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Devil Lady: The Complete Collection
 Jason Carter  rates it:    

Go Nagai can claim a hand in more works than I can conveniently count. There's Cutey Honey, encompassing a plethora of manga and anime incarnations and a live action movie (this franchise has proven durable enough to merit a recent revival as Re: Cutie Honey under none other than Hideaki Ano, himself a notable name). There are the umpteen versions of Getter Robo, which is also still alive and kicking despite being 30 years old at its core. There's Mazinger Z, of numerous variations and continuations, and Kekkou Kamen, and Black Lion, and on and on. The man more than deserves the appellation "prolific", and it was probably fair of me to presume some quality in the work of a man who has managed to endure in the industry for so long, even though I had never seen a single one of his productions.

That being the case, watching The Devil Lady (or Devilman Lady, its original title) wasn't much of a stretch. Derived from his famous Devilman, which was first a manga, then a lengthy TV series, Devil Lady asks "What would things have been like if the Devilman had been female?" This doesn't sound promising; any number of dreadful bits of fanfiction have been built on the "What if they were girls?" premise. But Nagai's Devilman Lady manga apparently made it work, so much so that in 1998 the whole thing was reworked by Chiaki Konaka (more on him later) and aired on broadcast television (after omitting, as I understand it, lots of ultra-violence and demon rape - which is sobering in light of the very real brutality of this series). The result is a surprisingly involving but ultimately botched story of one young woman's increasingly desperate attempts to stop the complete collapse of her world, her conscience, and her sense of self in the middle of the most traumatic circumstances imaginable.

Our heroine here is one Jun Fudou (Nagai fans take note, she has nothing to do with the main character of Iron Virgin Jun). Jun is a breathtakingly lovely twenty-something who has hit it big as a fashion model in Tokyo after leaving her lonely and sickly childhood in Sendai behind her. Jun doesn't quite have it all, but she works diligently at her job and has been rewarded. Jun is known in the industry (she is mentioned several times in the show as having repeatedly been on the cover of some fashion magazine called Kiki), is financially comfortable, and has no apparent troubles greater than turning down the occasional request for a date from a photographer and what might be a creeping sense of ennui about her situation in life. She also has a sweet, caring best friend in the teenager Kazumi Takiura, an aspiring model and schoolgirl who looks up to Jun as the pattern she wishes to set her own life after.

Unfortunately for Jun, her photographs have caught the attention of an intimidating Amazon named Lan Asuka (almost certainly a mistranslation of "Ran"), a tall blonde bitch who shows up at Jun's apartment one night and demands that the frightened woman accompany her to an undisclosed location. Jun, seemingly compelled to obey Asuka's will, obliges her and finds herself transported to an abandoned warehouse somewhere near the Tokyo bay; along the way, Jun's attempts to get some answers from Asuka are met with evasive talk about the strange glint in Jun's eyes that Asuka finds so attractive, and creepy rhapsodizing about beasts and blood.

Once inside the building they stop at (again, Jun inexplicably goes along with this increasingly dangerous scenario like a child out for a stroll with her mother), Jun finds herself trapped with a man chained to a pillar, who promptly senses her presence and transforms into a huge, werewolf-like creature that rips free of it's chains, pounces on Jun and more or less guts her. Meanwhile, Asuka is out of sight, badgering Jun via an intercom to fight back and manipulating the hidden cameras that are taking flash photographs of the massacre. Eventually, Jun gives in to her rather unique 'fight or flight' response, and the Devilwoman in her comes out to play.

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The end of all of this finds Jun shellshocked, uncertain of her own humanity, with copious amounts of purplish blood on her hands and a new taskmaster in Asuka, who drafts her into the secret organization she works for as their primary beast hunter. Asuka makes it clear from the outset that Jun is the passive partner in their unhappy working relationship, and at the same time manages to display a weird fixation and admiration for Jun that never turns into any actual kindness. Never having asked for anything more than what she had that morning, Jun Fudou ends the day with a shattered identity, a ravaged conscience, and a vicious secret life she can't afford to reveal to any of the very few people she has to confide in. And the show only gets more brutal from there.

Horror fiction is not and has never really been my "thing." Sure, I was scared like everyone else when, at the age of eight or so, I would see the occasional TV advertisement for the latest crummy knockoff of something Clive Barker had done right once upon a time, but the general run of things meant to scare people didn't get to me very much. Maybe it's the unsympathetic nature of the folks involved; very few horror stories, with the notable exception of the original installment of The Exorcist, seem to have the kind of characters one comes to identify with (who really felt anything for the cardboard cutout small town nobodies of I Know What You did Last Summer?). Or perhaps it was just the generally abysmal quality of the writing, which all too often seems to take the sheer number of severed limbs and pints of blood a script involves as the story's reason for being. But whatever the cause, only a handful of the horror stories I have experienced have generally frightened me.

Looking back at them, a common flaw emerges: most of them seem written by people who have no real idea of what evil is. Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are not the sort of people one can be soul-chillingly terrified of, because at bottom they aren't people at all. They come on like forces of nature, and in spite of the fact that they wear a face (well, sometimes) in the end they are simply killing machines - dangerous, but not capable of invoking the kind of appalling reaction one gets in something like Apt Pupil or In the Mouth of Madness (the only truly terrifying film I have ever seen, and the only horror movie I know that deals with the spiritual corruption of society instead of hack and slash clichés). Each of those stories revolves around a distinctly human kind of corruption, something we can recognize as at once a part of us, as a possibility, and as something alien to us, as what we have (allegedly) turned our backs on - even when it comes wearing tentacles or horns. The thing that acts for comprehensible reasons is ultimately akin to us, even when it is something nominally demonic or monstrous; that's the source of the real evil in it, and the key which too many stories that set out to be horrific generally fail to make use of.

