Written & Illustrated by: Tatsuki Fujimoto
Published by: Shonen Jump
Shonen manga, particularly the most popular magazine of the genre, Shonen Jump, has been on a bit of a roll lately with horror action manga. I’m not sure what is in the water over at their publishing offices, but they have been putting out success after success of series with dark elements and creepier monsters than you’d typically find. The recently concluded Demon Slayer and The Promised Neverland, as well as Jujutsu Kaisen have found plenty of popular appeal as well as critical acclaim thanks to their thriller elements and monstrous enemies.
[warning for elements and characters featured in Chainsaw Man, character deaths are referred to generally and no names are mentioned]
Chainsaw Man has come in after these, and taken cues from the shonen classic Devilman in its protagonist Denji, a young man who is paying his father’s debts to the yakuza through selling his organs and killing devils with the help of his chainsaw-dog Pochita. Devils are manifestations of fear, each one representing one of humanity’s many phobias. The stronger the fear and revulsion, the stronger the demon.
The yakuza decide to dispose of Denji, leading to his untimely demise. As Denji lays dying, Pochita saves his life by replacing his heart, turning Denji’s scarred and broken body into the vessel of the Chainsaw Devil. It gives him immense strength and saves him, but it puts him on the radar of the Japanese government, who agree to keep him alive as long as he assists their agents in hunting down devils. This naturally leads to some of the most detailed and grisliest battles in recent shonen memory.
Admittedly, Chainsaw lifts many elements from the manga that come before it. However, if you’ve read my essay on Demon Slayer, you’ll know I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Chainsaw Man knows what has worked before and puts them to use, while also employing its own blend of an endearing protagonist, excellent artwork, and a razor edge lethality that keeps the stakes high.
When discussing Denji, the first word that comes up is probably dumb. That’s reasonable, as most shonen protagonists are not known for their intelligence. These battle boys need to be impulsive types who are singularly dedicated to one digestible goal, and intelligent people usually think things through before throwing punches. Denji, through his hard and short life, has come to appreciate the simple things. He wants a steady stream of food, a warm bed, and to get to second base. Yes, really.
Now, his primary goal as the lead in a story is to kill the Gun Devil. As devils are more powerful the more their concept is feared, the Gun Devil is one of the strongest. It caused one of the worst calamities in history and dropped off of the map, leading to an age where devils have grown continually stronger as fear of them has only grown. Denji makes a deal with his handler, Makima, trading a sexual relationship with her in return for killing the Gun Devil. He isn’t the height of sophistication, but at least I understand his motivations.
Denji’s simple nature makes him likable, especially as his primary motivations are related to basic human urges. He often clashes and cooperates with his fellow devil hybrid Power, as they share the same brain cell and can never agree on whose day it is to use it. His being pliable is very useful to Makima, however, and it means that the plot moves as quickly as it needs to. If the story were depending on Denji to take initiative and make decisions for himself, well, there’d be a lot fewer fights and probably just montages of him and Power watching movies and eating takeout.
But watching idiots do their thing is not the sole appeal of Chainsaw Man, even though I know that is why most people read manga. Chainsaw’s best quality is its art by far. You’d think a protagonist whose head becomes a tool of chopping and hacking would make for some great and gory art, and you’d be right. It’s bloody and it’s beautiful, it regularly forces the reader to take a step back from the story and just take it all in.
Nearly every major fight has at least one large splash page where the full visceral display is just other worldly, most have more than one. The brutal nature of Denji’s and the other devils’ powers enable a gallery of guts and butchery. I’m almost concerned that I would get nauseous if any of these chapters got a colored version.
And the enemies that Denji fights are routinely great. The concept of devils being based off of fears means that author and illustrator Tatsuki Fujimoto has an almost infinite number of monsters to pick and choose from. He isn’t limited to simple physical fears like spiders or snakes, but when he begins reaching into the abstract and existential phobias is when things become scary. How strong do you think the (purely hypothetical) Oblivion Devil is, or the Abandonment Devil? Kind of renders the Shark Devil cute by comparison.
These creative elements don’t just stop at the bad guys that Denji has to chop into pieces. As the agents that Denji works with form contracts with devils, their power set is often equally imaginative and disturbing. Aki, one of my favorite characters, employs the simple but wonderfully designed Fox Devil.
And the character designs are superb. Denji’s Chainsaw form alone could carry the whole thing, but nearly every devil seen is some eldritch or cthonic mass of malformed limbs and uncanny valley faces. I pity the assistants working on this series, because the amount of detail that goes into simple character shots, not even the big fight scenes, must take so much work. But seeing them in action is just so good.
And when it all comes together, this manga is just brutal. From an artistic standpoint, as well as from writing. Chainsaw is not afraid to put its characters through hell, and many don’t survive. Nothing specific, but it kills indiscriminately like some series do when they’re about to end and they realize that no one has died to raise the stakes. Some series like Sword Art Online start out lethal, but realize that they don’t want to waste these cool character designs so they only knock off the clearly temporary characters.
Chainsaw Man makes you genuinely afraid for your favorite characters, as it has taken out multiple in one fell swoop more than once. There’s no guarantee that even the most essential characters will survive the next plot twist or big climactic fight. Obviously Denji has plot armor, though he isn’t immune to being put through the wringer. The antagonists are especially dedicated to breaking Denji down psychologically and physically, so most fights usually leave him close to death.
There is his ability to heal by drinking blood, which feels like a cop-out for whenever he needs to be pushed down and still get back up. However, he goes through an absolute 50 gallon drum of blood in every fight, so an in-universe explanation for that might be warranted.
In summary, I highly recommend Chainsaw Man. It is not groundbreaking by any means, but it is pure shonen fun with a heavy dose of horror and gore. If that is your taste, then you’re going to tear through the 95 or so chapters published at the time of writing this. It’s one of my favorites from Jump’s more recent titles, and you’re going to want to hop on board before this gets an anime.
The Shonen Jump app did not sponsor this review (unless they respond to my emails), but that also comes with a hearty seal of approval. For only $2 a month, you get access to full series like My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, and Jujutsu Kaisen, while the volumes it sells for other series are often more cheaply priced than physical copies. It is how I binged the Kaguya-Sama manga after falling in love with the first season.
If you’re having the time of your life with this era of horror action manga and anime, then Chainsaw Man is perfect for that new fixation. 7/10