There’s something about consuming bleak and despairing media that is so cathartic and real. A sort of mental and emotional purging which we all experience but manifest differently for us.
For me, it’s like being trapped in a car with a quieter, more reserved version of myself on a road with humps to moderate speed, and then further until I reach a familiar highway. There are pit stops that the Other hesitate to visit, but I’ve been there, and will be again.
But after that long drive, oh, what a relief to get the car parked, right?
Sometimes, though, it triggers not when you’re listening to emo songs or watching melancholic shows. It’s also when you’re watching an anime with a main character whose goal is to touch boobs.
Chainsaw Man, for all its raunchy humour, explicit gore, and breathtaking action scenes, is about each individual’s experience with despair, the ways in which it comes up, and how they deal with it.
Heartbreaking Idiocy, Soul-Sucking Malaise, and the Ultimate Jam and Spice-packed Bread
We first meet an impoverished Denji who works odd jobs — mainly devil hunting — to pay off an enormous debt he inherited from his father. From the first few minutes we quickly learn that this is a person who doesn’t even have the luxury of time to just be, not even to bask in the terrible circumstance he’s in. What he has is 1800 yen that needs to last for a month, and a chainsaw devil dog named Pochita with whom he shares his days and dreams with.
There is a resignation to him that is both frustrating and humbling to watch. It's the latter because he didn't have any choice in the matter, just thrust upon it without warning. It's the former because of his efforts to be positive about it, even if mostly it's because he and Pochita found each other.
You can also see a numbness that may be familiar to most of us. Fujimoto Tatsuki, being a millennial mangaka, has perfectly captured the ‘why bother’ vibe the generation largely has, not just in Denji, but also for characters like Aki and Himeno.
Everything takes a turn when Pochita had to merge with Denji's body and become his heart in order for him to survive the Yakuza's betrayal. He meets Makima, a Public Safety agent, who brings him under her wing and shows him that his dreams are finally within reach. All he needed to do is commit to killing dangerous devils with members of an experimental, special division.
Denji then meets others who are in some way similar to him — one foot in front of the other, into a wild devil-filled world and out again, with that same disassociating stare.
Before long, we figure out that these characters each have things they're negotiating the world with. If they kill enough devils, can they finally be safe? Am I finally able to find the devil who killed my family? Can I finally eat toast or have sex?
Of course, this wouldn't be Chainsaw Man without the idiotic and crass. Denji and Power sharing the same dumb brain cell and driven by base wants is honestly one of the best things to happen for me. It's wildly entertaining to have protagonists who thought it effective to put on glasses for their "cerebral warfare" against a veteran hunter. Or the fact that Denji seems so bored all the time while his surrounding is taut with tension, Power so hyped about showing off while everyone looks on in shock and disbelief at her bloodlust.
The fact that they're basically being piloted by their id that has both a complete lack of awareness and naivete connected neurally is what makes them so endearing. I personally don't think they're disinterested, just incapable of knowing how what happens to other people around them actually affects them.
And how relaxing it is to have them as protagonists because then the narrative pressure isn't on one character's shoulders, instead the responsibility is distributed between everyone else's viewpoints.
Then there's Aki who, upon first meeting Denji, beat him up because he thought he wasn't serious about killing devils. When I started with the show, I never realised how much I'd be rooting for someone whose instinct was to hurt a person who obviously was lacking on the intelligence side. I thought it ridiculous, and it was actually pretty satisfying when Denji fought back. However, we watch him choose his moves carefully not because of any tactical reason, but because I think he thinks everyone's lives hinge on his decisions. This is true for comrades he has and lost, even for Denji and Power. And wouldn't you care for him more than you already were when you think about that?
Aki's plotline is one that's familiar to us — a long sought after revenge. But rarely was it treated with such a quiet, delicate touch. He throws away years of his life for a goal apparently and fortunately shared by most Public Safety agents, but is weighed down by the sacrifices he continuously needs to make for it to happen.
Then Himeno and her heartbreaking demise, another character we've grown fond of and stolen abruptly from the narrative. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about her struggles and the many times she negotiated with the world, to save herself and her comrades from it. We watch her cope with it through aggressive flirting, but there's hurt there, it broke through the facade just a little when they were trapped in the hotel.
That fatal episode basically amplified what she was feeling, what she was subtly telling Aki — they're not safe, we're too sober for this world, we will die. And it was the show's reminder that actually any of these characters can die. The tonal shift was quick and precise, like catching only the glint of a blade before it got buried in your chest, only missing your heart by a hair's breadth.
More than that, it reminded us that they're not all that powerful. Someone else will surely be smarter and stronger than them. Take Makima, who we saw at work made things uneasy even if, for now at least, she's on 'our' team. It's not just the abilities she has access to, but her demeanour that makes her frightening. The fact that even the higher ups are being careful with her says a lot about how she can manipulate a situation without effort.
Chainsaw Man values the empty moments as much as the action and humour. I appreciate how they balance all that bleakness with the absurdity of the characters, the horrifying nature of their world, and the weighty silence that compounds all of the ways they internally experience life.
At the end of the day, the show resonates because most of us are at a point where the 'why bother' attitude is the default. But you know what's free to do, Chainsaw Man says? Dreaming. Each of those despair-ridden characters had dreams they held onto to survive, and what this story tells us is that there's no dream that's more important and none that is small, not even if it's to eat real good toast.