I’ll admit up front that I’m not entirely sure how I should begin this piece. Not necessarily because I haven’t written anything myself for the site in quite a while, but because we’re all at least somewhat familiar with the subject at hand, right? It’s a bit hard not to be. Premiering in Weekly Shonen Jump in December 2018, Tatsuki Fujimoto’s Chainsaw Man has catapulted itself into one of the biggest hit manga titles in recent memory. The level of success and acclaim it’s received in the 4 years and counting since it began is some of the highest ever seen for any manga title prior to having an anime actively on air. For context, Oricon’s manga sales chart for 2021 listed CSM as the 7th best-selling title of 2021, outselling heavy hitters like Spy x Family, Kingdom, and even Haikyu! And speaking personally, the series has become one of my absolute favorites of the past several years, having reread the entirety of its first part several times in both digital and print formats since its initial release. I love it to death and have been eagerly awaiting the anime adaptation for a while, so I guess if there’s a point to be made with this rambling intro, it’s that these reviews will be coming from the perspective of a major fan of the original material, so for those seeking an anime-only perspective on the series, this is probably the wrong place to look. Anyway, I suppose the best place to start is to get everyone on the same page: so what exactly is Chainsaw Man about?
Japan: 1997. Our protagonist is Denji, a 16-year-old living the most miserable existence possible. Due to the actions of his deceased asshole father, his childhood self was saddled with a massive amount of debt to the yakuza, which totals 38,040,120 yen (and assuming the math is right, that would be about $266,360 accounting for inflation and the exchange rate as of this writing). Living in a run-down shack with no electricity or even human contact, Denji attempts to pay off his debts by collecting bounties from killing Devils: creatures born from hell that take forms based off of mankind’s varied fears (also he sells off various body parts… including one of his family jewels). Joining his side is Pochita, an adorable little devil dog with a chainsaw in its head that he formed a pact with as a child. One night, the two are invited out to an abandoned warehouse by the yakuza… where they’re betrayed and suddenly killed, as the yakuza themselves have formed a contract with the Zombie Devil to gain its powers. Unfortunately for them, Pochita is The Best Boytm, sacrificing himself to bring Denji back to life, now with a cool new ripcord in his chest that lets him transform into the titular Chainsaw Man, a human-devil hybrid who proceeds to hack apart the Zombie Devil’s forces with the power of logging equipment!
Following the massacre, Denji is discovered by a woman named Makima, who takes pity on him and invites him to work as a devil hunter for Japan’s Public Safety department. She places him as a part of Special Division 4, an experimental team set-up led by the stoic Aki Hayakawa, his own family killed by devils years ago. Also joining the two of them is the loud and chaotic Fiend known as Power. A devil who has possessed the body of a deceased human, she’s assigned as a partner to our hero, and so begins Denji’s new life killing devils for the government.
The most immediate curiosity I had going in was how exactly the creative team at Studio MAPPA would go about adapting the visuals of the manga to animation. Having gone through several of Fujimoto’s works both before and after Chainsaw Man (whether it be his multitude of one-shots or his previous serial Fire Punch), one can see he’s an author with a highly distinct style when it comes to character designs and especially panel layout. His approach to CSM carries a distinctly jagged look to its characters, still finding a way to imbue them with a great deal of emotion and visual personality through this style and especially going all out when it comes things like the layout of actions set-pieces or the designs of its devils, evoking a deep sense of horror with any given encounter.
The anime has a lot of attention-to-detail with how it goes about adapting the visuals, many aspects drawing from, fittingly enough, Fujimoto’s deep passion for the art of film. This is most evident in its approach to color, lighting, and shot setups. The anime opts for a generally muted color palette in its setting and characters: cloudy overcast skies combined with the musty haze of the city constantly hang over many of the shots in episode 1, doing a great deal in recreating the lived-in feeling of the manga’s backgrounds. This is aided further by the realistic approach to lighting, which brings a level of detail that feels incredibly tangible, like this was being filmed with physical sets and real lights. The scenes in Denji’s shack bring these elements together beautifully, capturing the sense of squalor that he’s forced to live in surrounded by junk in this very musty setting, the faint glimmers of moonlight only highlighting the filth further.
The shot selection/storyboarding adopts a similar sort of tangibility, often placing the view of a scene in very distinct places, from aerial shots looking down at the ground, to a security camera angle peering in Denji’s shack, to Makima walking overtop the camera right into frame and even the flip-shot of the city as Denji is being driven to the warehouse (think that scene in The Avengers where the camera flips upside-down as the heroes argue with each other… Google is very unhelpful with trying to find other examples). Often times the scenes are framed in a way that capture this great sense of distance between characters in a physical space, with all of this best captured in the central setpiece of episode 1: the battle against the Zombie Devil.
