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  • Adam Tye

Good Dog: Subversion, Dreams, and Chainsaw Man


Denji: Messy Millenial Man

"I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to wear EVERY morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.

"I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong…”

(Fleabag, Series 2, Episode 4)


All Artwork Dialogue to be read from Right to Left. Later sections contain Major Spoilers for Chainsaw Man.


 

Shonen Subversion


Since Chainsaw Man debuted almost four years ago in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, a lot has been made of its subversive nature. Typically, this observation goes three layers deep: there's the ridiculous premise which seems to riff on the absurdity of most manga (A down-on-his-luck teenager makes a contract with a devil, granting him the power to manifest chainsaws from his hands and face); you have author/artist Tatsuki Fujimoto’s willingness to grind quirky comedy into bone-deep horror, giving the story an off-kilter, free-wheeling energy that is impossible to predict (even the art gets in on the act with a bare-bones scrapbook aesthetic that belies surprising turns into deep, technically-demanding page spreads); and perhaps the most discussed of all these subversive layers is…well…

Denji wants to touch some boobs
Chapter 4

Some quick background information:


For those not in the know, ‘Shonen’ storytelling loosely refers to a sub-genre of anime and manga that is geared towards teenage boys. It is also, incidentally, the most popular form of manga on the planet, with Weekly Shonen Jump often referred to as a barometer from which to gauge the trends of the medium as a whole. If you’ve never watched an anime, but have a vague notion of it in your head, there’s an astronomically high chance that this imagined concept comprises many of the tropes popularised by Shonen storytelling. I’m talking an unnaturally gifted male protagonist, lots of shouting about how “that was only ten percent of my true ability”, a climax in which the main characters defeat God using the power of friendship, and so on. Your mileage may vary on any number of these kinds of tropes (mine certainly does), but these are some of the key beats that have propelled Shonen manga to international success, and they are likely the elements you are most familiar with, even if (or perhaps, especially if) you have never physically picked up a manga yourself.


Shonen stories did not fall upon these tropes by accident: each one recurs time and time again because it has happened to resonate deeply with its target audience of teenage boys. The power of friendship resonates with those who are lonely; the unnaturally gifted protagonist resonates with those that crave a power fantasy; and perhaps most infamously of all, ’fan-service’ (the hyper-sexualisation of characters) resonates with those who are horny. Chainsaw Man has things to say about all three of these, but it’s how Chainsaw Man subverts the latter which you’ll see readers discussing the most.


And I think that this is definitely a worthy point of conversation. After all, overt and jarring sexualisation has been a point of debate since Princess Leia and her Gold Bikini strangled Jabba to death back in 1983. That kind of ‘fan service' assumes a certain one-dimensionality to its audience’s sexuality that Fujimoto is very clearly keen on dismantling, with Chainsaw Man protagonist Denji famously suffering a comical existential crisis after touching his first pair of breasts and discovering it to be an anticlimax.


But what has come to interest me most on a reread is the way Fujimoto develops this starting point over the course of eleven volumes, as Denji’s story slowly reveals itself to be not just about subverting teenage sexual desire, but about selfhood - a coming of age story without the sanded-down edges. I love this series quite a lot - for its gonzo stylings and characters, but also because, for all its deceptive luridness, it’s a surprisingly tough story to properly cohere your thoughts around. There's a messiness inherent to the freewheeling energy of Chainsaw Man that can make it difficult to pin down its larger ideas and themes, and it has taken a full reread to see just how tightly its philosophies are interwoven right from the start: how it argues against throwing away your freedom, even at your lowest, and how our dreams have the power to buoy and break us in equal measure. For all the gore and all the devils and all the boobs, it’s clear that Chainsaw Man also has a lot to say about the responsibility we take for our dreams, and the perils of throwing that responsibility away.


...


There is also a lot of gore and boobs, though.


Enough small-talk. What is Chainsaw Man?


Chainsaw Man is a horror-comedy that begins with our teenage protagonist, Denji, in service to the Mafia for debts that his father racked up before his death. On the very first page, he openly considers the net gain he will make from selling his own organs (his eyepatch suggests this is not the first time he has contemplated this course of action), before cutting to the chase: of all the ways to make money in this world, demon-slaying is the most efficient.


Calling Denji ‘destitute’ is putting things lightly: he has no food, no hope, and no friends save for one: his pet companion Pochita - a Chainsaw Devil that has taken on the form of a sausage dog. Despite his best efforts to eliminate his debt, Denji is killed by the mafia anyway: the result of a bargain made to sacrifice his life in exchange for the syndicate’s immortality. And so he dies, alone, broken, pitiable.


