There will be spoilers in this post – this is meant to be more of a discussion than a review.
I read the first 19 chapters a year ago, and I thought the premise was intriguing, the character writing was simple yet memorable but the action caught my attention the most. Going back to reading this, I was expecting to get more interestingly staged hyperviolence, in the vein of something like Gantz and Dorohedoro. While there was hyperviolence and all the fun stuff, I wasn’t prepared for the pure insanity of the plot progression and how creatively the mangaka would pull that off. Not only that, in the midst of all things batshit crazy, the exploration of Denji’s dynamic emotional and mental state remains as active throughout the series.
Thoughts on broader strokes of the story
Chainsaw Man is set in a world where devils spawn from people’s fears (generally objects or concepts). Denji is living life in abject poverty and drowning in debt to the point where he’s selling off his organs. Chainsaw-headed Pochita is his dog, and when Denji gets killed, Pochita bestows the powers of Chainsaw Devil to Denji – making him immortal. Eventually, Denji gets recruited by the Public Safety Devil Hunter Makima. Infatuated with her, hormone-addled Denji agrees to hunt down the Gun Devil so that he can date her.
Yes, the premise is hard-edged and juvenile… and the rest of the story might get described in a similar fashion. But Denji’s unrelenting thirst for living another day despite all odds, to the point of self-destruction (both physically and mentally), and the effective way this sense of depraved optimism translates to his fights as Chainsaw Man is what hooked me to the manga. Plus, there are cool devil designs and cool gorefest fights.
Denji’s juvenile horniness is transformed into a search for humanity in him after the Katana Devil arc and gets a resolution with his movie date with Makima, but that also sets down some pieces to explore in the future (Makima’s character and crappy movies). This reminds me, I like how each arc of the manga is compartmentalized in its own flavor of narrative but there are threads of cross-links or references that get built up in future arcs – like the concepts of necessary evil, the existence of crappy movies, and most importantly, delicious food. Chainsaw Man is adept at finding these natural pockets of intersection between the “high” and the “low” – the visceral and the cerebral.
Make no mistake though – Chainsaw Man is still pretty juvenile (“unashamedly juvenile” as Nate said in their KHANTEHNT videos). The comedy meshes well with dark and violent nature of the manga. Much like the story, it’s not cynical humor in the slightest. Sexual innuendoes are sometimes pushed to the limits where eroticism disappears (Himeno’s barf kiss was amazing). But I have to say, Power was the lynchpin of Chainsaw Man’s comedy – she’s so animated in the funniest ways. And if you put Kobeni in the mix, the comedy’s a fucking tornado. Power’s dumbness and straight-forwardness is so endearing because it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Much like the gritty, rough linework of Chainsaw Man’s art, the plot progression of Chainsaw Man is unkempt. Fujimoto seemed more concerned with executing ideas rather than lay down a cogent narrative structure with cohesive world-building and lore. I can’t complain, though – because the ideas presented on this manga are honestly envelope-pushing. The paneling is especially creative and cinematic – the extension of objects outside of the panels, and the silent storytelling for pages are all so effective. The pacing is chaotic – it lingers on softer moments (and on the flipside, dreadful ones too) and then rips through the violent ones like the whirring of a chainsaw. Our mangaka is as fickle about narrative elements as he is about the characters’ lives. Collection of the Gun Devil fragments is supposed to be the manga’s narrative guide, and it is for the most part – but Fujimoto pushes it to the background with each arc as Denji’s growth and Makima’s character reveal comes into focus. I think this ultimately ended up being a good thing because this allowed the plot to center around Denji and Makima’s dichotomy which extends to a more central theme around chaos vs. order. I will get more into that later.
On to my favorite arc in Chainsaw Man. You guessed it, it’s the International Assassins arc. It starts off intense enough, with skilled assassins from world powers gathering to get Denji’s heart (Pochita). My favorite aspect of this arc is how little of a fuck Fujimoto gives in elongating the fight scenes to make it all grandiose in presentation, the assassins get introduced gauntlet style, they show off their powers (particularly Quanxi). Left turns are taken at every point (Kobeni’s car is the GOAT), with new revelations swooping in every chapter. This is the unrelenting chaos of Chainsaw Man at its peak and just when I thought it couldn’t get crazier. Hell breaks loose. Literally.
Now, I don’t know how to describe the chapters in hell in a paragraph. Fujimoto clearly shows his affinity towards films with the very visual presentation of not just Hell but the “fights” in it. If there was ever a time in Chainsaw Man where time comes to a stop, and true despair grips the narrative and the reader simultaneously – it’s when the 11 astronauts introduce the Darkness Devil. It’s some arthouse horror shit, it’s other-worldly in the most visceral yet cerebral way. Sure, Deus Ex Makima did put slight damp on the sense of existential despair, but I will remember the Hell chapters as some of the best bits of manga I’ve ever read.
The arc ends with Denji taking down Santa Claus by self-immolating himself – it’s yet another fight with Denji thinking out-of-the-box and actually implementing that. The mad lad. Then we get another mad trip to Halloween’s power and it’s another insane moment in the manga. It’s another moment where a high concept thing like I want to go over every crazy thing that happens in the arc but I don’t want to make this post even more unreadable than it already is. So I will put a stop here.
