DISCLAIMER: After 15 years of waiting patiently for a live action motion picture based on my favorite anime character, I was fortunate enough to finally preview the new 2004 DEVILMAN movie via a Japanese language non-English subtitled source. So without a direct translation of the exact dialogue, I'll go ahead and warn you that I may be alittle off concerning some aspects of this film but since I'm quite familiar with the original GO NAGAI manga and anime series, I'm pretty confident I won't be too far off. Now originally, I only had plans to watch the first half of the film. Why, you ask? Well, as much as I was dying to see the film and so very thankful that I got a hook up to see it in the first place, I just didn't wanna squander my entire first time viewing experience of something I've waited well over a decade to see with an inferior version. As much as it would have pained me, I was willing to simply wait it out for a good import English subtitled DVD. But as it turned out, I eventually broke weak and watched the whole damn thing. And honestly, once I do purchase the DVD, it'll probably be almost a new view since it'll more than likely be another 4 or 5 months before a legit DVD is even available. Before I continue, a word of warning for those of you who might be seeking the same movie version as well. As I said, at the moment, the current version I acquired is not English subtitled so all you non-Japanese language speaking folks out there are up to their own reasoning powers to figure certain things out for yourself. And if you're not familiar with the original basic DEVILMAN story, you're probably in for some confusion. That's not to say there's no hope of understanding what's happening but I'd say it would definitely help. And that's also a repeating theme that you'll notice I'm going to refer to a number of times over the course of this review.
Okay, enough with all that, on with the movie...
For those that have no idea who or what a "DEVILMAN" is, this new 2004 motion picture is a revamped reworked adaptation of the original story created by GO NAGAI which put a strangle hold on horror anime fan's hearts since the mid 70's. One 39 episode television series, three animated features, and multiple manga volumes later, his hugely popular demonic anti-hero now hits the silver screen in a brand new live action version. Enter our main star, the meek and mild mannered Akira Fudo (ISATO IZAKI) who's just your average ordinary student staying with a foster family and who has a secret crush on his would be foster sister, Miki Makimura (AYANA SAKAI). Next up we have his wealthy friend Ryo Asuka (YUSUKE IZAKI). As it turns out, Ryo's father is a scientist and has discovered a long forgotten frozen tomb containing demonic spirits. Accidentally unleashing these hellish spawn, Ryo exposes Akira to these fiends when they visit his father's abandoned lab. But in the process, Akira is "possessed" by the demon entity known as Amon. They merge and thus, the being known as DEVILMAN is born. However, unlike most human / demon evolutions, Akira's able to retain his human mind and soul and doesn't give in to the murderous instincts of his evil counterpart. This now allows him to do battle with the other demons who are sprouting up. And as expected, with Amon's prowess, DEVILMAN is much stronger and faster than most of his demonic brethren. Thankfully, popular anime villians from days past such as Silene and Ginmen show up to test his might in combat.
Akira's war against the demon race soon takes a strange turn when the Japanese government forms a group of militia like soldiers calling themselves "Demon Busters". Their mission is simple... slay any and all demonic presence they encounter. They also have the supreme power of being judge, jury, and executioner which, of course, leads to the unwarranted deaths of many innocent people as well. And if that wasn't enough, the remaining unaffected civilian population go on their own rampaging vendetta quests seeking to exterminate the fiendish demon creatures that are out to conquer their mortal world. So, Akira, er, DEVILMAN finds himself in a precarious situation as he must still destroy the demons he discovers, prevent the senseless deaths of hapless victims by the hands of the hellspawn and now the humans but he must constantly keep his demonic alter ego a secret not only to protect himself but to keep his beloved Miki out of harm's way as well. Certainly not an easy task as his buddy Ryo constantly boasts him into fights seeking revenge for his dead father. Or so we're led to believe. Later, to Akira's biggest surprise, he'll soon realize that Ryo is actually the ultimate hellish bad guy, Satan who's trying to further the evolution of the demons here on Earth. And well, you can probably guess by now, there's gonna be a supra-big throw down between the two with the fate of our world hanging in the balance.
Okay, you understand the basic story idea and you're ready to watch the movie, right? Well, be prepared before you venture on and read to see what an old school DEVILMAN fan had to say about it...
My overall first impression of the film is that it reminded me of a small budget made-for-television movie even though it had been reported that the film's working budget and production values were exceptionally large for a flick of this sort. Yet, no matter how much they spent, there's just no real "big movie feel" to it, if that makes sense. It's sorta odd to explain. It luckily has a very Japanese style to it but it smacks of being an original SCI-FI CHANNEL presentation. Frequent viewers of the Asian cinema will kinda understand what I'm trying to describe here. But in the end, it goes without saying, it's like watching an updated episode of the old cheezy BATMAN television show due to the film's direction by HIROYUKI NASU (which I'll talk about alittle later). Other "rubbersuit" action / horror B-movie flicks such as FAUST and THE GUYVER come to mind as well. I mean, in truth, it's a comic based movie but every moment that the fantasy creatures are on the screen, it instantly makes you aware of that fact. Heck, there's even small clips of hand drawn art spliced into it too (remember when DEVILMAN throws his super punch). So if a finger must be stabbed at the movie's failings, I believe they all stem from that one aspect and the utter lack of creativity from the director (which I'll talk about alittle later).
