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  • Rowan Fortune

The Materiality of Chainsaw Man

Review - Chainsaw Man


I do not typically write reviews of animes on this blog, but I do have an overall fondness for the medium and various of its prominent genres. There is one I have been enjoying recently, after seeing clips of it extracted for various humorous video shorts (the bleed of TikTok, which I feel too old to use, onto Instagram and YouTube, which I do sometimes, if guiltily, surf; the stuff is brain rot). It is the aptly named Chainsaw Man.


On the surface this is an utterly and unashamedly silly narrative. It has the same over-the-top penchant for stylized violence and gore as a more recent Tarantino movie might. Its protagonist is a vulgar mockery of the Shōnen manga lead, characters such as the titular hero of Naruto, Natsu Dragneel of Fairy Tail, Gon Freecss of Hunter X Hunter, Monkey D. Luffy of One Piece, or Midoriya Izuku of My Hero Academia. They ae all sufficiently distinct, but nonetheless fit a definite mould, one the main character here, Denji, does not so much depart from as aggressively satirize.


Denji is typically orphaned, typically outcast, typically clownish, and typically on a journey from perceived weakness to being categorically overpowered within the framework of a story built around set-piece fight sequences. But whereas the motive force for those other characters is leadership, status, or altering the world, usually with philosophical and even implicit political ideals attached, Denji’s motivations are all firmly located at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


That is, he craves shelter, food, and sex. And really, at least initially, only the maintenance of these things. And this is not incidental, but a running gag of the show. Denji actively derides other characters for seeking revenge, or even having such bold agendas as rescuing a pet cat, not because he rejects their values but because he sees no higher goal that satiating what is essentially necessary to basic human survival. He is often compared to a dog, and if he has a philosophy, it is notably that of Diogenes.


However, this satire is not the principal reason that I find Chainsaw Man so fascinating, although it is amusing as a fan of the general genre. What is so beguiling about it is the understated, and often beautifully animated, sheer materiality of the world and its people in which this ludicrously sensational mockery takes place. Everything about the premise is loud, and the violence complements that volume; only the way in which this is realised is in a world without a conceit of manga and anime exaggeration, a quite quiet world and one with a focus on the minutia of movements and the everyday rituals of social reproduction.


Early on, we watch one character, Aki Hayakawa, attend to his morning routine. (It is a notably popular sequence.) We see him slowly make pour-over coffee in a V60, seat himself on a small balcony, read a newspaper as he drinks his brew and smokes. Aki is often depicted cooking, hanging up clothing, and engaging in similar repetitively mundane activities. In this show, at least outside of the most extreme fights and devilish monsters, everything moves with the weighty plausibleness of reality, from the carefully rendered bounce of the suspension of turning cars to the texture of a hand clasping another.


(As an aside, an entire essay could be written about the place of food and drink in this show.)


The show has an adolescent interest in sexuality, in particular Denji’s entirely teenage obsession with it, but it is oddly also sensual in its delivery of what would generally—in the context of other such anime—be deemed crass fan service. Scenes when Denji flirts with or kisses someone are ponderous, awkward, and often deliberately embarrassing and anticlimactic. The show has a weirdly mature take on the immaturity on which it is sharply focused.


Denji’s heart has been replaced by a devil, his erstwhile pet, and therefore he can transform into a ridiculous creature with chainsaws sticking out of his arms and forehead. (Redolent of Ash from the also parodic Evil Dead franchise, but even more embellished.) Given this, it feels incongruous and yet still correct to say that the first adjective I would think to describe him most is ‘vulnerable’. More so than the list of characters I produced of other Shōnen manga protagonists.


Admittedly I do not know what turns this show will take, having not read Tatsuki Fujimoto’s manga, and there only being a handful of episodes presently released. Nonetheless, my view is that what I call the show’s materiality and the motive force driving Denji are deeply linked. The antagonists, the Devils in this show, are psychic beings, manifestations of human fears and, therefore, human desires. They are manifestations of different unmet needs for safety or happiness. This show, even in its most stereotypically Shōnen moments, is focused on the everyday.


When we first meet Denji, he is being exploited by Yakuza in miserably impoverished conditions, and it is their betrayal that leads to his near-death and then story-defining transformation. Soon after, he is being exploited again but under slightly (if perhaps deceptively) better conditions, now by a government department. Denji is defined by his lack of agency and his original and extreme poverty, as someone who inherited his father’s debts to criminals. He has no education and no goals beyond securing comforts. He is also explicitly excluded from social protections, a person without rights as someone compromised by, initially, debt, and then a devilry.


This is what the show is, in fact, about. That is to say, it is much more about the joyfulness of Aki’s morning rituals than when such things are rendered impossible, which is what the ferocious appetites always on display in fight sequences symbolize (in his chainsaw form, Denji shares with devils a deep hunger for blood). To put it more bluntly, this is a story about undeveloped id, but also what the social cultivation of everyday life means and what happens when someone is excluded from that. Its rejection of the higher-minded concerns of other anime of its type is rooted in the question: what is minimally needed for a human being to flourish?

This show is aggressively cynical in its answers to that question. Vulgarity consistently wins out in a piece of pop culture that quite self-evidently wants to shock audiences before it ever aspires to make them think. One of the side-characters, Power, is even purported to be partially based on the most profane and extreme character of the already absurdly gross-out (and often very socially reactionary) US cartoon show South Park, namely Eric Cartman. It is an entirely believable claim, even if Power is still Cartman’s ethical superior.


And yet, for all its flaws and limits, I greatly enjoy Chainsaw Man. I enjoy its strange ethos of blending the topsy-turvy carnivalesque into a consciously and mutedly naturalistic world. I enjoy watching Aki get up to his daily life between implausibly bloody sequences of devil v. devil action. I enjoy its surreal humour, particularly on display in the outro credits. And foremost I enjoy how little it is like anything else. For all its references to American mass culture, to South Park and, yes, knowingly to Tarantino too, the comparisons are superficial. Chainsaw Man is as unlike them as it is the other animes it clearly derides.

 

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