Devil Lady doesn't have this problem. The series sets poor, all too fragile Jun up against two villains with exceptionally strong drives: Asuka and Satoru (he is introduced later, in disc two, and is as much Asuka's rival as Jun's nemesis). Asuka, of course, is the putative government agent and one of the "good guys." Her compatriots certainly seem alright; the ordinary soldiers that we see staffing the reaction teams her organization dispatches to back Jun up are simply men in uniform, out to defend themselves and their homes. They certainly aren't friendly to Jun, or the other beasts, but there is a refreshing lack of clichéd X-Men like bigotry in their treatment of her. And Maeda, Asuka's secretary and general toady, is even more human and likeable; he's a decent man to begin with, and develops over the course of the series into a rock of strength and moral integrity whom Jun can count on in her weakest moments (and he does, indeed, save her when she is most vulnerable).

Asuka herself, however, is a Nazi bitch from the start and doesn't let up as things get moving. She taunts Jun about everything from her looks to her sexuality and her relationship with Kazumi and drives her relentlessly in the increasingly vicious and dangerous hunts. The fact that Jun is experiencing a growing crisis of conscience over her actions means less than nothing to Asuka; she has her agenda, and once it becomes comprehensible it's plain that she is a far more vile a person than we could have guessed. As for Satoru, out of all the beasts Jun struggles with he is the one who retains the least connection with the human race that he has come to believe he has surpassed. Satoru has repudiated his humanity entirely; the changes that have come upon him are, in his eyes, an unalloyed blessing and he takes up his twisted sense of his people's manifest destiny with all the fervor one would expect of a self appointed messiah. Like another memorable megalomaniac with little taste for "lesser races", Satoru has seen the evolutionary future of the world and is determined to give nature a generous portion of help in speeding up its time table. Ironically, of all the changed, Satoru is the one who is least altered in his basic appearance. Even Jun, who struggles to keep a tenuous grip on her humanity in the face of her new power, her terrible work, and all the possibilities for self-aggrandizement and abuse it entails - even Jun looks more monstrous than Satoru. His human spirit is the most corrupted of all, but his flesh is all but untouched.

Jun herself is a tragic figure; pulled from her ordinary life into one of sheer power and dreadful responsibility, she finds herself ill-equipped make the kinds of hard choices and painful sacrifices the reality of her situation demands of her. Jun, in spite of her apparent introversion, often seems like someone who secretly wants and needs to be loved and to love in return - all of which make her prey to Asuka's manipulations, and increasingly dependent on Kazumi. Kazumi herself is the perfect embodiment of the irony of Jun's power; she has the might of a superhuman but finds herself struggling to relate to and protect the young woman who begins the show as her best (and apparently only) friend and who ends up becoming considerably more than that as the killing takes its emotional and spiritual toll.

I said earlier that this show was botched in the end, and unfortunately that's exactly the case. In order to understand why, you have to grasp that screenwriter Chiaki Konaka manages to completely abandon the premises of the universe he has built and the manner of story he is telling in the final disc of the series. It is made clear from the outset of the show that Jun and the others are undergoing an extreme form of genetic mutation that happens to have monstrous results in most cases. I found this refreshing, since I doubted that a religious angle to this story would be carried off well. Unfortunately, come the end of the show that is exactly the track Konaka has wandered down, in spite of the fact that it has nothing to do with the earlier background we have been taught. To make matters worse, this jarring transition is intensified by the totally nonsensical use of those religious themes; I can't reveal why without spoiling the show, but anyone who understands anything even vaguely religious will see what I mean when they come to it. In addition to that, Konaka ends up doing a disservice to his characters by spoiling the opportunity to complete their mutual growth (this show is about these people coming together, as much as it's about anything else). The only other thing I can recall that manages to put it's primary characters into such a hopeless situation, where they have enough strength to defend themselves and overcome individual foes but no power whatsoever against the tide of events around them, is Princess Mononoke; but Devil Lady, though it builds to that same sort of dreadful climax, cuts it short without any reason and flies off into space. It's hard to describe how disappointed this left me, but I can say that it cost this show a full star on my final grade.

Technically, the art ranges from striking (usually a close up of Jun or Asuka, who is pretty in a glacial kind of way) to embarrassing (you can tell where they cut corners to stretch the budget) but overall it manages to do its job and look good when it has to. I didn't listen to the Japanese version at all, since the dub turned out to be acceptable and I doubt any original voice work could paper over the plot flaws. The opening and closing themes are both noteworthy. The first sounds like something out of the Carmina Burana, and carries the tone of the show very nicely; the second it more pop-like, but still enjoyable to listen to and well chosen for the show it is meant to embellish. DVD features run the standard gamut: language and subtitle options, clean opening and closing sequences, and production art, as well as the ever-present previews.

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I wish I could have given Devil Lady four and a half stars. I watched the first disc one night and the rest the next day, and could feel the way it built to a shattering conclusion that would have amply fulfilled the promise of its unusually deft story and deep characters. Alas, Konaka dropped the ball (not uncommon for him; he is also at fault for the dreadful Texhnolyze and the very enjoyable but still inconclusively-ended Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040). As it is, this show is mostly very well done and certainly worth the price of the complete boxed set; my only complaint is that I can't rave about it like I want to.


Added:  Monday, November 08, 2004

Related Link:  ADV Films
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