Devilman is the first supernatural anti-hero in anime history. He was a demon sent to destroy humanity but because his human host loved a girl, he decided to protect us from the upcoming genocide. It is another project made by that beast of a man called Go Nagai. In fact, it is his most personal work as unlike his other mecha projects that were partially his, this one was something that he made entirely by himself. In fact, Mazinger Z was something he did to steam out while Devilman was supposed to be his ultimate masterpiece. And amongst his biggest disappointments ever was how the audience was 90% all glued on his mecha made-on-the-run show and not this much more mature and personal work.
I will not deny that his Devilman manga is quite bold for the time it came out. It had demons possessing and killing innocent humans and even each other out of cruelty and power struggles, while even friends turned foes, backstabbed one another and towards the end most main characters end up brutally killed and the world enters the Apocalypse. All that quite awesome indeed… in the manga version.
Here is a list of the reasons I and most others didn’t like this as much as the less serious Mazinger Z.
1) It is horror. Back in the 70’s the only people watching anime were little kids. What are the chances for little kids to like this depressing, dark, scary show and not a cool huge robot? Even worse, by the time a broader audience came to watch anime, Devilman already looked crude and silly compared to the following horror anime that were made at that time.
2) Awful monster designs. Sorry to ruin it for you Nagai, but you fell victim of the Uncanny Valley. The average person who will stare at Devilman and his opponents will imagine they are really ugly men fighting in their underwear. Watching Mazinger Z, he will imagine huge monstrous robots fighting with powers that level mountains. One could always say how Mazinger Z itself is nothing but a metallic man fighting in his underwear but your mind DOESN’T see it this way. And to be blunt about it, the average demon in Devilman looks silly compared to the average robot in Mazinger Z. It’s that simple. Furthermore, with the restrictions in animation of that time, hand to hand battles looked a lot better between bulky robots than between humanoid demons. Heck, even screaming your special attacks seemed better while piloting a robot than while doing martial arts. I am used to watching really old series with pathetic graphics and sound, but this one proved to be a challenge even for me. How much time did it take to sketch a human or demon figure? 10 seconds? And those voice-activated special moves, don’t they stick better in mecha series? It made me appreciate many old series I disliked because of their graphics. Heck, even the opening theme seems less catchy than the other classic action series of the same time.
3) Size. Devilman is human-sized. Mazinger Z is huge. Bigger explosions means cooler action. Sounds superficial but the average person watching this will perceive it as such.
4) Adaptation decay. The anime version is nothing compared to the manga. It took out most of the gore, it mutated the story to feel more childish, it was nothing but plotless monster of the week formula, and the finale is just a simple open ending where nothing much has happened. Forget all that stuff about the deaths of most characters and the Apocalypse; they just never showed them. The demons in the anime were not present in human society; they appeared all of a sudden from the core of the Earth after a long sleep; which is a generic premise in the least. Heck, they even altered the main villain from Satan himself to some generic demon trapped in ice. In the manga you would be amazed at how close Satan was all the time but here he is just a distant dude trapped, immobile and useless to the plot.
Many years later, they bothered to make some OVAs which are more faithful to the original story, with AMON Devilman even showing most of what happened in the finale. But as I said, by that time it was already too late because other horror shows had taken over.
As I said, Devilman is the first supernatural anti-hero; the manga version is good for its time and he paved the way for many others to follow. The premise of Devilman can be easily found in many recent action series, where some heavy dude or cynical emo guy plays it uncaring with the world but ends up saving it for some avenging reason or to save his chick. That gives him high historical value but zero replay value or memorability for the bad handling of the show.