Contains major spoilers for every version of Devilman.
Go Nagai’s iconic 1972 manga Devilman—which tells the story of Akira Fudo, a young man of pure and virtuous nature who fuses with a demon to fight off a demonic invasion with the help of his friend Ryo Asuka, who is actually Satan, but forgot—might be popular among a queer audience for the relationship between its male leads, but that doesn’t mean it’s earned that popularity on its own merits. It is from the sixties, and written by a rather notoriously problematic, misogynistic creator on top of that. But over the last fifty-odd years, adaptations of Devilman have taken the flawed and questionably intentional representation of the original and smoothed it out into something more thoughtful and deliberate, passing the baton of representation down from one version to the next.
As messy as the original Devilman manga might be, the tension between Akira and Ryo is still very much present. Firstly, there’s what could be called 60’s Shonen Homoeroticism—lots of dramatic hand clasps and tears and “you’re the only one I can trust.” Which is of course a delight for readers who are into that sort of thing, but by itself, it’s not any more actually queer than Class-S romantic friendships between girls. The difference is that Satan openly states that they fell in love with Akira while they were living as the human Ryo, and that the entire point of making him a Devilman—and jeopardizing their entire plan to eliminate humanity and reclaim Earth for the Demons—was to enable him to survive in that new world. It’s tender and tragic—a far cry from villains whose queer-coding is intended to make them seem predatory or ridiculous.
The problem with this is in the execution. In the Devilman universe, Satan is intersex—as are all angels—and this is both treated as some kind of reveal and used as an excuse for how they could have fallen in love with Akira as Ryo. Because of course the only possible explanation is that they’re “both male and female…!” It’s a staggeringly bad decision which proves as clearly as anything could that Go Nagai had no idea what he was doing where queerness was concerned.
Devilman as a whole leaves prospective adaptations in a pretty sweet position—the good parts are great and the bad parts are easily cut, meaning with a little creative license and a few liberties, you could wind up with something truly special while still hewing fairly close to the source material. This is what the OVAs—1987’s Devilman: The Birth and 1990’s Devilman: The Demon Bird—manage to do, in its queer representation as in everything else. The subtext is cranked up to eleven, with Ryo interrupting as Akira’s about to confess his feelings to his friend Miki Makimura and insisting Akira come with him and leave Miki behind, saying “there’s no time for women.” Miki tries to stop him, and when Akira goes with him anyways, makes a comment about how “he’s awfully pretty, isn’t he?” To which Akira responds with a flustered, “C’mon, Ryo’s a guy…!” This is the sort of thing that could easily be played as a joke, but based on some of the charged looks they exchange later, the famous hospital scene, and the simple fact that Devilman has always been kinda gay, it reads as foreshadowing more than anything else. It’s a tragedy that the third and final OVA that would have covered the end of the manga was never made—I’m sure they would have done justice to Satan and their feelings for Akira.
And for a long time, that was it—Devilfans had to settle for the deeply flawed representation of the manga and wonder what might have been if the third OVA had managed to find funding. But then, a ray of hope—a new anime adaptation from Netflix was announced, to be directed by Masaaki Yuasa and released in January 2018. This was Devilman Crybaby, and not only was it a smash hit that finally brought Devilman to the attention of Western fandom, it did an admirable job of following in the OVA’s footsteps in terms of depicting queerness in a thoughtful manner.
The first thing worth noting about Crybaby is that Ryo is not the only overtly queer character. Groundbreaking, I know. But as pure as their feelings for Akira have always been, there is something uncomfortable about having the only LGBT character in a work be Actual Satan. Crybaby neatly sidesteps this issue, with gay and lesbian couples as well as straight ones at the Sabbath party, as well as several anime-original characters. “Super High Schooler” track star Moyuru Koda is devastated by his boyfriend’s death at the same party where he becomes a Devilman, and Miki “Miko” Kuroda is filled with both jealousy and love for Miki Makimura, who happily returns her affections when Miko eventually realizes her feelings and confesses. Neither of these characters could be called perfect representation—Koda loses control and kills a lover during sex, and Miko and Miki’s relationship is both situated in the realm of plausible deniability and very quickly ended by both of their deaths—but it shows a certain amount of deliberation that certainly wasn’t present in the original.
The way Satan is depicted in Crybaby is a far cry from the original as well, thankfully. They’re still clearly shown as intersex, but instead of painful “reveals,” it’s simply never commented upon, because it really doesn’t need to be. It’s enough to show them as possessing both a non-cis body and the radiant beauty of an angel. Akira and Ryo’s relationship receives a good deal more focus as well, especially the time they spent together as children, building a solid foundation for the casual intimacy—they hug a lot—between them. And while Satan doesn’t realize their feelings for Akira until it’s too late, the scene of them crying over his body, begging him to wake up, is heartbreaking.
So what’s next? After Crybaby, it seems unlikely that there will be any more adaptations of the Devilman manga, so who does the baton go to now? The answer is obvious—the fans. As is so often the case, the people making the most thoughtful, overt, and poignant queer content for the franchise have always been the fandom—and from pornography to cute domesticity to tender romance, there’s something for everyone. While it’s naturally validating to have queer characters provided in canon, especially when that representation is executed well, fans have always been good at reclaiming and adding depth to flawed portrayals. In the end, the baton of representation always ends in the hands of the fandom.