Retroactive Continuity: Devilman: Crybaby Ep 5: "Beautiful Silene"

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.
Well, that ended abruptly.
Part of the challenge of writing these entries on Devilman: Crybaby–and other episode-by-episode commissions, like Giant Robo–is that unlike most of my entries, where I’ve seen the whole series before I write about a single episode, for these commissions I haven’t seen anything but what I’ve been commissioned to watch. So I have no idea what’s going to happen past the current episode, and thus sometimes get things wrong: for example, last entry I concluded Miko and Kukun were killed at the end of the episode, but after viewing this episode it appears that Miko was possessed by a demon and Kukun has vanished (presumably killed).
That outcome makes a lot of sense, given Miko’s (nick-)name. I’m not sure how it’s written, so it may be unrelated (Japanese being prone to homophones), but at least in transliteration it appears to be the same as miko, Japanese for “priestess” or “shrine maiden.” That is, Miko is a secondary figure who channels or represents a divine (or diabolic, in this case) entity, presumably whatever demon has possessed her.
This ties in to the abrupt ending I mentioned in the first sentence of this essay–not the ending of the episode, which was much like any other, but the ending of Silene, a character who previous episodes had positioned as a fairly major antagonist. (Though my money’s still on Ryo as the ultimate primary antagonist.)
Instead, she is dead by episode’s end, and quite unsatisfyingly: she has Akira on the ropes, but then he passes out, apparently about to be killed. And then he wakes up, and Silene has died on her feet from injuries earlier in the fight, without any further input from him. His failure just becomes a success without any real explanation–unless we take his question to Ryo, of whether a demon can experience love, as pointing toward such an explanation.
Earlier in the fight, Silene lay defeated and dying, but her sidekick sacrificed his life, apparently out of love of Silene, to give her a second chance at killing Akira, knowing that they will both die soon after. He tears his own head off, and then Silene possesses his dying body much as the demons possess human bodies, merging with him into a single demon, and it is that which shortly thereafter dies on its feet. Silene even cries when she realizes what he’s done and why, suggesting she has feelings for the other demon too–yet Ryo tells Akira that demons are incapable of love, being creatures of pure appetite.
In their fusion, we see a parody of sorts of the demon-human fusion that is Devilman. Here, the fused opposites are male and female,* rather than human and demon, but it is still a gestalt entity that is more powerful than either. However, it differs dramatically from Akira–or, rather, from the Amon/Akira gestalt that Akira has become.
That he is no longer straightforwardly Akira is clear in scenes earlier in the episode, which show him lusting intensely after Miki, to the point of seeming about to attack her. He does not, however, nor does he attack anyone while walking drooling through the red light district later; he has acquired the demonic appetite for sex and violence, an appetite which draws little distinction between the two, but he seems to have it (barely) under control. He is, in other words, a true gestalt, comprised of the totality of both members: he is fully Amon and fully Akira, and the resulting entity thus expresses the desires and tendencies of both, in this case Amon’s demonic appetite and Akira’s human capacity for restraint.
By contrast, the Silene fusion is just that–Silene. Her personality, her being, is dominant; her head and torso replace her companion’s head, and so too does her behavior entirely replace his. She is possessinghim, seizing control, and that is not an act of love but of violence. This is why they cannot survive for long enough to fight Akira, because their very existence as a gestalt entity is violence against a member of that entity, and the whole suffers.
Demons are incapable of love, not because they cannot become attached to one another or even because they’re not capable of sacrifice for one another; demons are incapable of love because they’re incapable of seeing past their own wants. They lack the key quality that enables Akira and Amon to function as one: Akira’s compassion, the quality from which the series derives its subtitle. His ability to feel pain for another means that he recognizes the pain of others; their relationship is stable because they can mediate and negotiate both their wants and preferences, where Silene must dominate the one she possesses and impose her own will. The result is not love, but abuse; not a synergistic fusion, but a self-destructive monstrosity.