But first, we come to CGI that has everyone so up in arms about. Me, I thought the animation was close to or on par with lots of bigger budget Hollywood flicks but the "blending" of the CGI with the real life environments was simply atrocious and stuck out so blazingly bad, it makes the viewer quite nauseous. LORD OF THE RINGS quality, this is most definitely not. It also tends to get soooo bad at times that I really had a hard time trying to decide whether or not I was either watching a live action movie or someone playing a videogame. Yet as bad as that all may be, the movie's computer animated DEVILMAN character was visually stunning and simply made the mouth water. Fans of DEVILMAN will not be disappointed. I sat there awestruck as he whipped around the screen doing what he does best, kick demon butt. However, I didn't like the way they used the human actor's voices with the scenes involving their full blown CGI demonic counterparts. They didn't fit in tone and pattern and sounded quite ackward and out of place. All they needed were some easy but spiffy voice manipulation and they'd been perfect. Oh well, maybe that's alittle too picky on my part?
As promised, back to the movie's direction by HIROYUKI NASU. As I said, the movie seems to lack any kind of high gloss arousing theatrical flair (save for maybe the introduction of Silene) and that's most certainly the sole fault of the director. Simply put, he's not very good and it shows. I mean, no matter what is happening, HIROYUKI always manages to keep the whole affair amatuerish and slightly campy. Serious pizazz and flash are what this movie so desperately needed. Cinematic eye candy, if you will. Also, even though it didn't really bother me that much, the pacing for the first half of the film was a true spectacle to behold. It was frantic, erratic, and at first glance, it looked like a bunch of unrelated scenes thrown together to make a feature length movie. I believe this comes from too much source material and just not enough screen time. There's lots of great scenes in the original manga and anime and HIROYUKI tried to put all of them in his flick. It's almost like watching a series of short clips from a longer movie that's designed to entice the potential viewer to go see the real deal. Of course, there isn't such an animal and what we really get is a mess that could have been better if this had only been a franchise series (of two movies) and not a single big screen attempt. Yet on the flipside of all this, long time fans of the character who know their material will no doubt thoroughly enjoy seeing these memorable instances rendered in live action. I know I did. I could easily recall just about every one that I saw. And this is probably going to be the biggest selling point for people seeking this movie. Again, fans of DEVILMAN will fanatically savor the experience but newcomers will have a harder time with it and their opinions will wildly vary with many discouraging comments. They'll call it an incomprehensible smathering of patchy filmwork and a free-for-all of nonsensical violence. And honestly, they wouldn't be completely wrong. But I liked it. The middle portion of the film sorta seemed like it slipped into more of a movie mode of storytelling. It didn't jump around from scene to scene as much as the opening sequences did. But in return, it managed to get somewhat bogged down and alittle boring. The last part of the movie was surprisingly good with the demise of Akira's family members (and I'm soooo glad they kept the Miki "head scenes") and the grand finale of CGI chaos between DEVILMAN and Satan.
Okay, we've talked about the director, now it's time for the actors. And oh my, this is a most troublesome area because this is the golden key to any good movie. Now I must admit, even though I do not speak the Japanese language, I can spot bad acting in a film and DEVILMAN's chock full of it. First and foremost, HISATO IZAKI's acting is just plain dreadful. There are the rare times however where he's acceptable as the Akira character but for the most part, he's just pretty fucking awful. Sadly, nothing else can be said about him. Example being the scene where Akira's stepfather realizes that Akira himself is a demon in disguise is utterly destroyed by HISATO's inability to act. This is a strategic character turning point in their relationship and where it should have been emotionally moving, it's tampled by a sheer incompetence. The other main star, YUSUKE IZAKI (HISATO's real life brother), is actually dead on with his portrayal of Ryo, in my opinion. He's moody, brooding, mysterious, and often serious and emotionless. Whether or not YUSUKE pulled this off on purpose or he just stumbled into it by chance because he can't act, I don't know. Either way, someone should have sent these lads to acting school. Then again, what did you expect from a pair of boy band singers turned actors? But contrary to what everyone's been saying about her, model-turned-actress AI TOMINAGA (Silene) seemed to do a good job to me. I thought she had a certain screen presence about her and not to even mention, she was oh so sexy too. Miki (BATTLE ROYALE 2 actress AYANA SAKAI), well, she was Miki, your typical schoolgirl with a good heart. I guess it's hard to play that kinda role the wrong way. Miki's parents (RYUDO UZAKI and YOKO AKI) were also close to the manga versions. They did what they needed to do for the film, nothing special to mention (save for maybe their death scenes) but nothing to slam either. Actress ASUKA SHIBUYA (Mico), she did very good with her part. I mean, after all her pouting and running about, she really turned out to be a surprise (more on that later). And finally, how could I forget BOB SAPP?! I have to assume that director HIROYUKI is a K1 kickboxing fan because this fella just cannot act. They must be friends or know each other in real life because otherwise there's absolutely no reason for this dolt to be in the film. Jesus Christ, if there was a casting director for this film, he must have been absent the day big BOB "The Beast" SAPP showed up.
