Chainsaw Man was always too much for Shonen Jump. The frenetic, ultra-violent, often hilarious series doesn’t sit well next to young adult pillars like One Piece — which just celebrated its landmark thousandth issue in the manga magazine at the start of this year. Every other page of its first 97 issues feels like a potential finale. Even the name sounds more like a joke than a real manga. Yet the series about a boy who can sprout chainsaws from his body always finds new ways to accelerate, and builds a shocking amount of pathos at every turn.
The weekly book stars Denji: the titular Chainsaw Man. He makes a pact with a Beanie Baby looking devil, which in this world are various objects and ideas given flesh. There’s a Blood Devil, a Gun Devil, a Katana Devil, and even an Angel Devil. The first few issues make Denji out to be almost as cute as his plushie pal, the chibi Chainsaw Devil, before he’s violently murdered by the mafia. The Chainsaw Devil makes a pact with Denji — resurrecting the boy in exchange for his promise to live a normal, fulfilling life.
Denji absolutely does not hold up his end of the bargain.
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It’s not really his fault, though. The chainsaw-infused young man is quickly conscripted by Japan’s Devil hunting division of public safety. In other shonen, this might look like some kind of secret society, or a band of friends sworn to protect the world. In Chainsaw Man, it’s an unglamorous government job. It promises Denji the ability to pay rent and eat toast. Since our hero lived in squalor before this point, that sounds like a dream come true. And this is exactly where Chainsaw Man reveals it’s so much smarter than its puerile title and protagonists.
As in most shonen manga, Denji and a gang of cohorts is thrown at increasingly powerful and cerebral Devils. Think Demon Slayer. Think Jujutsu Kaisen. Only Denji is a self-admitted idiot. He doesn’t think his way out of fights and discover hidden depths to his powers. He lights himself on fire and tackles people. Any time Denji is faced with the opportunity to grow as a person, he headbutts it instead. Only his forehead has a chainsaw growing out of it. This usually solves the problem.
“Battles” in Chainsaw Man are mostly excuses for visual gags and painfully exquisite wide angle shots. Most Devils have abilities that make “fight scenes” moot. Such as when Denji’s partner in public safety, Aki, does that head squish thing with his fingers. You know, like that Kids in the Hall sketch? In this case the perspective trick actually works (both on the page and as a means of killing a stray Devil) by solidifying into a giant fox head that chomps the baddie in half. Chainsaw Man is full of instant, often unexpected violence like that — exploding tension into sudden dread or comedy or both.
Most important revelations occur during downtime instead. The more Denji fights, the more he falls into a routine. The more “normal life” he experiences, the more unsatisfying the reality of his fantasy becomes. He barrels headlong into a realization most of us take decades to understand: normal life sucks shit. At least most of the time. Breakfast and a bed are thin gruel under capitalism. Creator Tatsuki Fujimoto’s crisp, drab costume design is sexy as hell. It also further cements the workaday slog Denji begins to circle. Nearly every character wears plain business suits juxtaposed against the nonsensical Devil designs.
Friction becomes his main source of joy: bad movies, annoying coworkers, and arguments with his increasingly familial partners. In other fiction, that might feel like a trite revelation. Chainsaw Man earns it with a pace that’s more guillotine than breakneck. You — and by extension Denji — never have time to appreciate a particular character or interaction before they are surreally executed. Next to no one is safe in Chainsaw Man. And with the series’ strong focus on the mundane, it’s hard not to feel connected through our own completely ordinary losses.
Denji craves the ordinary. He literally kills for it. Then he gets what we all do: disappointment. And just as he comes out the other side, to finally appreciate the little things in life, the manga whisks them away in a whirlwind of high-concept villains and shocking twists. It shouldn’t be possible for such a breathless series to understand the importance of quiet moments. Yet Chainsaw Man somehow manages to slide them in — hidden within the vast negative space of panels.
It’s no wonder the manga has been moved to the less mainstream Shonen Jump+ digital service. It’s the antithesis of superpowered battle comics, with their steady progression and hopeful morals. It’s not mean, exactly. But it’s not blind, either. In that way Chainsaw Man is a good deal smarter than its heroes. It knows where all this is going, even if the twists become increasingly impossible to predict.