In my Intro to Devilman, a Demonic Manga Masterwork I said Go Nagai wrote one of the best love stories of all time, and in honor of Valentine’s Day I’d like to explain why. In every iteration of the Devilman franchise, teenage Akira Fudo becomes possessed by a demon. Akira’s heart overcomes the demon and he retains consciousness only in versions where his friend Ryo Asuka exists to guide him, otherwise the demon takes control. By transforming his body to gain strength and save the world from demonic invasion, he’s made “a deal with the Devil” that sacrifices his humanity. Devilman stands apart from the Christian legend of Faust in how it imagines a deal with the Devil as a tragic, horrifying, and enduring romance.
Of course, this post contains spoilers for the original Devilman manga, Devilman Lady, and Devilman Crybaby.
Unlike how Faust seeks demonic power out of dissatisfaction with mortal life, Akira shows no desire to become stronger in the classic manga. His classmate Miki teases him for his weakness, but he’s content to run away from bullies. When his friend Ryo explains demons can only be challenged by being possessed by one, he shows trepidation and tries to escape. In the end, his terror at the existence of violent creatures loses to his trust in Ryo. He accepts the deal with the Devil not out of arrogance, but out of love for Ryo and humankind. He may have been introduced as a wimp, but his righteousness shines through as we see why Ryo trusts him to believe in his outrageous theories and resist the demons. They’re willing to go down in flames together, and the love story begins. Akira gains the body of the powerful Amon, the equivalent to the demon Mephistopheles who serves Faust, and becomes Devilman with Ryo as his sidekick.
Ryo doesn’t need to merge with a demon, as it turns out Akira has made a literal deal with the Devil. Neither of them know at the time, but the final volume reveals Ryo to be an amnesiac Satan investigating humans and plotting to take back ownership of the Earth for demonkind. Akira comes close when he compares Ryo to King Enma (the Buddhist god who decides whether humans enter Heaven or Hell) dragging him to Hell before they join the Black Sabbath to face possession.
However, Satan doesn’t offer power in exchange for ownership of an immortal soul in Hell as with Faust. Ryo manipulates around Akira’s human heart not to torture it, but to preserve it in an indestructible body and survive apocalyptic war together. Thus, the deal maker and the deal taker both engage out of love. Akira gained a demon body through the deal, offered when Ryo gained a human heart. Satan becomes mortal to discover the weakness of humankind and destroy them for stealing the Earth, but falls in love with an unassuming human. They’ve irrevocably changed one another. The manga doesn’t specify when and how he fell in love between taking over the real Ryo Asuka’s life and saving Akira from delinquents, but the good Ryo sees in him from the very beginning speaks volumes. Perhaps his vulnerability reminds him of the demons and compels him to protect once again. His love runs so deep it subconsciously distracts from his study of humans and sacrifices the soldier Amon, as his general Xenon points out, but he has no regrets and believes Akira will join his side.
Despite the tender roots of its deal with the Devil, Devilman can’t escape the tragic end for Faust. Ryo loves a human after hating them for millions of years, but he treats Akira like an exception rather than reconsider his views. While Akira prioritizes his remaining human heart and declares himself an evolutionary human, Ryo decides he’s a fellow demon and member of the new dominant species. If the closest angel to God could align with the demons, then so could a human being. After regaining his memories, he drastically attempts to make Akira understand the evil of humanity by launching a smear campaign about him being a demon and encourages everyone to suspect their neighbors of possession. Ryo acts out of love, but uses the deal that brought them together as a tool in his war for the Earth. Understandably, it backfires and Akira only resents Ryo for betraying his trust by turning humankind against him and causing the murder of his other loved ones.
The two cannot reconcile their different beliefs in the morality of humans, and the conflict between devilmen and demons acts also as a personal “battle of love and hate.” Akira must use the power granted to him through Ryo’s love as a weapon, but his deal with the Devil has its limits. Their armies perish, including Akira by Ryo’s hand. The tragedy lies not in that either of them fell in love with the wrong person or that their love caused the world to end (enough with the untrue “caused the apocalypse by being gay” jokes), but that war and prejudice pull apart the closest of bonds. Ryo asks Akira to forgive his foolishness, only to realize his death. Unlike with Faust, the Devil does not have the last laugh: only Ryo survives, finally realizing his mistake of resenting humans at the cost of the person he sought to protect. Lucifer, another name for the planet Venus (named after the Roman goddess of love), fittingly becomes a character defined by love.
Science Saru and Netflix’s adaptation Devilman Crybaby hones in on love and makes it the main theme, beginning and ending on Ryo’s conception of love for Akira. As Satan falls from grace, he decides, “Love does not exist, there is no such thing, therefore there is no sadness.” God shows him no love as He banishes His child to Earth, nor (apparently) do the demons to each other in their struggle for survival there. However, he adds, “At least, that’s what I thought,” before Akira takes his hand through darkness. The prologue lays out Ryo’s character arc of learning to love through Akira—as well as subtly discloses his divine origin—in order for Crybaby‘s characterization to work. He may seem heartless based on his low empathy, but he’s in love the entire time because only Akira accepts him unconditionally. Again, the Devil offers his deal out of love, but this time remains unaware of his feelings even after regaining his memories.