Denji is compared to a dog by the Mafia
"You're obedient like a dog ... thing is...I hate dogs. Can't stand the smell.” - Chainsaw Man Chapter 1

He does not stay dead for long. Dismantled in the gutter, Denji is raised back to life by Pochita, who sacrifices himself to give Denji superhuman abilities in exchange for one request: “Show me your dreams.”


From here, Denji kills the mafia (and the devil they bargained with) and is swept into active service by the Devil Hunter Organisation and their mysterious leader, Makima. This is where Denji spends the majority of Chainsaw Man's run, and immediately Fujimoto begs an important question:


What are Denji’s dreams?


Saved from a life of misery, Denji is initially lured into Devil Hunting by Makima on the merit that his breakfast at Devil Hunting HQ will consist of bread and jam - a simple offering that was previously a farfetched luxury. As the first person to ever treat Denji with kindness, it doesn’t take long for him to him to imprint on Makima hard, seeing her as a benevolent saviour, and immediately turning her into the object of his desires. His colleagues at work and civilians in the street become background noise - something that he can live without as long as he has her attention. Denji’s life has been so awful up to this point that even something as simple as being held by another person takes on a cosmic level of significance for him, with these desires for physical intimacy quickly ballooning into, well…


Denji still wants to touch some boobs
Chapter 4. Yes, I'm showing it again

During the early Chapters of Chainsaw Man, Denji’s dreams and goals occupy this incredibly simple rung. In terms of motivation, Denji is frequently outclassed in complexity by his peers, whether its his minder, Aki, who is on a quest to destroy the Devil that murdered his family, or Makima, whose twisting motives and morality remain nebulous until the very final books. Many of these characters mock him for this perceived simple-mindedness, or suggest that these desires aren’t strong enough to keep him motivated in his job as a devil hunter, but this does not stop Denji from fighting to the death to hold onto his previously unthinkable new privileges. “Maybe I became a Devil Hunter for a really shallow reason,” he tells Aki, “but I’m willing to die to keep living like this.” He even goes so far as to double down on this sentiment in Volume 2 by challenging a Devil to a ‘dream battle’, with the memorably vivid line, “If I rip you apart, that makes your dream worth less than touching boobs.” Poetry.


Of course, this makes the fulfilment of that dream all the funnier. Clustered in a dirty, cramped toilet, Power (one of Denji’s colleagues) offers to let him touch her in exchange for saving her life. The excitement ramps, Fujimoto draws the scene like Denji is about to open the arc of the covenant, but it’s all an anti-climax. Denji feels nothing.


Denji suffers an existential crisis after touching some boobs
Chapter 12

I think people like to talk about this scene because, insofar as the sexual politics of Popular Manga go, it feels surprising and introspective - the first clear sign that Fujimoto is thinking deeply about his creation, and the long history of the genre which it occupies. If Shonen Manga has succeeded time and again by feeding the same tropes to its audience, then it makes it all the more notable when a popular series is able to interrogate those tropes. There’s a precedent for this kind of self-awareness, most notably in Hideaki Anno’s legendary 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' - a series which turned Kaiju Power Fantasies into a waking psychosexual nightmare. But that subversion tends to be quite heavy-hitting, and it's undeniably refreshing watching a Manga artist attack these same subject matters in a more comical setting.


All of which is very funny, and is good fuel for conversation, but it also neglects something very key about Denji’s ‘revelation’. Because describing the above scene as an ‘existential crisis’ isn’t just a great way to exaggerate for comedic effect - it’s also very accurate. Denji suffers a crisis of faith. The boy who always believed that anything is better than the nothing he previously had…discovers that his dreams aren’t enough.


“When I go after different dreams in the future and get my hands on them…am I gonna realise I was actually happier during the chase then too? Isn’t that just…crap?”

(Chainsaw Man, Chapter 12)


You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling


This is not the last of Denji’s dreams to be dashed. Throughout Chainsaw Man, various events prompt him to re-examine his priorities in life, and each one slowly erodes his previous sense of simple contentment, leading him to escalate what he wants out of life. In the process, Denji continues to learn more about who he is, from his crush on Reze which threatens to break Makima’s hold on his heart, to finally finding safety and affection with his colleagues.


Meanwhile, the fight for survival grows ever harder, and the story makes a point of how much Denji is having to struggle for even the most basic of comforts. Fujimoto later draws attention to this escalating dilemma through the use of Aesop’s Fable, ‘The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse’:


“Hey Denji…which one would you choose? The Town Mouse or the Country Mouse?”
"The country mouse gets to to live in safety, but doesn't get to eat delicious food like they have in the city. The Town mouse gets to eat delicious food, but runs a higher risk of being killed by humans or cats.”

