DEVILMAN crybaby has been tearing up the internet since it dropped a few weeks ago, sparking conversation about its use of sex, violence, horror, and taboo to tell a story about love and the end of the world. Not an inconsiderable amount of that discussion was centered around the series’ queer representation. What do you do with a series that features sympathetic representation while also roundly killing its queer characters off, and does it make a difference that everybody is dying?
SPOILERS for DEVILMAN crybaby, Devilman, and Devilman Lady. CONTENT WARNING: NSFW screenshots.
This is and isn’t new: the first incarnation of the Devilman franchise to make it to the states was the late 1980s/early 1990s OVA, where it made a minor stir but not much of a lasting impression in western fandom. Meanwhile, Nagai’s five-volume manga and its many adaptations and spin-offs were inspiring everything from Berserk to CLAMP. Because Ryo’s love for Akira has been there since the very beginning of an extremely influential franchise, it means that crybaby winds up not just reinventing a single work, but talking back to an archetype that its source material helped cement.
Ryo Asuka set the standard for tragic queer villains in love with the hero. The original story ends as it does in crybaby, with a long monologue delivered to Akira’s corpse as Ryo/Satan waits for God to come wipe him out yet again. He becomes a tragic villain rather than an unequivocal monster in a series full of them.
But perhaps because of the time period and the limitations of the genre, Ryo’s story is always a tragic one. The closest aversion is Devilman Lady, which due to its cancellation ended with Ryo and Akira teaming up but failed to show the outcome of the final battle against God (much less anything about their relationship status).
Since the original Devilman manga, Ryo has been written out of the series entirely (the 1972 anime), split in two until the end of the series (Devilman Lady), and reborn into a heterosexual relationship with Miki Makimura (Violence Jack). Meanwhile, his influence can be seen in the likes of Griffith (Berserk) and Kaworu Nagisa (Neon Genesis Evangelion). CLAMP’s early doujinshi work often focused on the character, even giving him and Akira a child, and the echoes of that fannish love are obvious in their 1990s work (particularly X). The image of a mysterious, cold, and supernaturally aligned queer villain whose heart is only moved by the hero (whether it be to love or obsession) is its own longstanding trope in the anime and manga world.