Ping Pong and Devilman Crybaby Are Basically the Same
On Masaaki Yuasa’s work and the subtle narrative differences between implicit and explicit queerness
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Devilman Crybaby (2018) and Ping Pong (2014)!!! You’ve been warned.
When Masaaki Yuasa’s masterpiece Devilman Crybaby came out in early 2018, the range of takes was almost as dramatic and over-the-top as the show itself. Was DMCB too problematic for this world? Was it too violent? Too sexual? Too reliant on the queerness/monstrosity metaphor? Was it bad that Ryo never said the words “I Love You” like he did in the manga even though the entire show is bookended by him saying that Akira’s existence led him to discovering that love is real, which is arguably both gayer and more romantic than the words “I love you”? The answer to all these questions is, of course, no.
But I’m not here to get into any mainstream DMCB controversies. No, what’s been nagging at me for the past year-and-change is something else, something that has implications not just for Yuasa’s entire oeuvre, but also for how we understand implicit queerness in anime generally. I’m talking about the striking resemblance between Devilman Crybaby and Yuasa’s 2014 series, Ping Pong.
Ping Pong, which is based pretty faithfully on Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga series of the same name, is one of those anime series that was, when it came out, arguably queer. It’s definitely in the implicit-literal Queerness Quadrant, but close enough to the edge where if you wanted to argue against authorial intent for some reason, there’s a chance you could convince even me. Or at least, there was a chance, before Devilman Crybaby came out. More on that later. First, let’s get into some of the similarities between the two series, starting with the least interesting one that is nonetheless necessary to get out of the way:
- Both Devilman Crybaby and Ping Pong are about newly surfacing tensions between two boys who have been close since childhood…
Okay so Ping Pong tells the story of high school students playing table tennis, and Devilman Crybaby tells the story of ancient cosmic forces of good and evil battling each other in a never ending cycle of destruction and rebirth. But at their hearts, aren’t both series actually about an intimate relationship between two boys who have grown up together and are struggling to define their lives with respect both to the world and one another as they come of age? “Fine,” you may be thinking or even saying out loud at this very moment, “but what anime isn’t about that?” And you’d be right: Saying an anime is about two intimately involved boys growing up and being stressed about it is like saying that it’s animated — it’s a story structure so common that it’s basically fundamental to the medium. So let’s dig a little deeper!
2. …one of whom is capable of expressing emotions and one of whom is not…
Ryo (who is, let’s not forget, actually Satan) doesn’t understand why people cry. He tells us this right away, early in DMCB’s first episode. Ryo’s logic goes like this: There’s no love, so there’s no sorrow, so there’s no reason to cry. Tada! Akira, on the other hand, the show’s titular crybaby, cries constantly — because of his own pain, because of other people’s pain, because of what he thinks other people’s pain might be hypothetically… It’s nonstop.
In Ping Pong, the dichotomy between Peco and Smile is almost identical, except instead of crying, Ping Pong’s stand-in for healthy, “human” emotional expression is smiling. I shouldn’t have to say this but, just in case you weren’t paying attention or didn’t actually watch Ping Pong before reading this: For the majority of the show, we’re told by a variety of characters that Smile (real name: Tsukimoto) is called Smile because of his “robotic” inability to smile. And just like we’re shown in flashbacks that Ryo’s ostensible lack of emotions alienated him from the other children when he was growing up, Smile’s nickname’s origin (or at least the first version we get of its origin) is conveyed to us via flashbacks of his childhood that — surprise! — show him being relentlessly bullied for his flat affect.
3. …who must face off in a climactic battle before the series is over…
Is “climactic battle” an overly dramatic description of a ping pong tournament final? Not in the world of sports anime it isn’t! But even if the stakes in Ping Pong are way lower than those in Devilman Crybaby (and it would be hard for them not to be, let’s be real), that doesn’t take away from the fact that both series inevitably end in a pivotal clash between our two co-heroes.
4. …though in the end, the results of the battle are overshadowed by the fact that the emotive half of each pair has finally taught the non-emotive half how to feel and express their emotions.
Ping Pong and Devilman Crybaby both trick the viewer into thinking that their central conflicts will be resolved in the heat of battle — meaning, by who wins and who loses. But as we draw closer to the series’ grand finales, it becomes less and less clear who we’re supposed to want to win. This is pretty obvious in Ping Pong, where neither Smile nor Peco represent, like, the binary concept of evil.
