William Congreve once told us that "No Hell a fury like a woman scorned," and Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has now seen the anime that proves it.
Enter Jun's world of the supernatural. Just make sure you know how to escape.
It is sometimes hard for anime fans to express why they like the genre. Speaking in broad terms, anime has a narcotic ability to draw you into a story that objectively isn't that interesting. Certain anime plots thrive on delayed gratification, doling out tidbits of plot or character in small doses that keep fans going. One episode bleeds into the next, pulling you into a bizarre finale. Being an anime fan can be masochistic, a marathon of couch dwelling, waiting for one small moment that makes hours of mental effort pay off. It is rather like the old text-based video games, where the entertainment is cerebral rather than visceral.
The Devil Lady is a throwback series. Though relatively recent (made in 1998), it is crafted in the old style. There is little eye candy—in fact, the colors are downright muted. The animation is neither smooth nor energetic. In terms of pure audiovisual appeal, The Devil Lady is completely unassuming. It must therefore rely on careful pacing, character development, and the aforementioned stingy rationing of content to pull viewers into the story. It is a risk, to be sure; when presented with such simple elements of style and story, many viewers will simply change the channel. Yet all of the classic elements of anime are in place within The Devil Lady, which means it has a deceptive potential to suck you in and keep you entertained all the way through.
Facts of the Case
Jun Fudou is a popular model who leads a quiet, reclusive life. She is followed one night by a lanky blonde stranger who makes her uncomfortable. Eventually, the stranger introduces herself as Lan Asuka and commands Jun to follow her. Jun does so, and Lan reveals a startling truth: Some human beings possess a gene that enables them to rapidly evolve. They become monstrous creatures with strange powers and stranger appetites. These devil beasts wreak havoc through their very existence.
Jun is one of them.
Jun spends the rest of the series struggling with this knowledge. She transforms into a Devil Lady and combats the Beasts, but she retains a human consciousness. As her battles wear on, Jun must decide for herself what Beasthood really means.
A few key people weigh in on that decision. Bates is a Devil Man who encourages her to revel in her new form. Kazumi, a young model, is both friend to and ward of Jun. Jun seeks to protect Kazumi from the truth, but that will be hard to do with a shadowy reporter sending evidence to Kazumi. Most of all, Jun must contend with Lan Asuka, the woman who goads her into battle and watches her every move.
The Devil Lady—The Complete Collection can be had for under $50, even though the set comprises almost eleven hours' worth of episodes. Most full anime series cost twice that or more. Is The Devil Lady a vastly inferior series?
That is a highly subjective question, thus The Devil Lady's low asking price. The Devil Lady is not likely to inspire extremes of excitement or loathing. The most likely scenario is that The Devil Lady will strike you one of two ways: a rather plain, uninvolving exercise in tedium and excess, or a pleasant surprise that more than repays its meager asking price. If you experience the former reaction, you have wasted a nontrivial sum of cash, while the latter reaction means you are in for an inexpensive treat. A firm decision will require a couple hours of uninterrupted viewing: time enough for you to absorb the subtleties of the situation and gauge your involvement in the story.
Enough fence straddling: I enjoyed The Devil Lady and found myself inexplicably wrapped up in it. I say "inexplicably" because I have no affiliation for writer Go Nagai, I'm not particularly into horror anime, and I shy away from "monster of the week" stories. (Go Nagai is notorious for excessive gore and trashy subject matter, which makes him a deterrent for some.) The Devil Lady sidesteps most of these possible negatives. For a Go Nagai story it is relatively restrained, heavy on character and psychological meaning rather than exploding torsos. For a horror anime, The Devil Lady has a surprisingly classic feel. It retains an aura of sophistication and maturity throughout, a vibe that is sometimes lost in tales of gore and supernatural battle. The hardest obstacle for The Devil Lady to overcome is "Monster of the Week" syndrome; it has a mild case but not a full-blown flu. For some reason, we intuit that the monster of the week has a purpose, that the whole affair is building toward a specific conclusion. The formula is modified each time to give us a new bit of information, which makes the monster of the week seem fresh.
The Devil Lady is among the most believable implementations of the "unwilling hero who discovers secret powers and learns to use them" plot that I've yet seen. So often, we see characters learn of a secret power and become gods two episodes later. Alternatively, a character's hidden strengths may be suggested, but only in the finale does she emerge from a cocoon of light and annihilate hordes of enemies with death rays while spawning the birth of a new world. Rarely does a character struggle and grow with her abilities like Jun. We witness Jun's new powers as she does, see her mixed dread and fascination. Jun does not win every battle; in fact, she is unceremoniously bailed out on several occasions. It is nice to see a bit of realism applied to this completely unrealistic premise.
