Gō Nagai is the creator of the most beloved mecha stories of all time like Mazinger, Shin Getter or Steel Jeeg, but he actually became famous thanks to another work. In 1972 what paved the way for Nagai’s success was Devilman, the story of young Akira Fudo, committed to fighting against demons to save humanity. Beneath the shallow conflict between good and evil, Devilman displays an insight into mankind’s true colors.

Half human, half demon: here comes Akira Fudo the Devilman!

Nagai’s interpretation of demons traces back to the early days of planet Earth. Demons were the dominant species on the planet, prone to violence and used to a fierce fight for existence. With a naïve Darwinian nuance, what helped them survive was learning to merge with other animals, so as to get different and useful skills. All this went on until a planetary glaciation hibernated them… until the present day.

This is when the actual plot begins. As Akira’s close friend Ryo Asuka explains, the demons are awakening and their only purpose is to get back to their planet, infested by humans. The only one who can save mankind is a hero with a pure heart, capable of merging with and gaining the power of a demon. Different from other stories, the protagonist, in this case, shares the darkness of the villains. Thus, Akira Fudo becomes a hybrid of the two species: a Devilman.

devilman akira
Image courtesy of KODANSHA GO NAGAI © 1972

Devilman shows a convincing blending of various genres and settings. The plot gives lots of room over to action scenes and often takes horrific turns. Among others, the battle against the demon Jinmen is for sure one of the scariest. This demon displays on his turtle shell the heads of people he has previously devoured. However, there are also lots of scenes set in school, with a slice-of-life touch quite common in Japanese comics and the protagonist are of course teenagers.

However, most of all, Devilman shows the influence of the destruction brought by nuclear bombs. This catastrophe produced successful tropes into the Japanese artistic field, especially in the mecha genre. Themes like the fear of external menaces (most of the time aliens) and the risk of annihilation became almost mandatory. In this case, the demons intentioned to exterminate humanity represent the threat.

Love and the value of life in Devilman

To build the narrative world of Devilman, Nagai took inspiration from several sources. For example, he implemented elements from the hippie culture and satanism. And iconic is the scene where Ryo organizes a black sabbath where people let go of their rational selves. A dark ritual to lure demons and prepare the birth of the Devilman. Lastly, there are also hints to the influence of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, at least on an iconographical basis (later on Nagai would write a three-volume series on Dante’s masterpiece).

However, the main focus is how fear and violence can lead anyone astray, how the impulse to defeat a supposed enemy can conceal the value every life has. At first, the main characteristic of demons is to be unable to love. Their only joy is to slaughter other creatures. This natural instinct for violence reflects in Akira. Once he turns into a Devilman, his eyes become daring and every time he fights, his rage bursts right out of the page, thanks to Nagai’s trait, resembling a vivid flame.

devilman akira
Image courtesy of KODANSHA GO NAGAI © 1972

Nagai’s visuals are strikingly dynamic, especially in the battle scenes, often long but with a thrilling pace. He enacts spectacular fights, where Akira uses several tricks to beat his enemies or simply relies on brute force. Especially the ferocious fight against Sirene is extensively illustrated, taking up the better part of volume two. During this battle, Akira learns to admire his enemy and starts to understand demons altogether better. He also witnesses demons can feel love too, as Siren’s kin Kaim helps her.

Mankind and Demons: a battle between good and evil?

Demons don’t exist just to bring death, as in fact quite the opposite they have their own aspirations. A fact confirmed by the final, excruciating revelation on the true leader of demons and on his true motives. To give an insight on both sides, allowing the reader to grow fond of both of them, is a lesson well acknowledged by many later mangas like Berserk, Dorohedoro, and Attack on Titan.

Devilman was also quite innovative in its wide usage of violent scenes, often delivering strong climaxes. Akira fights for what he believes is right, but undergoes enormous sufferings, and not all by the hands of demons. Since demons can take human form, everybody can be a suspect and soon mankind starts a witch hunt. Thus Nagai shows that humans can give in to violence as much as demons can love. Namely, both species have bright and dark sides.

As the story of Akira shows, Devilman can’t help being a tragedy. The initial crusade against evil slowly fades into a war whose only stake is surviving. Since both demons and humans share the same amount of guilt, there is no way in pointing who is actually right or wrong.

Right after the manga, in 1972 there was aired also an animated version of Devilman, very different from the original and lacking in its brutality. During the years, lots of Devilman spin-offs and crossover stories were published, involving also other Nagai’s characters like Mazinger and Shin Getter. The most relevant is probably Amon – The Dark Side of Devilman, which expands the last part of the original manga. In 2018 Devilman – Crybaby came out for Netflix, a solid transposition of the manga by Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Game, Ping Pong – The Animation), settled in contemporary times but following the same course of events.