GUN. CHAOS. CONTROL. POWER
In my mind, I see the final arc as an amalgamation of The Gun Devil fight and the Control Devil arc: marked by the deaths of two key characters.
I love how the manga uses the anti-climax of the overarching Gun Devil narrative to transform Aki’s and Denji’s motivations get sunk in existential dread. The case of Aki’s demise felt crueler. Aki swore revenge on the Gun Devil and Makima saw this as a chance to exploit him and other Bureau officers to fight against the world powers. I think that’s the biggest emotional gut-punch in the manga for me because Denji and Power got their sense of closure of their own problems, eventually. Aki literally got strung along, and the moment when he realized that he was just playing into a bigger game of control over power. Devils were always subservient to the fears of humans, and humans were the true monsters that spawned and fed them to become weapons – devils are just fears weaponized, and Aki was just feeding into this self-perpetual machine of control over fear, and by a cruel twist of fate, he became the carrier to his arch-nemesis… and that’s just too much, man. Aki’s demise broke me. The snowball fight metaphor was beautiful, tragic and heart-rending.
I want to shift focus on how Makima’s character reveal is built up so patiently throughout 90+ chapters – it’s impressive considering how fast-paced the manga is. Makima always had an aura that felt off from the beginning, and Fujimoto fed us different expressions of that sinister aura in trickles until the Gun Devil arc. Denji’s feeling of existential dread felt as overwhelming to me, as a reader, because of this approach – we slowly learn that Denji has been exploited and so has Aki. What’s more impressive is that, after everything has been revealed, Makima doesn’t turn into this evil-grinned monster – her behavior remains as cold and calculating. What an amazing antagonist.
Power’s death was made all the more powerful because of that chapter where Denji and her developed a sibling-like bond, and it breaks Denji to the point where the full-form of Chainsaw Devil shows up. This leads to a fight between two concepts, Chaos (Chainsaw) and Control. This is the point in the story where Makima’s motivation becomes more perplexing as to what she wants from Chainsaw Man and her wishes become as self-destructive as Denji’s. Still, she fends off Chainsaw’s advances until Power upsets the domination. It’s interesting, given how in the real world the balance between Chaos and Control is only upset by which side has the most power. By the end, Denji embodies the power to change from being an agent of chaos under the leash of a bigger agent of control to becoming a hero in the very chaotic world he lives in.
Before I get to conclusive thoughts on the arc, I just want to mention the whole Kobeni DDR scene. It’s horror-comedy on the level of (one of my favorite movies) Hausu. The repetition of Kobeni’s tripping, the manager’s quip of “are we in a prank?” while his employees get decapitated around him, topped by Kobeni’s traumatized landing of “greats” on DDR under the watch of Chainsaw – it’s all just amazing. Definitely top-tier meme material.
I think Chainsaw Man stuck a solid landing with this arc, despite all the lightning-paced madness and usual schlockiness, the manga tapped into these fundamental concepts that felt like a natural transformation of Denji’s depraved optimism from wanting the next best thing to wanting the best thing, instead.
THINGS THAT COULD’VE BEEN BETTER
To the disadvantage of Chainsaw Man’s collage-like storytelling, I think the training arc with Kishibe is one of the weakest moments in the manga, and it took up an entire chapter to show us little of nothing. I think, due to its brevity, Kishibe’s character suffered from having a real presence in the manga. In my opinion, the weakest arc is the Bomb Devil arc. Sure, Reze is the sensual goth GF/pixie girl every weeb dreams of, but I thought too much time was wasted in showing the twist. I understand that it was a necessary story in developing Denji’s emotional maturity, peeling off another layer of Makima’s mystery and a lead-up to my favorite arc – but, eh, I think a shorter arc would’ve sufficed. I also don’t want to act like Reze’s one of the better written character in the story, even Angel Devil, the one with a lesser presence, made more impact.
Because of the breakneck pace of the story, logical lapses have a significant presence. Whenever Makima went into explanation mode to detail on how the Chainsaw Devil devoured other devils of other fears, it became vague as to whether the fears were themselves erased from history or if people just don’t remember their names anymore. I also didn’t get how the Chainsaw Devil literally ripped through Hell in the final arc. Unlike other shounen, there’s no real ability systems, every arc, the power scale got upped to a point where we were dealing with unbeatable devils in hell. I went into the first couple of arcs thinking that abilities were laid down to be used to their limits in fights, only to find out that often the most creative yet simplest approaches were taken – and it’s still cool.
CHAINSAW MAN IS FEARLESS.
I think Chainsaw Man is a bold manga that’s chock full of creative fights, ornate devil designs, and memorable characters. It isn’t afraid of destroying big plot points, it’s self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously. Simultaneously, the manga presents conceptual “fights” between fundamental ideas that never feel too pretentious. Much like Chainsaw’s self-immolation in the Santa Claus fight, the manga exhibits a lot of fearlessness in destroying its potential of a grandiose, whacked-out adventure to hammer in a simplistic message that tells us to be our own masters of our fates. That’s the thing, Chainsaw Man is self-destructive – it destroys promising aspects of its narrative, chops it down to its core conceptual elements, and rebuilds itself anew by the end. Denji still lives to see another day with the same optimism he had at the start, except now he has full rein over his life.
It’s just one of the best manga reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’m interested in seeing how part two pans out, and I’m hyped for the anime too, of course.