Devilman Crybaby and Japanese poetry

That may sound like a very strange title, but I think there’s something to it. Imagine my surprise when I watched the first episode of Devilman: Crybaby a second time and realized the kids rapping down at the pier are using the Japanese poetic tradition and just inverting it. Right? Why the hell would such a show do such a thing?

First, check out the lyrics from the first episode:

This is the riverside
where lowlifes gather
The ones stuck here
All have foul mouths

Success is hidden behind the clouds here
Our future and the sky are both gray

The air’s dirty
The water’s just as bad
My asthma’s worse
‘m feeling weak

A place even God wants to leave
An experience I can see
Only with my eyes

Can’t live luxuriously
It’s choking me
But it’s my home

I won’t give up, But I’ll shout my name
I made up my mind

These are quoted from the Netflix English subtitles.

So, in the past several years, I’ve been reading and teaching a lot of classical Japanese literature, particularly Heian-era stuff like The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. If you’re not familiar with that era, the literature was mostly courtly, about romance or the glory of the emperor, and about the fine taste of the character and their ability to enjoy nature. Every well-bred Japanese noble was expected to be good at writing poetry, and they would reel off impromptu creations at parties, while traveling, and anywhere else. Promotions were given out in the court based, in part, on whether the person had pleased the emperor with a poem.

Basically, the rap quoted above sounds a lot like a Heian era poem about the poet’s surroundings and how they affect the poet — but Heian era writers talked about how great nature was. This rapper, on the other hand, talks about how awful things are and how bad they make him feel.

That’s not unheard of, naturally. Many poets also wrote about the dying of the year and their own mortal lives, or how gross the rain is when they wanted to see cherry blossoms, or stuff like that. But this rap directly connects the terrible surroundings with the terrible feelings in the rapper, particularly by using asthma.

Now, not being fluent in Japanese, I can’t tell if the original lyrics used any poetic tricks or not. Japanese poetry prized what we’d call puns — phrases that mean more than one thing, transforming a poem about charcoal burning to one about love. So if that’s happening here I can’t identify it. But it’s interesting regardless.

Here are a few examples from different Japanese texts:

More than morning sleeves
brushed homeward through bamboo grass
thick on autumn moors,
mine drip with ceaseless tears
shed through a night without you.

~

That this shore of mine
offers no seaweed pleasures
you seem not to know
you, fisherman, who insist
on dragging your steps my way.

This is a pair of poems, one responding to the next, from The Ise Stories (Mostow, Joshua S. and Royall Tyler, trans., p.74).

The voices of plovers
Invite me to stare
Into the darkness
OF the Starlit Promontory.

That is from Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Yuasa, Noboyuki, trans., 74).

Final example:

Had I not at least tided that little knot around the reed by the eaves,
what excuse would I have now to voice my dewdrop complaint?

(From The Tale of Genji, Tyler, Royall, trans., 77).

In all these poems, you can see natural imagery that illustrates something inside the poet. The external mirrors the internal. Many of the poems people might write lionize the emperor and his court, comparing it to the bounds of nature, with the emperor as a certain kind of animal, his nobles as another, and so on. So the world around the poets reflect the internal world of the poets and their culture.

And that’s obviously what’s happening in Devilman. That, on its own, is not complicated to see. I’ve watched three episodes so far, and the rappers appear in all three. They open the third episode, when we might expect to not see them again, since Miki and Akira aren’t going back to the pier. But there they are, in the first scene.

They’re almost, but not quite, like a traditional chorus. The difference lies in the rappers’ use of the back-and-forth nature of Japanese poetry. Each image illustrates how they feel, and their feelings expand on the world that they describe.

If that were all, though, so what? You can see that the raps describe the filthy, immoral world of Devilman without referring to Japanese poetic traditions. There’s an element that’s cultural, I’m sure. What I mean is, I’m not arguing that the writers of Devilman: Crybaby consciously decided to make their rappers traditional poets of a ruined world. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. But the Japanese poetic tradition is still pretty ingrained culturally. Japanese students still study classical literature. If you’re English-speaking, that would be like studying Anglo-Saxon in high school. So even if most students think it’s boring or annoying, they know about it. So when the writers needed to depict the world Akira and Ryo live in, they wanted a kind of chorus. They chose rappers because it was appropriate. And they depicted the world in that particularly Japanese way, with the poetic tradition of their own culture.

So what does that mean to us? As I said: so what? There are several ways we could take this information now. We know the rappers are depicting the world of the show. We know the show is awful, fallen, immoral. We know the raps are traditional, poetic. So, we could reason that the implication is that the world has always been fallen. There’s no indication of a golden age in the past. The show is unrelentingly grim about the world’s prospects. In three episodes, the best plan anyone has is to try to film demons to prove that they exist. What will that do? It’s clear that conventional weapons can work on them (see episode three), but will the police forces and militaries be able to fight them? It’s not clear anything is going anywhere, basically. The rappers are trapped in their surroundings. So is Devilman. The demon is the internal, and the fallen world the external. The show depicts them growing even closer together. And the only person who can function is Akira, the “crybaby” who empathizes with strangers and, now, can scare the shit out of them, eat a week’s worth of food, and kill anything he meets.

~

As I mentioned, I’ve watched three episodes. So, please, don’t spoil the rest. I am not very good at binge-watching, but I’m getting there. Thanks.

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