By Sean Cabot
Where to even begin with “Chainsaw Man?”
By all accounts, this is a comic that should not work to the extent that it does. At first glance, it’s a crass, ultraviolent mess that appears to have little purpose beyond being as crass and violent as its publisher will allow.
And yet, Tatsuki Fujimoto’s work has found great success from many readers, with a television adaptation by “Jujutsu Kaisen’s” Studio MAPPA on the way. But more impressively, it has earned praise from the likes of Naoki Urasawa, one of the most celebrated comic writers in Japan.
How does a series where the chainsaw-headed main character rides into a meat tornado on top of a giant shark earn that kind of praise? What’s it even about?
It starts out simpler than you may expect. The series follows Denji, an impoverished teenager who ekes out a living using his chainsaw-dog Pochita to kill devils – malicious beings whose power corresponds with humanity’s fears.
Unfortunately for Denji, his boss gets possessed by a devil and chops him into pieces. He only survives when Pochita merges with his heart to save his life, turning him into the titular Chainsaw Man.
This attracts the attention of the Japanese Public Safety Bureau chief, Makima. She offers to let Denji live so long as he helps them kill devils that threaten the world – their ultimate target being the all-powerful Gun Devil.
For his new job, Denji is given two partners – the first being Aki, a vengeful Devil Hunter willing to do anything to kill the Gun Devil. The second is Power – a Blood Devil possessing the corpse of a young woman, whose creator-stated inspirations are Walter from “The Big Lebowski” and Cartman from “South Park.”
This is the most coherent the series ever gets. “Chainsaw Man” is difficult to describe not only because of its strange plot concepts, but also because of how it is constructed.
The series oscillates in tones constantly, moving on a dime between somber melodrama to slapstick comedy to intense hyperviolence.
This idiosyncratic writing style has inspired the name “Chainsaw Man pacing” among the comic’s readership, a testament to how distinctive it is. Though, it might be a bit too eclectic for some.
One minute Denji is interacting with Aki and Power like they’re living in a sitcom, and the next they’re being thrown into literal Hell. If the series’ actual humor and structure weren’t so strong, it would be easy to mistake the whole thing for one big joke.
All of this is backed by stellar artwork. What appears to be a series of crude, rough sketches eventually gives way to superb paneling, framing, and imagery.
The action scenes in particular are a delight to read, balancing an unmatched sense of physicality against the downright bizarre superpowers on display. And this is to say nothing of Fujimoto’s grasp of visual horror, which rivals that of Eisner-winner Junji Ito.
But what’s the point to all of this? Surely a series seemingly comprised entirely of bathos wouldn’t have room for actual pathos?
Surprisingly enough, that’s what truly makes “Chainsaw Man” so worth your time.
The characters, especially the main trio, feel surprisingly genuine for all the insanity they participate in and how over-the-top they are. Denji’s struggles with self-worth and his conflicted feelings over his own life goals are not merely good for what they are, they’re just plain great drama.
Ultimately the series is about the struggle between one’s lust for life and balancing that with the need for love from others. Denji’s primary character flaw is constantly coming up with shortsighted goals that allow others to manipulate him due to his belief that it is selfish to desire too much.
Even with its rough edges, “Chainsaw Man” is still a supremely readable comic, wearing its most offbeat elements like a badge of honor. And that kind of courage is laudable.
A-, A rip-roaring riot