On Akira’s end, he accepts the deal out of love again, showing no hesitation as he leaps into Ryo’s arms and follows him. He may be laughably oblivious to Ryo threatening people with a machine gun, but it aligns with the prologue’s establishment that Akira’s hyper-empathy can detect Ryo’s hidden depths while others “despised him.” Just like he could tell he was “crying too,” he knows Ryo has more to him and appreciates that side of him. Akira even becomes possessed purely for Ryo, first to assist him in uncovering the existence of demons and then to rescue him from them, rather than for the good of humankind. Becoming Devilman takes him from slowest to faster member of the school track team, but he voices no aspiration to do so. The Devil subconsciously pulls the strings, but to Akira everything seems incidental to his love.
In contrast, Miki Kuroda’s motivations to become a devilman align much more with Faust as her inferiority complex and neglect lead her to the Black Sabbath. Knowing the rumors Koda became faster from attending, she hopes she will too and improve her life. As Taro says, you can get stronger if you make a deal with the Devil. She revels in her speed and popularity like Akira, but watches Koda’s rampage in horror realizing the cost of her same deal with the Devil. She becomes monstrous as she murders and devours humans, but stops killing after she admits her love (and entangled hate) for Miki Makimura. Vulnerability absolves her suffering, not power. Love brings salvation and challenges narrow definitions of goodness and humanity because, as the Christian Makimura family believes, it is the strongest thing in the universe.
The Mikis reconcile before their demise, but Akira and Ryo do not. They clash when Ryo fears Miki Makimura could compromise their mission and Akira objects to human casualties, but their relationship reaches a breaking point when Ryo broadcasts Akira’s transformation into Devilman and propagates the existence of demons among humankind. While the world falls apart around Akira, Ryo gazes at photos of their childhood in a display of just how unaware he can be of the other’s perspective. To him, joining forces would naturally be upholding their deal. Hyper-empathy complements low empathy and allows Akira to grasp his feelings, but unfortunately not vice versa. As Ryo says, “Back then, I didn’t know what you meant,” when Akira noticed him internally crying. However, Akira couldn’t tell Ryo’s sadness had more to do with his friend than the dead kitten.
Therein lies their tragedy: a lack of understanding, illustrated many ways in their final confrontations. After Miki Makimura dies due to Ryo’s propaganda, Akira admits he no longer empathizes and can’t cry for him anymore. Their blows are intercut with shots of young Miki Kuroda passing a baton to Miki Makimura, then her to Akira, then Akira out to Ryo. The Mikis give their love, symbolized as the baton, to the next person before they die. Knowing this to also be his final moment as he loses his limbs, Akira presents his love to Ryo in desperation. Satan fights on as Ryo stares blankly at the baton no matter how many times Akira offers it, because he cannot accept what he does not conceive. He denies love for moments like this, where it would prevent him from fighting back. When knocked unconscious, Akira imagines a peaceful dinner with his human loved ones and happily turns to the opposite head of the table expecting to see the most important person. Instead of Ryo there smiling back, he witnesses the other guests fall apart in a horrific reminder of who caused their demise. As Ryo continually refuses the baton, Akira’s frustration explodes like a volcano. After Ryo strikes him down, a series of tender as well as brutal moments from their childhood augment their falling out. Only when Akira dies and Ryo sees the earring from Miki Makimura, passed onto him like the symbolic baton, does he become overwhelmed and cry for what he has lost. It cost him everything, but he finally acknowledges the love within.
In all mediums and adaptations their love runs deep, which makes their failure to reconcile all the more heartbreaking. They were both right to stand up for the defenseless, but wrong in how it came to a head. Perhaps if circumstances were different, if they had more time, if they realized earlier, if they communicated more, if they could try again knowing what they know now… the deal with the Devil could have turned out differently. Devilman Lady certainly believes so.
In the sequel manga, Akira’s soul goes to Hell just like Faust and he reflects on everything that transpired in Devilman. He figures out that God’s cruelty to those in Hell goes too far, Heaven must be just as much a prison as Hell, and humans and demons resemble each other in their quest for survival; however, he can’t understand why Satan would mourn his enemy. As far as he knows, Ryo set out to ruin his life and by no means loves him. His hatred and betrayal fester in Hell, but Akira admits he still loves him. War can pull people apart, but the connection remains. When his Lady counterpart Jun Fudo informs him of events outside Hell, he concludes Ryo wants to amass demons to wage another war for the Earth and sets out to find him.
Ryo does plan to fight God again, as well as apologize to Akira by saving his beloved’s soul from Hell. Throughout the manga the sight of Akira overwhelms Jun or Ran Asuka with confused longing, because they turn out to be Satan split into two people unaware of the fact. Akira’s mix of love and hate for Ryo manifests in how he tenderly protects Jun but suspects Ran of corruption. After Jun and Ran have sex to give birth to a new physical form for Akira, they combine into Satan and ask him to join the battle against God. They join hands, just as they did before entering the Black Sabbath, in a culmination of Ryo acknowledging the merit of humankind and Akira realizing the wickedness of God. Humankind disappears and the Earth restarts, but they could finally reconcile and join forces for the greater good. Their reunion reverses the hellish “catch” of a deal with the Devil to become equals and uplift their tragic romance through the power of love. They contain multitudes: best of friends, worst of enemies, ignorant mortals, all-important deities, mastermind and pawn, comrades-in-arms, Faust and the Devil, demon and angel; always in love.