Of course, we must tread carefully. Compassion is necessary for genuine love, but love is not necessary for compassion, nor should we confuse empathy and compassion–the former is a capacity, the latter a choice. People who lack empathy can nonetheless choose to be compassionate when they recognize the pain of others, even if that pain is harder for them to recognize; someone who has empathy but chooses not to be compassionate recognizes the pain more easily, but ignores or even revels in it. That, not a lack of empathy, is what leads to abuse and mistreatment, rendering love impossible.
The episode, unfortunately, doesn’t make this distinction. Indeed, by eliding the distinction and positioning empathy/compassion as a defining human trait, it blunders straight into the ableist implication that people who lack empathy aren’t people–which just ends up excusing a lack of compassion toward them. Likewise, by positioning love as a uniquely human trait in contrast to demonic hunger, it implies that people who do not love are not people, again serving only to encourage that lack of compassion. We must tread carefully in this territory; it is in the nature of the grotesque to serve as the boundary of the human, but if we leave people outside that boundary, abjectify them through ableism or a form of acephobia (or for any other reason), we demonize and marginalize our fellow people, exactly the ones we should be showing compassion toward.
Which, of course, is Ryo in a nutshell.
*Which, like human and demon, or practically any other binary you care to name, are not actually opposites. That’s why they can fuse to begin with–true opposites cannot coexist.


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Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #16-24

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With one exception, the issues of Batman and Robin Adventures that roughly coincide with the second season of Superman: The Animated Series hew fairly closely to a rather apt–and apparently entirely unintended–theme, namely the positioning of women as a marginalized Other and society in general’s tendency to center the desires of individual men (and especially white men) and privilege them over the needs, safety, and desires of women.
As I write this, the toxic ideology of “incels” is being debated in the mainstream press. Incels are a spinoff of the general MRA/PUA/MGTOW nexus of Reddit misogynists (whom I shall hereafter refer to as the patriarchy-industrial complex), with their particular form of sexist bullshit the claim that they are entitled to sex with (conventionally attractive) women, such that not getting laid is a form of oppression that justifies violent response. Disturbingly, the pundit response is not just the typical middle-right pundits pretending to a position of studied “objectivity” as an excuse to lend their platform to far-right extremists. Plenty of that has happened, with Ross Douthat in particular spewing a vile piece that exists in a state of quantum superposition between endorsing the incel concept of “redistributing” access to sex “equally” and satirizing leftist arguments for the redistribution of property by posing similar arguments for the “redistribution” of women. (Which satire fails, of course, because any decent person–a category which clearly does not include Douthat or incels–reading would immediately twig on to the obvious counter that women are people, not property.)
No, the worrisome part is articles like Jio Tolentino’s piece for the New Yorker, which criticize the worst behavior of incels but allow bits of their thinking to seep in as “givens”–like the idea that the “sexual marketplace” is a literal market in which people have a “sexual value” that determines their success. That’s a horrifically toxic approach to relationships, because it is inherently transactional. It describes sex purely in terms of a hierarchy, of “haves” and “have-nots.” Instead of two people who find each other interesting, sex becomes about who has enough status to “afford” the object of their desire, with the desires of the “purchased” party largely irrelevant to the equation (since it’s assumed that they will want the “high-value” person).
It is, in other words, exactly the kind of patriarchal, hierarchical view that this run of B&RA critiques, without ever conceding its points or lending it unwarranted sympathy. This run of issues gets a bit Feminism 101 at times, but considering this is a late-90s all-ages comic book, even reaching the level of 101 is impressive–and gets more impressive when one realizes that this steady development of the theme plays out across all these issues despite being apparently entirely unintended.
All these issues, that is, except for Issue 20, “Through the Long Night,” a silly little story about Batman catching a bunch of gun-runners and gang members (plus one drunk driver) with zero characterization, where the only real stakes are whether Bullock will win the nightly Gotham PD pool on how many people Batman will catch for them. It’s a pointless and rather uninteresting issue, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth discussing. It’s just sort of there.
