Let me be honest: I am not fond of Shin Devilman.
For those blissfully unaware, Shin is a one-volume spinoff of the original manga drawn by Go Nagai and written by his novelist brother Yasutaka, serialized from 1979-1981, in which Akira and Ryo travel through time and confront demons in various historical contexts. Unfortunately, it’s been folded into all modern editions of the manga, including translations, so the only legal way to read Devilman includes it.
There are many things to dislike about Shin. The art is closer to Go Nagai’s more modern style, in that it’s sharper and more detailed without having any better of a grasp on fundamental anatomy, making it unpleasant to look at in a way his wobbly early work isn’t. The premise of attributing human atrocities to demonic interference is questionable at best and horrifically, bafflingly, cringe-inducingly tasteless at worst, like when it blames the Holocaust on Hitler getting cucked by a demon disguised as a Jew.
The thing I really hate about it, though, is what it does to Ryo’s character.
In the original manga, Ryo Asuka constantly operates on a very specific emotional register that could be best described as “extremely high.” Even during more intimate, vulnerable moments, he always has a certain intensity about him, in a very 70’s shonen manga sort of way. Lots of determined crying. And while he’s obviously incredibly gay for Akira, he’s not coded as such, at least not in the way straight people (especially straight men) tend to code characters as gay. It’s impossible to imagine him, say, getting flustered, or blushing.
In Shin, he blushes a lot.
It’s hard to know which of the Nagai brothers to blame, but one gets the feeling that they were trying to write Ryo with exactly the sort of straight-man capital-g Gay coding he managed to avoid in the original manga, which means he’s a hell of a lot more of an archetypal uke. In a vacuum, here’s nothing inherently offensive about the way he’s written–it’s not as though he’s especially useless or mincing or any of the other things one might associate with particularly bad writing of that particular archetype. The issue is that he’s nothing like the Ryo we’ve spent the last five volumes with. Hell, even in adaptations where they really cranked up the queerness (the OVAs and Crybaby, namely), Ryo’s characterization was never changed to that degree, because being a perpetually wired agent of chaos is integral to his identity. But in Shin, it’s as though now that Ryo has been explicitly established as gay, they can’t think of him in anything other than stereotypical terms. If it were a non-canon work, it would (hopefully) get dragged as badly written and horribly out of character, not to mention a little offensive.
It would be one thing if it was a spinoff, but they just had to incorporate it into the manga proper, making it impossible to simply write off as non-canon. On top of that, the degree to which Ryo is out of character is even more glaring, as it’s sandwiched in the middle of his original depiction–to say nothing of Ryo displaying powers like teleportation that are never commented upon by either him nor Akira. It’s hard to imagine anyone experiencing the manga for the first time with it included being anything other than incredibly confused, especially since the art doesn’t even match. It looks out of place.
Of course, the explicit Ryo/Akira content has given Shin something of a reputation amongst shippers, and it’s hard to deny a certain excitement in seeing Ryo flat-out tell Akira he’s not interested in women, but we shouldn’t have to settle for this cheap knock-off of Ryo. Queerness in Devilman has always come at a high, weird cost (the end of Devilman Lady, anyone?), but that doesn’t mean we should blindly accept it, especially when it’s as glaringly out of character as this. We deserve better.
That said, Shin Devilman did give us this page, so it’s hard to say it’s all bad.