In closing, a couple little odds and ends to mention (both good and bad) that were of a personal interest to me or need to be stressed one last time (BEWARE OF SPOILERS)...
1. Silene's introduction and entrance, wow, just wow! I still stand my ground and back my statement that AI TOMINAGA did a decent job with her role. I thought the first scenes of her appearing at Akira's house worked very well with the musical score and her exotic onscreen charisma. Unfortunately, she pops in, throws some hands with DEVILMAN, and then she's gone. Their battle (be it in the manga or the anime) was one of the legendary best and we're soul shockingly short changed in this film. Again, Silene is just one more reason to have had at least two DEVILMAN motion pictures instead of only one.
2. Frankly, no matter how hard I try not to, I have to agree with the masses that the films's CGI needed some definite WETA WORKSHOP treatment. As I said before, if you take the actual artwork by itself in terms of quality, it was relatively good. But as it blended with the real surroundings, it was sickeningly obvious and nearly ruins every scene it's intended to approve on. And now that I think about it, what would have been the harm in making a completely computer animated feature anyway?! DEVILMAN in FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN CGI quality, hmmmmm, makes ya wonder about the possibly awesome outcome.
3. Being an Asian cinema film fan myself, I've enjoyed quite a number of "Chop Socky" flicks over the years and as every lover of that genre knows, the fight choreography is truely essential and when done right, it's just sheer heavenly bliss. DEVILMAN on the other hand, is an example of what NOT to do in a movie. The fight scenes are extremely sluggish, predictable, and not in the least exciting or attention grabbing. Someone should have contacted the Chinese onscreen martial arts kick-ass maestro himself, COREY YUEN.
4. Certain storylines and plot developments were switched around and mixed up with each other in this movie. Others were completely new for this film. Knowing their original versions, I have varied feelings about them. I think some of the changes that condensed things were nice but many others didn't come off as well as they could have. I didn't like the fact that Akira's schoolmate was trapped in Ginmen's shell instead of his mother. But I did like the speedy get-going as the discovery of demons by Ryo's father coincided with Akira's first transformation into DEVILMAN (and within the first 15 minutes of the flick, no less). Yet the twist that stands out the most is the final evolution of Mico and her brand spanking new take-no-shit attitude. But as cool as all that was, spending so much screen time on Mico and not giving it to Silene is a crime for which there is no appropriate punishment for. Another new addition I liked that's not in the original story is the "Demon Buster" crucifixion of DEVILMAN and the firing squad bullet shower scene. Needless to say, it's pretty snazzy. I was impressed.
5. Oh, and someone pleeeeeze give HISATO a sandwich or something to eat. C'mon, dude, with your shirt off, you're painfully skinny in appearance and you make me think you're in constant "Nazi deathcamp victim" agony.
So, what have I said so far about what I've seen of the movie? DEVILMAN, without any more rambling on my part, is a film intended for diehard fans of the original GO NAGAI work and I just can't recommend this movie to anyone who's not totally 100% familar with this particular character and his story. Casual viewers and those wanting to see DEVILMAN for the first time, do yourselves a favor and stay the hell away from this flick. You'll more than likely watch it, curse it, and hate it which in turn will prevent you from seeking out the original anime and manga that's just so damn good and has enthralled people from around the world for the past 30 years. Final comment, I liked this new live action film myself but it's NOT the movie I would have made being the rabid DEVILMAN fan that I am. And this is definitely NOT the movie I'd first give to someone to showcase the DEVILMAN character and story. I mean, we ALL know which one that would be, don't we?
ADDENDUM: Even though I may be alittle more hyper critical of this movie than most since I've always loved the DEVILMAN character, I can honestly tell you that I did like the film. Whether or not this comes from me wanting to like it or making myself like it, I'm not sure. I guess it was just nice to have a new DEVILMAN feature. And I eagerly look forward to buying the English subtitled DVD with the expectation that it'll be a completely different viewing experience. For the better, I'm hoping.