But if we ignore it, we get that unintentional thematic arc, which begins with Issue 16, “It Takes a Cat,” presumably a reference to the saying “it takes a thief to catch a thief.” In this story, Catwoman resumes her criminal activity, but Selena Kyle insists she’s innocent, and investigates to learn who’s stolen her alter ego. It turns out to be a man named Thomas Blake, essentially a wealthy fanboy who is trying to get Selena’s attention because he has a crush on her. He puts her in serious danger of returning to prison, forcing her to go on the run from the law, because he has built up a mental scenario of how she “should” respond to his behavior and he wants those responses. He claims to love her, but treats her like a thing: specifically, like a video game, where giving the “correct” inputs will result in “winning” and receiving what he wants.
Of course when it comes to people treating women as objects, the quintessential example within the Batman oeuvre is the Mad Hatter, the focus of Issue 17, “But a Dream.” Mad Hatter sneaks one of his control devices into Alice’s wedding dress, which causes her to first express pity for him, then run away from the altar and seek him out so they can be married by a mind-controlled priest. In this he is, at least, more honest than Blake, in that he literally uses a machine to manipulate Alice, but in the end he is tricked into and trapped in a fantasy scenario in which Alice’s pity is transmuted by his determination into love, and they run away together. In the end, Hatter is trapped in his fantasy; like the miserable losers who populate the patriarchy-industrial complex, he is unable to get past his instrumental view of women and relationships or insistence on centering his own and only his own feelings, and so remains cut off from reality and any possibility of meaningful connection.
“Joker’s Last Laugh” focuses on a different kind of mistreatment and marginalization of women, as it follows Harley in yet another round of her abusive relationship with the Joker. In this case, as she often does, Harley signifies internalized misogyny: she accepts the Joker’s abuse and takes upon herself the responsibility to make him feel better, while performatively hiding from him the fact that she is vastly more competent than he is. In this case, she dedicates herself to trying to make him laugh, and ultimately succeeds only when he doesn’t realize the situation–the Batmobile getting a parking ticket while Batman and Robin were capturing Joker and Harley–is one she deliberately manufactured. In other words, she uses a performance to protect his ego from the realization of her own competence, skill, and agency.
In direct contrast to Harley, who is a “good bad girl” in that she performs femininity in ways that protect masculine ego (“good”) while violating the law and helping criminals (“bad”), Issue 19, “Duty of the Huntress,” introduces the titular character as a “bad good girl” in that she performs a superheroic role in ways that are unacceptable to Batman. It’s a little difficult to see why–she is depicted using a crossbow loaded with what appear to be tranquilizer darts, which doesn’t seem inherently more violent than the patent Batman technique of dangling people off ledges and threatening to drop them, which he does in this issue (along with countless other stories).
But even accepting that she is being “bad,” what we have is a woman who refuses to play her role, and is punished for it. Her father is killed in a mob hit after a lifetime of “shielding” (read: lying to) his daughter to keep her out of “the business.” His dying wish is that she ensure his enemies cannot profit from his empire by using his records to expose all the crimes he was involved in, but she is so horrified by those crimes–which include forcing immigrants into literal slavery–that she instead begins destroying each enterprise personally.
After Batman forces her to stop and hands over all the information she was using to the police, she is left bereft at her father’s grave. Her final words are haunting: “I only knew you as kind and loving… not… …evil. Somehow you were both. Now you’ve given me a new duty, Poppa. Somehow… …someday… I have to make up for who you were.” It’s more complicated than some men being monsters; monstrosity is a human capacity, and all possess it to some degree. Someone can be loving at home and monstrous at work, or a good friend but an abusive husband, or any other such combination.
But Bertinelli’s choice to “shield” his adult daughter, to lie to her about his work and thereby strip her of agency, is of a parcel with his criminal activity. He simply does not care about the feelings of others; he only cares about what he himself wants. The slaves he forces to work are stripped violently of agency because he wants the product of their labor; his daughter is stripped of agency because he wants her to not become involved in his work. This is not to say that lying to your children about what you do for a living is remotely comparable to slavery; instead, it’s pointing out that the capacity to do the latter implies the capacity for the former, because the former is a vastlylesser form of the latter. We shouldn’t be surprised that monstrous people can seem ordinary or even nice in controlled circumstances–they wouldn’t be able to get away with being monstrous otherwise!