The primary source of lighting is the moonlight peering in from the windows, exposing the cold steel containers all about while obscuring much of the environment in shadows, perfect cover for a fleet of zombies to emerge from every corner. The camera moves around quite a bit, relying on POV shots and tracking shots to convey Denji’s panicked attempts at outrunning an overwhelming fleet of zombies, the brutality of his inevitable death being conveyed through some intentionally uncomfortable sound design as they repeatedly whack, stab, and hack him into pieces…
…and then he actually transforms into Chainsaw Man and things get really bombastic! The camera movements become far more exaggerated, starting at a low-angle shot as Chainsaw Man explodes into the air atop a pile of zombies, the shots constantly following him as he hacks apart the Zombie Devil and its minions and gets violently swung around, emphasizing an intense sense of motion as he runs through the zombified legion. The motion of shots is matched equally by some really dynamic impressive animation, with Denji’s chainsaws flailing wildly about as he eviscerates his enemies, all of which stumble and shamble about in a very discomforting way like actual actors in ripped-up clothes and splotchy bloody make-up, akin to the undead hordes of classic George Romero films.
Outside of action, the characters are able to convey the same kind of expressiveness inherent to Fujimoto’s art, from stoic intensity to extreme discomfort to moments of joy and everything in between. I can see this being a bit of a point of contention: the character designs in the anime definitely plus things up quite a bit from the source material, refining them in a way that would be expected of a major animated production. It definitely works in the broader context of the show’s production as a whole, though my nitpickier side wonders if there was a possible approach to balance these two different ideals together.
But of course at the heart of all this is the story of Denji and his struggles as a devil hunter-turned human devil hybrid working for the government. Trying to stick to what’s present in the first two episodes, Denji is… well he’s an easy character to sympathize with but he’s not exactly a conventionally likeable protagonist, especially in the context of the shonen genre. He’s a guy in a very desperate situation: having been a debt slave to the yakuza since childhood, every day for him has been all about bringing down those debts any way he can. He’s never had a chance at anything resembling a normal stable life, and aside from Pochita and the yakuza, no other contact/interactions to speak up, outright telling Hayakawa at one point that he’s never even been to school, possibly giving him the shittiest upbringing of any shonen protagonist in recent memory. To compare to one of his most famous predecessors (i.e. spiky-haired anime teenagers possessed by demonic entities): say what you will about Naruto Uzumaki, but at least he actually got to go to school and get an education… and also had an apartment with plumbing and electricity. Denji doesn’t have a damn thing at all, rationing food to the point where his nightly dinners amount to sharing a single slice of bread with Pochita.
All of this adds up to a leading character who is extremely socially maladjusted, with the character flaws resulting from this lifetime of isolation rearing their head in the second episode… and this is where things get a bit complicated. See, when Denji first encounters the aforementioned Makima, she shows him a level of kindness and affection he’s never been used to, from giving him a comforting hug to feeding him a substantial meal (quite literally, he’s too exhausted to feed himself after the Zombie Devil fight), and even letting him crash at Hayakawa’s residence which has actual substantial amenities. Granted, she as well as Aki still present this very intense serious attitude towards Denji that echoes the yakuza (“do your job or I won’t hesitate to kill you”), and yes it’s a bit immediately eyebrow-raising that an adult woman is showing this affection towards a teenager, but the fact remains that as far as Denji knows, she’s like a savior to him. And his response…
…is to fantasize about copping a feel. Yeah, so Denji’s biggest intentional flaw from the outset is that he’s extremely horny, constantly thinking about getting laid or touching boobs and getting to be intimate with a woman in that very teenage-brained manner (not to mention more than a bit slobbish). This is why I said he’s not exactly conventionally likeable as a protag, and it can feel a bit whiplash-inducing with the sympathy felt for him from episode 1. For me at least, even this early on, while it can be pretty easy and perfectly understandable to look down on him for this, it makes perfect sense given his upbringing. With no friends, no money, and no meaningful free time, he doesn’t have a single clue how to interact with people in a way that isn’t transactional. But now that he’s in a place where all his basic needs are being met, he has breathing room to think about more abstract things like having a meaningful purpose in life (something that Hayakawa denigrates him for not having). But given how maladjusted he’s always been, when faced with this question, the first thing that comes to mind is unsurprisingly the most immature id-level instinct possible. And it’s not subtle about it in the slightest: this realization happens in the aftermath of Denji and Hayakawa taking care of a devil sighting in an apartment complex that’s littered with dirty magazines and posters. There’s even a gag where Denji reaches out to simulate grabbing boobs and the framing of the scene has his hands overtop the chest of a model’s poster in the background.
