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“A Sad Song, But We Sing it Anyway.” Devilman Crybaby and the Encouraging Nature of Tragedies

 

Before I get into my thoughts about Devilman Crybaby, I first want to talk a little bit about another reimagining of a classic, older story.

Broadway’s Hadestown is a 2016 musical adaption on the ancient Greek Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a post-apocalyptic 1930s America. Despite the updated cultural setting and themes, the story follows mostly the same beats as the original myth–Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring his love back from Hades, is almost triumphant due to his passion and skill–but then, given his chance, fails at the last moment. The myth has been adapted and retold countless times over the millennia, and its unhappy ending is part of its reputation–the story haunts us not because its ending is shocking or unexpected, but because of the small sliver of hope that tragedy could have been avoided even as the audience witnesses the the story progressing towards its inevitable ending. In the myth, love, as powerful and transcendent as it is, is still bound by human limitations–but that is what makes the story compelling, to gods and humans alike.

In a similar manner, Masaaki Yuasa’s Devilman Crybaby, for all its modernized and updated elements, retains the timeless, mythic, romantic (romantic in the regular meaning, but in my opinion also heavily reminds me of the aesthetic drama of Romanticism as well) feeling of the original series. Crybaby introduces new characters and subplots with a slightly different focus, but the main arc and beats of the show are fairly faithful. Yuasa refers to his adaption as one that “in the end, it’s about love,”  focusing on the changes that Ryo Asuka goes through, and just like in the manga it is the love and deep bond between Ryo and Akira, from their beginning childhood friendship to their violent falling out in the end, that ends up driving the story to its apocalyptic conclusion.

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It’s a brutal story, but a tragedy that continues to be satisfying for me, in the ways that myths like the one of Orpheus mentioned above is satisfying in both its earnestness and inevitability. Crybaby’s world is full of forces that prey on the vulnerable, forces that cannot be stopped by a singular hero, as strong-willed and well-intentioned they might be. Akira strives to do right by humans and his fellow devilmen throughout the series–he reaches out to the grieving athlete-turned-devilman Moyuru Koda, only for Koda to give up hope and betray him in the end, and he tries and fails to protect Miki Makimura and her family from the vitriol of human mob violence. Akira loves and relies on Ryo from the beginning of the story, but due to their diverging views as the world falls into chaos, is forced to use his strength against him, in an incredibly intimate and personal final battle that ultimately costs Akira his life. With this series of perceived failures, it would be incredibly easy to present the events of the story in a nihilistic way, a warning against the uselessness and futility of loving and striving in a world where it will only ever be used against you.

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After all, if we take the story from Ryo’s perspective, he sees the apocalypse and destruction of the earth by demons as inevitable, both because the apocalypse was orchestrated by him as Satan ages ago, but also because he witnesses the violent behavior of humans and concludes that this is what their nature is like, and resigns himself to it, even encourages it. Love, as he proclaims definitively in the beginning sequence, doesn’t exist–so it’s better to not become attached, better to not try and save a dying world, any more than trying to save the dying cat he and Akira fight over in the first episode. Of course, the tragedy in Crybaby is that Ryo is attached, and he does feel deeply for Akira–proven by the fact that he gave Akira the powers of a Devilman in the first place to help him survive the apocalypse–but cannot confront his feelings until it is far, far too late.

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And yet, despite the presence of its inevitable bad ending, the narrative never belittles the acts of good will, of gentleness and hopefulness, as “useless” or “pointless.” For Crybaby,  a show that is so ridiculously fast-paced, it has tremendous space to breathe as scenes of extreme violence, cruelty, and cynicism are broken by scenes of mundane calmness, kindness, and creativity. It is a story about the cruelty of humans at the end of the world, but it’s also about the everyday lives and loves of a high school track team and their families, the musings and creations of young, insightful rappers, of the combination of petty jealousy and young love. The fact that all these characters we witness and grow fond of end up dead or destroyed in the oncoming apocalypse does not negate the value of their lives and experiences, but instead adds to it. Akira Fudo, the Devilman, may not have been able to save the world, but it was still something important to him to the very end–and for that matter, Ryo was important to Akira as well, even as Akira fails to reach him. To me, there is something greatly encouraging about watching characters fail and fall hopelessly short, yet still have their attempts be portrayed as good and purposeful and sympathetic nonetheless.