This theme of the nature of monstrosity is touched on again in Issue 23, “Crocodile Tears.” Killer Croc develops an infatuation with Summer Gleeson after she gives a news report humanizing him. The implication–or, rather, the implied justification Croc gives himself–is that his violent behavior is a reaction to being treated as less-than, being regarded as a monster and an animal instead of a human. However, he reveals himself to be the same kind of monster as all the others we’ve discussed when he smacks Summer’s boyfriend out of the way to talk to Summer. She accuses Croc of hurting her boyfriend, and Croc replies, “He ain’t hurt. He’s just warned. I ain’t here to hurt anybody.”
It doesn’t matter to Croc how the boyfriend feels about being struck, or how Summer responds. In Croc’s world, his feelings and intentions are the arbiters of everything. No one else’s viewpoint matters; his pain justifies his behavior, but his victims’ isn’t real unless it’s intentional on his part. So of course he ignores Summer’s protests and insists on doing “favors” for her that she hasn’t asked for, with an expectation of a reward she hasn’t agreed to. In the end, when she calls him an animal, a monster, it is the simple truth. He is absolutely still human–all monsters are, because monstrosity is a human capacity–but his behavior is monstrous, and so at her words he simply stops and gives up, his justifications stripped away.
Issue 22, “Fifty Fifty,” is a Two-Face story, because of course Issue two-two of the second BTAS-based comic series would be about Two-Face. There’s little in it that touches on the theme, but it is notable that the way the villain tries to force Two-Face to work for him is by threatening Grace. When his henchmen break into her apartment, the one who announces he intends to check the bedroom follows up with a “Heh heh” that speaks volumes–if he finds her, he intends harassment at minimum, and more likely sexual assault.
As is all too often the case in our fiction, the only woman in the story is a target, menaced with kidnapping and assault to motivate a male character. This is one source of the entitlement that drives the behavior of the monstrous men in the other issues we’ve discussed–that fictional women’s feelings and needs are generally subordinated to the feelings and narratives of fictional men. This is the “Women In Refrigerators” problem, that women are treated as objects without agency or internality, their only role in a story to serve as plot devices for the motivation or manipulation of male characters.
Issue 21, “Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?” seems to be consciously pushing against this by inverting the formula. The Riddler, seeking vengeance against Batman, captures Commissioner Gordon and will kill him if he can’t solve an “impossible” riddle by midnight. With Batman and Robin unavailable, Batgirl pursues the case instead–in essence, a significant man in her life is imperiled to motivate her to act. She is the driving force and protagonist of the story, and is granted full internality in the form of an internal monologue as she tries to focus on solving the problem without giving in to her fears of what might happen if she fails.
Nice as this is to say, something is slightly off about it. The fact that Batman and Robin need to be taken off the table, that it’s a rare and special event to have Batgirl headline the book–these are reminders that a female character with agency, with her own internality and positionality, is still a rarity, still outside the norm.
And the norm has great power, as we see in Issue 24, “Touch of Death.” Fittingly for the end of an arc about the marginalization of women, the story is told from the perspective of Poison Ivy as she meets a South American boy who secretes a deadly poison through his skin and bonds with him, then tries to rescue him from the American government, who of course wish to weaponize him. (And Ivy, once they have her.) Ivy’s immunity to poison results in a touching sequence in which the boy–who has clearly not been touched in a long time, perhaps ever–simply holds her hand for an entire day, and even more touchingly, Ivy lets him.
