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‘Devilman Crybaby’: The franchise is back, but with extra sex and ultra-violence

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

Last year, streaming giant Netflix announced it would be producing a slate of original anime series, and the first to hit the service this year is “Devilman Crybaby,” all 10 episodes of which went up for binge-watching Jan. 5.

If the title sounds at all familiar, it may be because “Crybaby” is the latest incarnation of the long-running “Devilman” franchise created by Go Nagai — one of many anime projects out in 2018 celebrating 50 years since the prolific manga creator’s first work was published.

The original “Devilman,” which appeared in 1972, told the tale of timid teenager Akira Fudo, whose life takes a turn when he’s possessed by a demon. With the help of friend Ryo Asuka, Akira manages to overcome its evil will and use its powers to battle other demons, becoming — you guessed it — the titular Devilman.

Devilman Crybaby
Rating
Run Time 25 MINS; 10 EPISODES
Language JAPANESE (with English subs); English dub also available

To bring the story into the modern day, the folks at Netflix made the wise decision to recruit Masaaki Yuasa, the cult favorite anime auteur whose works include “Mind Game,” “Ping Pong the Animation” and last year’s “Lu Over the Wall.”

Yuasa’s “Devilman Crybaby” may include smartphones, social media and hip-hop, but story-wise it’s pretty faithful to the plot of the original. Akira, originally a, well, crybaby, takes on a new personality and appearance once fused with his demon and, enjoying newfound popularity at school by day, becomes a demon hunter by night when he transforms into Devilman and protects the denizens of Tokyo. But where “Crybaby” differs from its predecessors is in the level of on-screen sex and violence.

If you’re of a certain generation, the word “anime” might evoke the ultra-violent films and direct-to-video titles of the ’80s like “Akira,” “Demon City Shinjuku” and “Violence Jack” (another Go Nagai adaptation), and it almost feels as if “Crybaby” was designed with fans of those titles in mind. Yuasa and co. have definitely taken advantage of Netflix’s anything-goes policy: The series has more violence and sex (some of it even inter-species) than allowed on even Japan’s relatively lax late-night TV anime blocks. Kids’ stuff this is not.

“Crybaby” isn’t Yuasa’s first crack at a story of demons and humans in conflict: The 2006 series “Kemonozume,” which he both wrote and directed, tells the Romeo-and-Juliet story of a flesh-eating monster who falls in love with a human whose job is to hunt those very monsters. Though “Crybaby” is an adaptation of Nagai’s work, it almost feels like a spiritual successor to that series, touching on the same questions of identity, prejudice, religion and star-crossed love posed by the earlier work.

Ultra-violence and heavy themes may not sound all that enticing, but the series also has its lighter moments, thanks to an offbeat sense of humor that’s made Yuasa a fan favorite. One example: In a meta twist, “Crybaby” takes place in a universe in which the original “Devilman” TV series exists.

The 10-episode “Crybaby” starts off strong and ends with a bang, but sags a bit in the middle, and the series’ ambition occasionally exceeds its production values — and there’s some pretty cringe-worthy English voice acting in the Japanese-language version. But if “Crybaby” presages what’s to come from Netflix’s investment in anime, it’s going to be an interesting year for the medium.