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Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Story

by Justin Sevakis, Apr 30th 2013

Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei

Back in 1987, a little game called Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei came out for the Famicom (NES). Developed by Atlus and published initially by Namco (then called "Namcot"), the RPG was a pretty gigantic hit, and has spawned a truckload of sequels and spinoffs (including the Persona and Devil Survivor series) over the decades since. As far as horror RPG franchises go, they pretty much don't get any bigger.

This first game, Digital Devil Story, was based on the third book in a series of novels by Aya Nishitani. The novels told the story of high school computer prodigy Akemi Nakajima, who writes a program that can summon demons from the demon world (known as Makai) with the intent of getting revenge on a kid that beat him up. Predictably, things go very wrong, and he ends up summoning a really powerful demon named Loki who goes on a destructive bloody rampage. New transfer student cling-on Yumiko, who has a crush on Akemi, gets roped into assisting Akemi try to clean up the mess that ensues. It helps that she's the reincarnation of the goddess Izanami, and therefore has latent supernatural powers.

I'm using all of this to preface my discussion of the anime movie that came out around the same time because I had to look it up. You see, I'm not a huge video gamer, and while I know about the newer parts of the franchise, I had no experience with the original games. And in watching the 45 minute movie adaptation of the first novel, I was hopelessly and utterly lost. It's not as if the film has a low budget or poor source material to draw from. The artwork is actually pretty nice, and the animation is quite fluid for its era. The character designs by Gundam's Hiroyuki Kitazume and animation direction by Naoyuki Onda (Armitage III, Berserk movies) gel pretty nicely. The problem, ultimately, is that neither the art nor the animation are working together to build an understanding of a story, or even a sense of where physical objects are in space. This is kind of a basic requirement of visual storytelling.

For no apparent reason, high school hottie Akemi is dreaming of being in olden times, being chased by a scary zombie woman. He flashes back to this several times through the program, and I'm still not entirely sure what that is, or why we're seeing it. But nevermind. We're introduced to new transfer student Yumiko as she makes her entrance to her new class - and Akemi walks in late, seemingly impervious to the rules. Yumiko is immediately intrigued by the guy, but he makes it clear that not only is he not interested, but he's got other things on his mind than girls at the moment.

Almost immediately, he summons his teacher to the computer lab (a comically well-equipped mainframe, complete with blinking and whirring reel-to-reel tape machines), and as he draws his pentagram and runs his demon summoning program she reluctantly follows to, uh, lubricate the coming of a demonic force. But the demon who ends up being summoned Loki. He's big and scary, he has tentacles (kind of), and soon starts filling the school with them.

Digital Devil Story skirts the edge of hentai with its gooey tentacles that seem to be made of Gak (Remember, that slimy puddy stuff Nickelodeon used to sell?) and its women that are clearly enjoying some ecstasy in proximity to demons. But clothes stay on, and the tentacles seem too amorphous and gelatinous to be used for evil. Or at least, that kind of evil. They're still squeezing lots of Akemi's classmates until they explode. That counts for something.

Anyway, Yumiko is mixed in with the students who are quickly being squeezed into goo, and starts to panic. She then hears a voice from somewhere giving her direction, and starts to shoot lasers out of her eyes, fighting off Loki. She saves Akemi by beaming them both to another world, presumably Makai. But once they've arrived she's very weak, and occasionally shape-shifts into the creepy old zombie woman from Akemi's dream. Akemi must drag her to, uh, some spot somewhere so that she can respawn while fending off zombie woman flashbacks, all with Loki hot on their tail. There's some stuff about a sword, a flying lion demon with makeup and costume done up like Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu and... uh... something that shouldn't really count as an ending.

It was so hard to figure out what was happening in parts of this film that I ended up watching some sections of it three or four times, just to see if I was missing something. Often I was losing track of where things were in space, and basic things like where the camera was positioned, exactly. This is just plain bad storyboarding. I'm piecing together the story only now, after reading up on the novels. While I was watching it I was lost, confused, and a little hungry.

Maybe it's unfair, but I'm going to blame birector Mizuho Nishikubo for a big chunk of what's wrong with this film. Although he seems pretty adept at lesser jobs like episode director and animation director (the dude did work on Patlabor 2, for example), the vast majority of his output over the years has been pretty muddled from a storytelling perspective. For every Video Girl Ai, there were a few stinkers like Tenku Senki Shurato, Otogi Zoshi, and the recent Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai. As he both wrote and directed Digital Devil Story, I can't really imagine who else to blame.

There are seeds of something good here, and a lot of goofiness that was then cribbed from other pop culture elements from Tron to Urotsukidoji. But the Digital Devil Story anime is clearly aimed only for fans of the game and the novel series. There is no other possible audience for this film, simply because without already knowing the story it's nigh impossible to work out what the hell is going on. Given that the animation was decent, I imagine a handful of those fans were satisfied by seeing a favorite story animated by a pretty competent staff.

But the problem is, filmmakers are supposed to be storytellers. When you need to already know the entire story in order to enjoy it being told, that means the filmmaker has failed. I'm sure there are lots of other problems with this film and probably some good points I'm missing as well, but dammit, I just don't understand an ounce of what I watched, and so it's near impossible to pick apart anything else about it.

Japanese Name: デジタル・デビル物語 女神転生 (Digital Devil Monogatari Megami Tensei)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 45 min.

Vintage: 1987

Genres: Horror, Sci-fi, Video game tie-in

Availability (Japan): A DVD was released by PIONEER LDC. It's out of print now, but easy to find used.

Availability (English): A sloppily subtitled VHS and DVD were released in the UK only by Kiseki Films.


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