She seems to sense a kindred spirit in him, and that’s not that surprising: she and he are both Others, monsters in the other sense of the word, the sense of being “grotesque,” which is to say outside the norm–just like the Batgirl issue. “Normal” has a terrifying power in our culture; to be within the range of “normal” is to be accepted, to be considered worthy of respect and consideration, to live in a society built around your needs. The experience of being outside the norm is, of course, much more varied–“normal” is a very small sphere inside an infinite space of human diversity, but depending on where in that space you stand, to be outside the norm is to be treated with disgust, or contempt, to be ignored or assumed a criminal or a pervert.
This is not, of course, to say that everything outside the norm is good or right or even acceptable; some monsters deserve the label. Rather, it is to say that the normal/not normal distinction itself is monstrous, but it’s not an individual monstrosity but a social one. The fact that we make such a distinction renders our culture monstrous; the fact that we declare some bodies or harmless behaviors to be monstrous indicts our entire civilization. Ivy and the boy are treated as laboratory specimens so that their unique abilities can be extracted and exploited precisely because those abilities are unique, because they are different–and it is telling that their bodies are precisely the kinds of bodies we most frequently Other, most frequently treat as monstrous perversions of the “normal” body (which is to say, the white cis male body): a woman and a person of color.
To be Other is to be poisonous to “normal” society, because either, like Killer Croc, you fulfill what is expected of you and harm “normal” people, or you defy expectations and expose the lie on which society is built. That is what Ivy brought to the new world Harley created to make room for them: poison.
Although, if the beast that is “normality” takes too long to die, there’s always the traditional method of dealing with monsters, pitchforks and fire. Although in fiction, more common still is the hero–and that is another clue to what we’re looking for, at the still-distant endpoint of this long journey through ideaspace: what the hero we’re looking for needs to do.
We need them to kill the beast.


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Crisis on N Earths: Revolutionary Girl Utena

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It’s December 24, 1997. Christmas Eve. Of course, we’re in Japan, so that doesn’t mean much–Christmas is an excuse to decorate, go on dates, and eat chocolate and KFC. The country is only one percent Christian, after all, but they love the exotic ceremonies and customs of the worshipers of these strange gods from faraway lands.
Tonight, something far more momentous is happening than some lady having a kid in whatever a manger is: the finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena airs.
Auteur theory is largely nonsense, but nonetheless Utena is widely regarded as the brainchild of director Kunihiko Ikuhara, and comparing Utena to other projects of his, it does seem like his creative voice was the dominant, or at least his persistent concerns and themes. But to an extent it’s the other way around: the themes of Utena became the defining themes of Ikuhara’s work, both what is expected from him and what he keeps coming back to.
A 39-episode half-hour anime series ostensibly within the shoujogenre (that is, works aimed at girls in roughly the same age range we refer to in book publishing as Young Adult), Utena is an exploration of themes of identity, especially gender; queer sexuality; abuse; and the way we use stories and narrative to construct our world. Utena is a teen girl who decided when she was very young that she would be a prince when she grew up, and still dresses and acts “princely”: she is highly athletic, very popular with the girls, wears a blinged-out variant of a boys’ uniform to school, and is especially quick to rescue those she perceives as being in need. At the same time, however, she is very insistent that she is a girl, and perhaps a little too insistent that she is het, given her relationship with Anthy.
Anthy is a character I’ve written about at great length, particularly in Animated Discussions. I won’t rehash that here; suffice to say, she is Utena’s primary love interest, but oscillates throughout the story between damsel in distress, sidekick, and villain. In reality she is none of those things and all of them, because Utena is also about breaking free of the constraints created by the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and our world. What makes Utena a revolutionary girl is that she revolutionizes the world around her–the bulk of the series is her unwittingly passing test after test to become The One Who Brings the World Revolution–because she is not only determined to be a protector fantasy for everyone around her, but to protect them from abuse of all kinds. She protects people, not structures of power–indeed, the first we see her protecting someone is defending her friend Wakaba in the first episode, from a man who has greater social power, claims the “right” to do what he did, and callously dismisses Wakaba’s pain.
