Devilman (2004) Movie Review

Adapting manga or anime for live action cinema is never an easy affair. Although some stand alone features such as “Perfect Blue” have leant themselves quite naturally to the real life medium, anime series in general tend to involve huge casts of characters with complex development arcs, intricate storylines, and surreal, over the top visuals that are difficult to realize outside the world of cartoons. There have been several attempts in the past to harness the popularity of manga and anime series, for example “Fist of the North Star” and “Crying Freeman”, which, although not complete failures, provided only stripped down, empty reflections of their sources. Recently, the new adaptation of “Cutie Honey” took a more direct route, ditching many traditional cinematic elements and mixing in actual animation with live action footage. The technique proved successful, creating a bizarre, psychedelic and weird film that is perhaps the closest approximation of actual anime yet.

And so now we come to “Devilman”, a new, big budget adaptation of the long running, hugely popular horror/action anime created in 1972 by Go Nagai (who was also responsible for the “Cutie Honey” anime amongst others). A sprawling, apocalyptic and violent tale of battling demons that has a considerable cult following, any attempt to transfer “Devilman” to the live action medium was always going to be an uphill struggle. Unfortunately, “Devilman” the movie turns out to be a perfect case in point of both why such translations are not always a good idea, and more importantly, why designing and manufacturing a film of any kind for a target teen audience is more often than not the kiss of death.

The film is truly awful, ditching both the epic plot and the raw, visceral energy of the anime, and replacing them with an utterly incomprehensible, camp mix of bad CGI and pouting teen pop stars. There is simply no excuse for a film as badly made or thoughtless as this, which serves only to sully the name of the original series, and to further destroy any faith that genre fans may have of one day witnessing an effective crossover which does justice to the rich, creative source material that anime offers filmmakers.

Even for fans of the original, the plot of “Devilman” is incredibly hard to follow. Basically, it involves the accidental release of a demonic species from Antarctica, whose numbers spread via an infection, which corrupts and transforms normal people. This leads to an apocalyptic war, in which humanity’s only hope is Akira (Hisato Izaki, from Japanese boy band ‘Flame’), a weedy teen who merges with a demonic entity to become Devilman, a powerful, yet conscientious beast that fights both monsters and the fascist and brutal human forces trying to wipe out the new species. Akira is opposed by his former best friend, the somewhat psychotic Ryo (Yusuke Izaki, twin brother of Hisato, and fellow ‘Flame’ member), who becomes an equally powerful demon, and a host of other creatures that pop in and out of the story before it all conveniently finishes up with a climatic showdown.

To be honest, there may be more, or indeed less, to the plot than outlined above. It is actually quite hard to tell, as director Hiroyuki Nasu (responsible for the “Bee Bop High school” series) dispenses with any kind of exposition, and simply throws in a series of vaguely connected events. This is all the more strange, given that the film is so far removed from the plot of the anime, and is likely to infuriate and confuse followers of the series, whilst leaving casual viewers completely mystified. The film lurches not only from scene to scene, but has massive narrative leaps, with only offhand explanations as to what has happened and why.

Prime examples of the above come when the viewers are briefly informed by a newscaster (played in mind-numbingly awful fashion by ex-NFL star Bob Sapp) that war has broken out, or that a vaguely defined government force has started rounding up suspected demons. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the origins of the demons are never explained nor even hinted at, and the viewer is never sure whether they are some kind of genetic evolution or supernatural hell spawn.

The film is equally absent-minded when it comes to characters, throwing them in and out of the plot without any indication of purpose, background or even alignment. This is most noticeable in the case of Silene (played by model Ai Tominaga), who in the anime was supposed to be a beautiful and all-powerful demon that had a pivotal role and a major effect on the development of Devilman himself. Here, she simply turns up for a scene, winks at the camera and disappears. The end result of all this is that “Devilman” makes very little sense. The film is absolutely incoherent in the most annoying of ways, and viewers have no sense of progression, tension, or indeed any interest in the plot.

With this in mind, viewers would be forgiven for expecting “Devilman” to excel in, or at least to focus on, its visual content. Astonishingly, this is not the case, as Nasu spends more time on the domestic and school life of Akira, a decision which leads to long, barren stretches of interest-free filmmaking. Although character development is obviously a good thing, in “Devilman” this mainly amounts to scene after scene of Akira crying and sitting in his room, seemingly unconcerned by his newfound powers, and spending far too much time worrying about gorgeous half sister Miki (Ayana Sakai, “Battle Royale 2”) than the apocalyptic war which we are told is raging outside. The film actually only contains a handful of action scenes involving demons, which further drags down the pace and leaves viewers feeling badly cheated.

On reflection, the lack of demon action may actually be a good thing, as the special effects are simply appalling. The demons in the film are a strange mix of cheap looking CGI and rubbery, “Power Rangers”-style monster suits, and the end result is wholly unconvincing. When the film finally lurches into an all-CGI environment for the climatic twenty minutes or so, it at best resembles a video game, with unrealistic character movement that robs it of any kind of visceral impact. Similarly, although there are a number of violent scenes and some gore effects thrown into the mix, these are so badly handled and shoddy looking to be of any benefit.

The press has reported that “Devilman” enjoyed a budget of unprecedented size, though exactly where this money went is unclear, since in addition to such poor special effects, the film only seems to have three locations. Everything in the film looks suspiciously poverty row, and the atmosphere is of a teen TV program rather than something which belongs in multiplexes. Worse still is the fact that Nasu’s direction is completely without any kind of style or apparent effort, which gives the whole thing a feel not only of being lackluster, but pointless and unwanted by all concerned.

The final insult comes in the form of the acting. Nasu has assembled a cast made predominantly of pop stars, models and teen idols, all of whom have one thing in common: a complete inability to act. The worst offenders are undoubtedly the Izaki twins, both of whom spend the entire film whining, pouting, and generally failing to win any kind of audience sympathy. I guess it is debatable whether the blame falls on the actors for giving such atrocious performances or on Nasu for making the cynical decision to cast bankable eye candy as opposed to people who can actually act. Either way, the two male leads and the rest of the cast manage to reduce what is already a poor film to a kind of bizarre, cheap looking advertisement for bad latex and unconvincing teen angst.

Hiroyuki Nasu (director) / Go Nagai (comic), Machiko Nasu (screenplay)
CAST: Hisato Izaki ….Akira Fudo/Devilman
Yûsuke Izaki …. Ryo Asuka
Ayana Sakai …. Miki Makimura
Ryudo Uzaki …. Keisuke Makimura
Yoko Aki …. Emi Makimura
Ai Tominaga …. Silene
Bob Sapp …. World Newscaster

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