One of my greatest pet peeves in anime is the glossy disregard for detail in action scenes. Gleaming robotic warriors who vaguely swipe their glittering swords and wipe out massive creatures have no appeal. When cute preteens line up and shoot out colorful rays to disintegrate throngs of foes, I am not impressed. But when the Devil Lady is unwillingly thrust into a battle for survival, when she is scared and charged with adrenaline and pummels her foes desperately with her fists, I can buy into the action. In fact, something happened that completely surprised me. Most anime in this style has predictable battles; you tend to anticipate every swing, yell, kick, and slash. The Devil Lady skirts that effect, but a few battles became routine. What a treat, then, when Jun has a knock-down-drag-out with an ex-sportscaster who was very comfortable in his beast skin. This battle completely caught me off guard with it savage grace. The beast impales Jun and drags her around by her shoulder, leading to a truly tense and bitter struggle. Fights are so often filler; it is fun to be fully impressed by them.
So we've overcome the possible hurdles to enjoyment of The Devil Lady; is there anything else to recommend it? If you appreciate darkness and maturity in anime, then the answer is yes. The Devil Lady is all about mood and tone. It is an exercise in tension, lulling you softly and then striking out with gruesome or emotional images. I constantly found myself leaning forward in my seat, palms clammy with anticipation, then recoiling with fear-like excitement. These times were logically puzzling because all that was onscreen were a few black shapes and a glint or two, nothing worthy of comment. This speaks directly to The Devil Lady's cerebral nature. If it grabs you, you're in for a ride. If it does not, you'll be looking at some retro animation and wondering when the fun is going to begin.
Some of the tones created in The Devil Lady are decidedly naughty. Eroticism spikes when Jun pays a visit to her young admirer in the episode "Cat." Let's just say that her admirer has ulterior motives that involved a lot of kinky nudity. Again, the actual image is not very polished; it is the mood behind it that draws you in. Some of the tones are brutally violent. As the series progresses, there are hints of lesbianism, pedophilia, incest, and other taboo subjects. For a series that seems so chaste, The Devil Lady packs a wallop.
That may be the secret—it appears chaste. Most of the sophistication is due to Jun, a jewel of a character. She's smart, sexy, demure but spirited, world-weary yet not worn down. Japanese voice actress Junko Iwao has been involved in some of anime's most sterling efforts, so perhaps it is no coincidence that The Devil Lady benefits from her involvement. So many scenes hinge solely on her delivery, and she delivers every time. Jun is a character you can invest in, grow with, and treasure for her idiosyncrasies.
The voice acting in general is good in both casts. Lan is depersonalized, speaking in a measured but nasty tone. Kazumi is endearing but not overly sweet. The English vocal cast is somewhat hokey in places, but not nearly as bad as most dubs. The real problem is that the English script deviates from the Japanese, sometimes significantly.
The Devil Lady is Yukari Tamura's first and only composing effort. Some clues to her inexperience are there; the score is very simple at times, relying heavily on tried and true classical riffs to denote theme or mood. This actually ties in very well with The Devil Lady's modus operandi, which is apparently simple but sophisticated on all fronts. Tamura's score often dwells within five notes, creating straightforward but powerful shifts. Most of the music is simply a means to evoke emotional response and is not memorable in itself, but I must acknowledge that her opening and closing themes have been echoing throughout my brain for days on end. The stereo track has periodic volume fluctuations, and I noticed two brief dropouts. Given the entirely retro nature of the show, this could have even been on purpose for all I know. Otherwise, the soundtrack is serviceable but not impressive.
The Devil Lady is director Toshitaka Hirano's first and only effort as well. Directorial style usually takes a while to become distinctive. The direction is chameleonlike here and does not assert itself in any particular way.
Hirano occasionally experiments with effects, such as sparkling rays of "flame" that eradicate a swarm of flying eyeballs, or CGI-like beast eyes. When these effects occur they stand out. I was impressed with the flame, not so much with the eyeballs. Oddly enough, the very next episode features flame heavily, but Hirano opts for very plain pink and orange hues to denote fire. The animation is plain throughout, yet it isn't actually bad. Jun is comely and stylish, the beasts are weird, the city is domineering. The animation does enough to create complex moods without distinguishing itself.
You won't need me to tell you about the extras: They are exactly as they seem. There is a trailer, a handful of sketches, and clean credits sequences, nothing remarkable.
There is no way to know if you'll like this series until you live with it a bit. You can't base the decision on purely external characteristics. The Devil Lady is a classic anime in many respects, which means it relies on monolithic elements of theme and tone to get its point across. If a slower pace and lack of eye candy sound boring to you, use that as a guide. I've found that less speed and effect can create an attitude of thirst: A little deprivation makes the occasional moment of action more striking. The Devil Lady masterfully manages this deprivation, giving us just enough to go on and stretching our emotions in the process. In the end, Jun Fudou may distinguish herself as one of the most complex female anime characters ever.
The Devil Lady is just involving enough to avoid a sentence. Go free, young Devil Lady.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
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