Utena doesn’t care about rights. She understands, at least on an instinctual level, that any society governed according to a list of rights is really an oligarchy governed by the people who decided what those rights are. That person, in the case of Utena, is Akio, the main villain of the series. Akio is also referred to as “End of the World,” but notably, while the English phrase is sometimes used, the series mostly uses a Japanese phrase which would be more accurately translated as “the ends of the Earth.” The bilingual pun, given all the discussion of apocalypse and world revolution in the series, is clearly intentional, but nonetheless the primary meaning of Akio’s title is the edge of reality, the limitation of what can exist.
The show ties these meanings together in the infamous, oft-recurring “egg speech” (which was lifted almost verbatim from Hermann Hesse’s Demian): “The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born.” The apocalyse, the World Revolution, is necessary so that we can take form as our true selves, unrestrained by the limits imposed by the powerful.
But, intriguingly, Utena at least initially appears to fail. Akio’s strength is social power above all else: he wields his high status and charm with great skill to manipulate and control others. It is that power which he uses to defeat Utena: he persuades Anthy that Utena will fail, and in so doing persuades Anthy to ensure that Utena fails. Utena is forced to admit that she cannot be the prince, that she is “just a girl,” and cannot save Anthy or change the world into a place where she and Anthy can be together and be free.
And then she stands back up, shoves Akio out of her way, reaches out her hand to help Anthy, and ultimately Anthy breaks free of Akio’s power and walks forever out of his world.
What the show refers to as the prince is, in its fairy tale-inflected framing, another instance of the protector fantasy. This is made explicit in the episode “The Rose Crest”: “The girls of the world were all princesses! All because we were always protected by the Rose Prince.” Dios, the Rose Prince, is depicted as the hero of a fictionalized past in which he protected all girls from all hardship and pain, enabling them to be princesses–which is to say, pampered but constrained, safe but helpless.
Dios, after all, is Akio–End of the World and the Rose Prince are revealed to be one and the same. Akio compares himself to Lucifer, which is to say that he is fallen from having once been both great and good, but Akio is a manipulator and a liar. He never was a hero; the Rose Prince was always a fantasy, always Akio. Or, more accurately, they’re the same thing. As Utena tearfully confesses to Anthy: “The truth is, my protecting you was just for my own ego… I was the one who cheated you! I was the one who used you! I was the one who betrayed you!”  Akio is a thoroughly terrible, utterly despicable human being and Utena is in many ways highly admirable, yet in the role of the hero they are both ultimately toxic, becaus the role is toxic.
The only difference between a fence and a cage is whether you’re content to stay inside it. The perfect protector, as we have seen again and again, is also the enforcer of the status quo. The hero must prevent the egg from being broken, and therefore must prevent us from being our authentic selves; the Rose Prince is also End of the World.
Yet… Anthy leaves Ohtori on her own, yes, but only after being offered a hand by Utena and choosing to take it. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy leaves Ohtori (literally, in the movie). Acting as the hero in the sense of a savior, all Utena can do is make Anthy more of a princess, building a fence around her that is also a cage. In the final battle, when she and Akio compete to take the Power to Bring the World Revolution, neither gets it, even though Akio wins the battle. But by offering help, by inspiring and performing as an example, Utena is able to give that power to Anthy.
It is not enough to merely perform the “good parts” of the role of the hero, because by its very nature, the role of the protector is the role of the jailer. But as Utena shows us, there is a use for heroes, and there is a way forward for our own project, a way to break the superhero away from its tendency to fascism.
The model of our new kind of superhero, unsurprisingly, will not be Superman. He’s the model of the old kind, after all. Steel is a lot closer–and the end of this season will reveal to us another that’s closer still.
“For the revolution of the world!”


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Otakon 2018 Schedule!

I’m at Otakon this weekend! I’m presenting two panels I haven’t done in a while:

  • Eva Pilots, Rose Brides, and Puella Magi: Heroic Trauma and Anime (10:45 PM Friday in Panel 7)
  • Hinamizawa Syndrome: Time Travel and Trauma from Higurashi to Erased (5:45 PM Saturday in Panel 5

If you’re there, come check me out!