Childhood friends Akira Fudo (Hisato Izaki) and Ryo Asuka (his real-life sibling Yusuke Izaki) share a fascination with demons of legend and a close bond that endures into high school, with the latter often violently protective of his weaker friend. In competition, Akira always comes off second best except with girlfriend Miki (Ayana Sakai) whose loving parents Keisuke (Ryudo Uzaki) and Emi (Yoko Agi) Nakamura adopt the orphan boy into their family. When a team of scientists, including Ryo’s father, on a search for a dynamic new energy source, uncover a nest of demons under the South Pole, the resulting cataclysm melds Akira with an ancient, all-powerful demon called Amon. He becomes the superhero Devilman, dedicating to protecting mankind from the demon plague unleashed across the planet. Meanwhile, Ryo morphs into a blonde angel who is nothing less than Satan himself, intent on wiping out humanity to create a demon world.
Prolific anime genius Go Nagai created one of the finest works of Japanese horror in his manga Devilman, a sprawling saga that encompasses social satire, apocalyptic terror and good old fashioned comic book violence. Nagai first adapted his work into a 1972 anime series that spawned the crossover movie Mazinger Z vs. Devilman (1973), which was one of several Nagai movies once denounced as “immoral” by the Italian parliament! Over ensuing years Nagai continued to refine his story: as a 1987 OAV series, as the gender-bending erotic-horror Devilman Lady (1998) and the dark and disturbing Amon Devilman (2000) which many consider his definitive take on the material, though the author posited his apocalyptic actioner Violence Jack (1986) as the true “sequel” to Devilman - even though the demonic hero does not appear. Though much beloved by fans, none of the anime were wholly faithful to the ambitious original text, so expectations ran high for this Toei live action movie.
Unfortunately, it emerged as something of a hit-and-miss affair, endowed with a cracking third act but dropping far too many balls along the way. Chief culprit is Hiroyuki Nasu whose bumbling direction makes a hash of several crucial components lifted from the masterful manga. That Toei would assign him this movie is somewhat curious given he was best known for their six Be-Bop High School films (1985-88). It’s the equivalent of hiring John Hughes to direct The Dark Knight (2008), even though the earlier episodes in Nagai’s work do play like an extended metaphor for adolescence: a teenager struggles to contain the monster in his body, which makes him stronger and leads to his first sexual experience, but leaves him prone to mood swings and bouts of uncertainty.
The special effects, a mix of old fashioned rubber suits with state-of-the-art computer graphics, certainly catch the surreal cartoon spirit of Go Nagai. Nasu shoehorns an all too brief cameo from Devilman’s rival/lover, the sexy scantily-clad bird woman Selene (supermodel Ai Tominaga) and includes some of Nagai’s memorably grotesque ideas (e.g. a demon who wears the screaming faces of his victims on his back; a kid whose parents turn into cannibalistic monsters) and eccentricities like the pervert next door who uses high-tech surveillance gear to spy on Miki and the news bulletins read by a hulking American pro-wrestler (Bob Sapp). However, he reduces the metaphysical conflict between Akira and Ryo to a sappy, borderline homoerotic love story while teen idols Hisato and Yusuke Izaki prove woefully inadequate to the task. Colourless compared to their hot-blooded anime equivalents.
Once the Japanese government establish their anti-demon task force, the plot develops into a sharp socio-political satire worthy of George A. Romero. The trigger-happy anti-demon cops - in white decontamination suits that recall Romero’s The Crazies (1973) - become a bigger threat than the monsters themselves. Co-workers denounce each other as demons, once-friendly neighbours turn into a paranoid mob. Nagai’s message that totalitarian regimes and martial law are far more dangerous than any fantastical demons shines through in spite of Nasu’s flaccid staging.
Things grow progressively more harrowing as the mob turns on the Nakamura family, who embody all the virtues of Japanese life Nagai is out to celebrate. Their fate proves genuinely affecting as Miki - who as winningly played by Ayana Sakai has a knack for making others feel good about themselves - tragically admits: “If humanity has come to this I’d rather be a demon.” Her kindness inspires schoolgirl-turned-demon Miko (Asuka Shibuya) who, in a tertiary plot thread, is reborn as a samurai sword-wielding angel to protect the last human boy left alive on planet Earth.
It ends with a spectacular apocalyptic battle wherein thousands of demons fly across a hellish sky, a towering pillar made of human bodies stretches to heaven, and the world’s great cities crumble amidst a fiery inferno. However, nothing arises to challenge Satan’s view that humanity “is a hopeless race of animals bent on self-destruction”, so consequently we have little invested in his final confrontation with Akira. An ambiguous coda struggles to seem as upbeat as the J-pop song played over the end credits: two hitherto minor characters resolve to make the best of it while a lip-gloss embodies all the hope left in the universe.