This is probably the best place to segue into one of the other major facets of Chainsaw Man: it’s pretty goddamn funny! For as intense, emotional, bleak, and chaotic as it can be, there’s a great deal of levity sprinkled throughout. I’d probably put it up there with Dai Dark as the funniest non-gag manga currently in publication, and this was my personal biggest point of concern going into the adaptation, as the trailers and promos focused on the more serious side of the series with few hints of its more absurd side. Thankfully, the anime appears to have a pretty solid grasp on replicating Fujimoto’s comedic chops, with the biggest laugh coming from a scene where Denji and Hayakawa trade blows in an alleyway over the former’s personal convictions… in which he repeatedly and violently stomps out Hayakwa’s nutsack. …You know, no matter how many times I’ve read this series and even though I know when this scene is coming, I can’t help but clinch every single time, especially seeing it animated. Dear lord, the sheer amount of absolute disrespect that Denji shows to the dude’s manhood is viscerally painful by proxy. You can see it on Aki’s face too, the way it contorts and winces in absolute agony as it’s happening, not to mention the fact that they threw in a banging steel pipe sound effect in there too just to really heighten the impact. While I may still hold the Mugen nutshot from Samurai Champloo as my gold standard for anime nutshots, this scene is a pretty worthy competitor.
Additionally, much of the comedy is conveyed through some solid dialogue writing and voiceover work. Chainsaw Man opted to bring in a crop of relatively more recent voiceover talent for the cast, with our protagonist being voiced by Kikunosuke Toya, a fresh face to the industry with only two minor voice credits prior to heading up this series. While there’s an obviously language barrier that limits how in-depth I can go, I think Toya does a solid job reflecting Denji’s attitude and mannerisms, from the occasional drawl/drone in his speech to his irritation when someone annoys him, to singing humorously in the bathtub and even his manic sense of glee when eviscerating zombies. On a related note, Ai Fairouz, coming off of her leading role as Jolyne in the Stone Ocean anime, is definitely having a lot of fun as the chaotically over-the-top Power, bringing a fitting level of energy to convey how deranged and insane of a character she is.
The one aspect of Chainsaw Man I was most looking forward to was hearing the music, as the series is composed by Kensuke Ushio, who’s done a lot of fantastic work as the go-to composer for directors Masaaki Yuasa and Naoko Yamada on anime projects like Liz and the Blue Bird, Ping Pong the Animation, The Heike Story, and of course Devilman Crybaby, a franchise that CSM absolutely cribs a lot of inspiration from. He’s consistently been one of my favorite composers in the anime industry since his work on Space Dandy, and his work here is fittingly great. In a contrast to the high-energy dance club/synthwave bangers of Crybaby and the lush period-appropriate orchestrations of The Heike Story, Ushio’s work here is notably more subdued, relying on ambient electronic compositions to convey a somber sense of melancholy or a kind of dream-like haze within scenes, working really well in evoking the right mood given the scene. However he does break from this aesthetic when needed, belting out heavy guitar riffs for the Zombie Devil fight or even a marching band orchestration for when Power makes her entrance (a music cue that’s at least a little reminiscent of the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare).
Speaking of music, the much-talked-about OP for the series is a whole lot of fun. Helmed by Shingo Yamashita and set to the song “Kick Back” by Kenshi Yonezu, the high energy electronic rock is a fitting backdrop for the characters being inserted into a near-constant stream of movie references from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes to The Big Lebowski and a whole lot of Tarantino in there. The ending theme for episode 1, “Chainsaw Blood” by Vaundy, rocks pretty hard for an end credits jam, and episode 2’s ending, “Zanki” by Zutomayo, is a bop as well.
One last note to end this fairly lengthy review on: two episodes in, and the adaptational scripting of Hiroshi Seko is making some pretty solid choices as far as what to scale back and what to add in. The scene where Denji is introduced to Hayakawa in Makima’s office includes a moment where she helps Denji with his tie as a way of emphasizing their current dynamic which is a solid touch (the original manga scene just has him with his tie on already), the same episode strips out the entirety of the Muscle Devil fight from chapter 2 (a thread that honestly goes nowhere and helps to keep a solid sense of pacing in the anime), and I honestly love the embellishment in the Zombie Devil fight where, in a state of absolute panic, it begins to grab zombies and throw them at Denji like projectiles. I’m not entirely sure if it was intended as a comedic beat in an otherwise intense actions sequence, but it’s funny nonetheless in almost kind of a Sam Raimi-esque way; it’s a bit like watching someone find a roach in their bathroom and scrambling to throw the nearest sandal at it in a state of fear. However, I’d be remiss to not mention the conspicuous removal of a line originally in the manga where Denji references having a union job. It might seem like a minor change, but the story does have an anti-capitalist bent to it, and given the studio in charge of adapting the series and the primary streaming licensor of the anime is Crunchyroll, it’s… definitely not a great look. But hopefully that’s just a one-off incident and similar moments elsewhere remain intact. All in all, the anime adaptation of Chainsaw Man is making a pretty great impression 2 episodes in, and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this series in animation.
…Did I mention Pochita is the best boy and deserves hugs?
New episodes of Chainsaw Man premiere every Tuesday and can be streamed on Crunchyroll and Hulu.