As a sidenote, this isn’t to say that tragedy is always good or productive, especially when it comes to stories of LGBTQ+ folk, whose lives are often turned into commercialized tragedy for straight and cis audiences. That being said, I do feel like Devilman, both Crybaby and its other iterations, does not advertise itself or try to “bait” viewers into a story that is presumably happy but ends up with its queer characters dead specifically for being queer–it is very upfront about the kind of story it will be, which is to say, a disturbing one. Devilman is not and should not be the perfect work of representation by any means, but it is a story of extremes, and its tragedy lies not only in the thwarted relationships between Ryo and Akira, (and in Crybaby specifically, of Miki Kuroda and Miki Makimura, and Moyuru Koda and Junichi) but well…the entire population of Earth is annihilated, so the narrative can hardly be accused of singling out gay and queer characters for specific destruction. When I speak of tragedy here, I refer to the traditions that have existed for depicting tragic romance between men and women as well (See Orpheus and Eurydice, Romeo and Juliet, etc. ) but for this discussion in the context of modern media choices, it feels necessary to at least acknowledge how the rocky history of  queer tragedy would affect the perception and consumption of this story specifically. (For further reading, Anime Feminist’s Vrai Kaiser has a good article that addresses this aspect in relation to Devilman Crybaby in more detail.)

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In the timeline of the original 1972 manga and its spinoff series, Devilman Lady, Ryo and Akira do eventually get a happy ending through understanding and reconciling to each other, and I am glad for the breaking out of the cycle that it represents. That being said I still think Devilman works very well as a standalone story, one which the various spinoff material can use as a point to build off. It’s still up in the air as to whether Crybaby will get a sequel season or not, but for now the series’ ending appears to be a straightforward tragic end in the manner of the original manga. And while I would be personally curious to get new content, I do think the series as it already is makes for a very complete story, with a purposeful, beautifully framed ending–and that’s all I can ever really ask from a well-made tragedy.

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Akira takes a page spread to turn directly to the audience and go “THIS STORY IS MESSED UP! MUAHAHA! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!”

There’s something to be said about old myths and classic stories in which the endings are already known and well-trod, but still remain compelling. There’s the famous example of Romeo and Juliet, which opens with a prologue that basically, “spoils” the entire story, including the essential part where the young lovers take their lives at the end, even before the play itself starts properly. In a time when a large aspect of the enjoyment of new series and media centers around hyping up the avoidance of “spoilers” and twists, it is neat to return to stories where the endings are apparent from the very beginning, and the enjoyment of the story comes from going along a familiar journey and gaining value out of the experience. This is absolutely not condoning purposefully telling people spoilers of course–don’t be a jerk, everyone should be able to enjoy a series for the first time they way they want to–but I personally think it’s a testament to a story, that it can continue to be retold, over and over again, wearing itself deep into people’s consciousness, so that every time it is adapted again, it is surprising in its own new way. Whether it’s because we are glad to see the return of characters we love, or, even indulging in the hope that things might be different this time around. While the characters may be stuck in a cycle they cannot stop or break out of due to their roles being pre-scripted, our lives are not restrained in the same way. And that is maybe part of why we return to tragedies, or at least why I return to Devilman and Devilman Crybaby, in its different iterations–every time I go back to it, I get something new, and in its story of chaos and destruction, I find encouragement to live on and do better to love than before. Other people may get different things out of it, but that is what I receive, and hold dearly to me. There is value in the retelling of a story, and the mix of grief and hope that a grim ending can continue to evoke in us. As Hermes sings in the beginning and ending reprise of Hadestown:

“It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway!”

 

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

One thought on ““A Sad Song, But We Sing it Anyway.” Devilman Crybaby and the Encouraging Nature of Tragedies”

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