NOTE: Every once in a while, I have more to say about an anime than can easily fit in a single review. The Devil Lady, or Devilman Lady, is a thought-provoking, awesome horror / dark fantasy anime that is good enough to merit that kind of multi-part coverage. Today we’ll start with a spoiler-free review of the series to provide an overview—in the follow-up articles, I’ll dive more in-depth into the series’ symbolism, drama, and dark themes.
Lesson learned: never judge an anime by its cover art. I avoided The Devil Lady for years on the assumption that it was just another gory splatterpunk anime, a genre that tends to be strong on creative transformation sequences but pretty abysmal otherwise. However, I found that I underestimated this show. The Devil Lady has heart and a fascinatingly gray moral core.
The Devil Lady is a horror story, but looking below the surface, you could also describe it as equal parts Hellsing, X-Files, and X-Men. It tells the story of Jun Fudou, a beautiful but timid fashion model who finds herself drawn into a battle for humanity’s survival. She has a strange mutation in her DNA that allows her to change into a demonic monster, but unlike most of these “devil beasts,” she retains her sanity and conscience while transformed. Jun is drafted against her will to fight other devil beasts by an ice-cold blonde named Lan Asuka who commands a secret, government-sanctioned paramilitary organization (much like Hellsing – but note that Devil Lady predates it by several years). This is a shadow war – kept out of the media, waged to end the threat of monsters who often look like ordinary people on the surface, and fought against the backdrop of a gradually unfolding conspiracy (much like X-Files). Finally, the show’s gray morality centers around Jun herself, a mutant of sorts who is fighting to save a world that hates and fears her, even as other, more violent mutants call her a traitor and mark her for death (much like X-Men). Get the idea?
It’s a weird mix that could have ended disastrously, but The Devil Lady pulls off its occult formula with flying colors. For starters, this anime is wonderful about taking its time when appropriate. It will slowly set up a creepy scene with music that makes your skin crawl. At other times, quiet, sad scenes with equally sorrowful music will absolutely break your heart. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m a fan of the score.) It also features a manageable-sized cast of characters who almost all develop as the anime progresses. You may be alternately impressed or shocked by how much you end up caring about people you assumed would only be background characters.
The writing is extremely sharp, and its plot twists pass the litmus test of making even more sense after a second viewing. There are some phenomena that are never completely explained, and the extent to which all of this madness is caused by mutant biology versus the supernatural occult is an especially muddy point. However, I feel it’s acceptably ambiguous. You’re provided with all of the information you need to make sense of the story, and it’s okay to leave a certain amount open to the individual viewer’s imagination and interpretation. The rouge’s gallery of monsters is awesome – sometimes a bit weird, even considering the strange premise, but always creative and grotesque. The action sequences are well-done – not usually flashy or impressive from an animation standpoint, but their quality is consistent and does the job, and the character artwork during battle is top-notch.
Devil Lady does have a few possible turn-offs despite its quality, though. For one, the animation style looks very dated for a turn-of-the-millennium series, and the artwork can sometimes be noticeably dark in the literal sense. You’ll encounter quite a few scenes with dark-brown figures walking down a dark blue corridor in dim light, and the whole thing can literally be hard to see. (I think a good remaster on Blu-Ray could mitigate this through sharper clarity and contrasts.) There’s also a lot of light nudity, but it makes sense in context to heighten the animal nature of the transformed devil-beasts rather than being there for fan service and giggles. The English dub voicing is apparently a matter of some contention. I personally loved the dub, but I have read other reviews from people normally friendly to English dubs who didn’t care for it, so you may have to try it yourself to judge. Lastly, this anime shouldn’t be attempted by people who are easily depressed, because it can be a humongous downer. Once the engineers start shoveling coal in the main-character misery train, it’s full steam ahead until episode 26, and the sheer volume of unhappiness can become draining after a while.
One quick, last note: despite his heavy billing, this particular iteration of Devil Lady really isn’t manga-ka Go Nagai’s baby at all. Nagai did create the character, and his original manga introduced the characters Jun Fudou and Lan Asuka, but the similarities end there. The anime adaptation completely reworked the story and even much of the basic concept, so, love it or hate it, most of the credit for this TV series rightfully goes to Chiaki Konaka (series creator / screenplay) and Toshiki Hirano (director).
As of the writing of this review, ADV’s release of The Devil Lady is out of print, but it’s not impossibly expensive or hard to find if you get it used. I would love for another anime licensor (maybe Discotek?) to pick this one up and give it the Blu-Ray treatment. It’s honestly one of the best-thought-out and most compelling anime I’ve ever watched, to say nothing of being a great tale of dark suspense, and I have no hesitation at all in putting it in my personal “Top 5” list of favorite anime. The Devil Lady deserves better than to be cast into out-of-print hell, and if we’re lucky, someday she’ll claw her way out.
UPDATE (1/2021): Well, let it never be said that Christmas wishes don’t come true! The Devil Lady is back in print under its original Japanese title, Devilman Lady, and as I predicted and hoped for, it’s on a 1080p Blu Ray by Discotek! I was thrilled to receive my copy, and the results of their efforts are better than I could have imagined. Discotek obviously went back to the original masters for this release, because the quality of the images is leaps and bounds better than the original ADV DVDs. The HD contrast sharpened up the lines just like I’d hoped it would, but I was completely unprepared for how much better the color looked. Reds, yellows, pinks are deep, vibrant, and brilliant, and even the blues and blacks are a deeper and more consistent in a way that helps dark scenes stand out. By comparison, ADV’s transfer looks positively washed-out and almost snowy at points. Discotek also restored the original Japanese title sequence, which ADV had slightly altered to insert an English logo, in favor of keeping the original images but adding subtitles for the kanji. The Discotek release comes on two discs with an outer slipcase, and it does include ADV’s original English dub, which is one part of the original release that I gave high marks. Literally the only bad thing I have to say about this new Blu Ray edition is that they picked a fairly boring image for its front cover. Otherwise, this late 2020 release is simply outstanding. Major, major props to Discotek for giving this classic anime the gorgeous remaster it needed and deserves.