But if you’re not someone like me who instantly falls in love with the sexy evil antagonist in literally everything, the fact that DMCB wants us to root for both Akira and Ryo/Satan at the end might require some explanation. Thankfully, I think it can be quickly “proven” by the fact that it’s Ryo, not Akira, who narrates the series. Whether or not you think Ryo is, in fact, sympathetic, it’s undeniable that the viewer is asked to sympathize with him from the very beginning.
So we’re presented with two battles: one between the emotionally stunted Smile and the erratic, effusive Peco; and one between the emotionally stunted Ryo and the erratic, effusive Akira. And in neither show is the “victor” revealed in a straightforward way. Rather, in DMCB, Ryo is shown talking to Akira for several minutes before we discover that the latter has been dead (by Ryo’s hand, presumably) during the entire conversation. In Ping Pong, we flash forward years into the future before the final match between Smile and Peco has concluded, and only learn incidentally via a commemorative photograph that, years ago, Peco won:
But these seemingly abortive endings aren’t anticlimaxes unless you remain stubborn in the belief that each show is about a conflict between two people that can be resolved with a binary solution. And if you were under that impression, the endings should be enough to disabuse you of it, and even force you to rethink the entire progression of both shows in a new context. Was the central relationship’s story in DMCB really about good versus evil, or was it about one teen boy teaching another teen boy who is also Satan what love is, slowly over time, until he finally (and at great cost) succeeded? Was Ping Pong really about rivals in table tennis, or was it about one teen boy remembering what he had to do to become another teen boy’s hero again, and finally teaching him how to enjoy life and, literally, smile?
Above, not to hit you over the head with it too hard, but: There’s Smile, smiling (and crying) as a child, smiling (and crying) during his match with Peco, and then smiling casually as an adult. And there’s Ryo, crying, thereby proving that sorrow exists, and (by his own logic) that love also exists. Both stories have, if in unexpected ways, been resolved.
So. It’s been established that both Devilman Crybaby and Ping Pong are about newly surfacing tensions between two boys who have been close since childhood, one of whom is capable of expressing emotions and one of whom is not, who must face off in a climactic battle before the series is over though in the end, the results of the battle are overshadowed by the fact that the emotive half of each pair has finally taught the non-emotive half how to feel and express their emotions. Phew! But, why should it matter that Masaaki Yuasa seems to have a penchant for telling almost identical stories about… what I just said?
At the beginning of this post, I said that the similarities between DMCB and Ping Pong had implications for understanding implicit queerness in anime generally, and that DMCB made me way firmer in my belief that Ping Pong is an intentionally queer work. And if you follow my logic above, it’s pretty clear that DMCB and Ping Pong have an overarching roadmap in common — the only substantive difference is that DMCB’s roadmap is explicitly queer. Though Ryo doesn’t say the magic words (“I love you”) directly, his evolution into a person who can cry explicitly tells us that he’s in love with Akira. There’s a big gay X at the end of the DMCB treasure map. But what can that tell us about Ping Pong, which (I haven’t forgotten) came out several years earlier?
My cousin and AniGay/Icebergs colleague Rebecca Black has said (no seriously, I swear she has, and someday she will write about it!) that an implicitly queer narrative is like a mystery story with the final reveal missing: The clues are laid out for you along the way, and just because you lost the last ten pages or whatever and didn’t get to read the author’s words telling you directly Who Did It, that doesn’t mean the clues weren’t there to lead you to the missing conclusion. Though Ping Pong stops short of using the word “love” in reference to Smile and Peco’s relationship, the fact is that the emotional and plot beats leading to Smile’s transformation are nearly identical to those that tell us that Ryo loves Akira. The final queer reveal may be missing from Ping Pong, but the clues are all there. And because of DMCB, we know where those clues lead.
Yuasa’s two most recent series are an easy way to explore this analogy because they do have so much in common, not least of all their director; it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that Yuasa might have been hiding queerness in plain sight before he went all in on a new interpretation of a franchise that has been exuberantly queer since the 1970s. But implicitly queer narratives that feel like mystery stories missing their last ten pages are common throughout anime and media in general. The societal increase in acceptance for explicitly queer narratives is, of course, beneficial in itself. But it also has the potential to provide us with the keys we need to untangle and decode implicitly queer stories, a vastly larger category that, while no less valuable than its more direct counterpart, does tend to need some legwork before it’s clear that queerness is, in fact, what’s really going on.
After all, I believe it’s in the spirit of almost-but-not-quite revealing the queer truth that adult Smile, when asked by a side character if he has a girlfriend, declines to answer. Instead, he leaves both the questioner and the viewer with the enigmatic: “Wouldn’t you like to know?” And as viewers, at least, I think we already have all the information we need for that.