryo had fallen in love with Akira because Akira explored a side of Satan he never realized he had.  The show begins and ends with Satan saying there is no such thing as love, and thus there is no sorrow—complete indifference rescues a person from the emotional fragility of loss that accompanies care.  But Satan unwittingly has fallen in love with Akira, feeling touched when Akira helped him realize he also experienced complex emotions and attachment to others, and that he had simply been repressing them this entire time.  This revelation adds meaning to an earlier, seemingly innocuous scene in the show, where Satan/Ryo is typing something up on his computer and Akira tries to persuade him to go swimming.  Ryo coldly says no, until Akira drags him outside and throws him in the pool, then jumps in playfully on top of him.  The immediate next scene shows Ryo and Akira drying off, but, now knowing why Satan was drawn to Akira, this scene illustrates that Akira worked hard to force Satan to have fun and hang out.  And Satan loved him for it.

Thus, the story rounds out its commentary on impulses, consideration, and love.  Love is a real and inescapable facet of every living creatures innate nature—human, demon, or otherwise.  While we are drawn to selfishness and simple bodily pleasures, the experience of feeling another’s feeling is the peak of experience, and the only way to escape it is to cut off a fundamental part of ourselves.  However, even this has limited effectiveness.  We will always experience a certain level of empathy with other persons, and to fail to explore that only renders us even more vulnerable to their influence.  Satan was blinded by his love for Akira.  Failing to feel what Akira felt, Satan believed he was still talking to Akira his love interest, as opposed to Akira’s corpse.  Satan’s obsessive fantasy of Akira supplanted his ability to truly experience the real flesh and blood Akira, understanding why Akira would not want to join him in the post-human world.  By refusing to acknowledge his love and compassion for others, pursuing a genocidal rampage against humans, Satan failed to see how he was doing exactly what he was angry at God for doing (purging the demons)—a paradox that the Devilman manga draws out better than the Crybaby show does.  And by refusing to acknowledge that his desire to bring Akira with him into the new world was driving by his love for Akira, Satan inadvertently lost the one thing he wanted most by achieving the world domination he incorrectly believed he wanted.

P.S. Many people have criticized the show for its extreme vulgarity, sexuality, brutal violence, etc.  These critiques seem to miss the point–the show is about examining the dark underbelly of our impulses, taken to their extremes without consideration for others.  It is supposed to be brutal and make you feel uncomfortable, because the theme of the show is to pierce through the facade of polite humanity.  This is an important point, and it cannot be denied simply by insisting that we only talk about pleasant things that happen in the world.  I do agree that the show overly sexualizes women–there are far too many depictions of women bent over, breasts shaking, etc., without a proportional amount of male nudity.  The manga is far worse on this point, especially Devilman Lady.  The fact that the show includes scenes of gay and queer love, and nude males, is certainly an improvement over mainstream anime, but the show would have been better with more equal sexualization.

[1]           This scene reminds me a lot of a scene from Attack on Titan, where Eren Yeager—the protagonist who possesses the ability to transform into a monstrous titan—is being tied up and tortured by humans.  One human points out that if Eren was truly a malicious titan, he would transform and murder everyone immediately.  While Eren is in fact a titan, his refusal to defend himself reveals the morality of his motivations.

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