(Chainsaw Man, Chapter 42)


When Denji is presented with this fable, he immediately aligns himself with the town mouse - someone who is willing to 'see hell' in order to get the things he wants. Another character points out that the things he wants are “the bare minimum standard of living in Japan. It’s not something amazing,” but it doesn’t sway him. And the story tests Denji repeatedly on this matter in an attempt to find his breaking point - the line that needs to be crossed for him to give up the luxury of the town mouse for the safety of the country mouse.


It isn’t until all of his dreams are systematically taken away that we find it.


Good Dog (Spoilers for Volume 9 & 10)


Denji submits to Makima
Chapter 81

As Denji himself rather perceptibly exclaims during Chapter 47: “Every woman I meet…tries to murder me!” And yes, this is a very true and very funny observation (at this point in the story, he’s on a terrific roll), but he’s only scratching the surface of a deeper realisation that every good thing that happens to him, quickly disappears. Denji cycles through dreams and ambitions at the rate of knots, but everyone of them quickly rots and fades. Pochita was Denji’s sole friend during his run-in with the Mafia, only to sacrifice himself in order to bring Denji back to life. Reze appears to offer Denji the hope and romance of a normal relationship, but is secretly an affiliate of the Gun Devil trying to trick him into giving up his heart. And Aki gradually morphs from a work rival into a close friend, only to be corrupted by the gun devil and destroyed by Denji in public combat. Each time Denji reexamines his priorities and dreams, something comes along that rips them apart.


And it’s after this last fight with Aki, where Denji is at his most emotionally hollowed, that he asks Makima to grant him a wish: not for sex or companionship, but to become “her dog”.


“I don’t want to think for myself anymore.

“I used to only have to think about what I had to do to not die. Now it’s like there are ten thousand different things I gotta consider, and it’s legit - I mean, really exhausting.

“I killed Aki because it looked like maybe a hundred people were going to die if I didn’t stop him…but once I calmed down and thought about it…I realised maybe there was a better way. Maybe Aki only had to die because I’m stupid…

“There’s no point in thinking about this stuff, yet it’s all I can think about from the moment I wake up…to the moment I fall asleep at night.

“You’re smarter than me, right? So if I just do whatever you say, I won’t hafta think…or feel this drained.”

(Chapter 81)


I opened this write-up with one of my favourite quotes from Fleabag: a scene which me and my friend quote on the regular whenever we’re down in the dumps, or regretting how slowly our lives are progressing, because I think it captures really beautifully this urge within all of us to just…give up. We’ve been doing it all wrong, and there are clearly people out there who know how to do it right, so why not just give them all the responsibility? Why not let them fix this?


Denji in this scene is very much like Fleabag in that he is a messy millennial man (Hi Holly) at his lowest - convinced that no decision he makes is the right one. He has thrown himself into messy situations time and time again, and only has despair to show for it. In Fleabag, Waller-Bridge's plea for help is a guttural howl - a moment for the character to accept defeat, and for Andrew Scott's 'Hot Priest' to join her. But in Chainsaw Man, gifting away your responsibility is the quickest way to get you and your friends killed.


Only in Dreams (Major Spoilers for Volumes 10 & 11)


Makima laughs
Chapter 82

It’s one of those perfect examples of subtext becoming text when Makima is revealed to be ‘The Control Devil’: a Devil whose ability is to command any life form that is proven inferior to her.


Right from the start, Denji has been compared to a Dog - someone who acquiesces control in exchange for survival, only to have that safety thrown in his face time and time again. For all that Denji improved his life when he joined Public Safety, he never relinquished this one facet of his character - an inclination to let others tell him what to do. Even when he tells Reze that he prefers the Town Mouse to the Country Mouse, it’s hard not to see his answer as flawed given how he places much of his dreams and well-being on the instructions of Makima. He lets her make the difficult choices.


The reasons for Makima's reveal as the control devil are inevitably too plot-heavy to recount here, but the long and short of her highly-telegraphed heel turn comes from a desire to use Chainsaw Man’s ungodly powers to reshape the world as she sees fit. Because Makima can only control those inferior to her, she sets out to break Denji's will slowly, by showing him the things he truly desires, and then taking all of them away. From here, it’s mere pages before Denji is helping to murder the last of his friends, and defend Makima from being plunged into hell.


Makima reveals her plan
Chapter 82

It's this reveal - odd as it may seem - where Chainsaw Man inadvertently builds upon what Fleabag started. Fleabag’s confession is beautiful - a knotty sentiment made flesh - but it never really felt like the ultimate point of that show. It was an expression of pain condensed into one moment out of many - something for the audience to turn over in their minds and maybe take comfort in on those dark nights of the soul.


Whereas Chainsaw Man is interested in consequences. It does not want you to take comfort in the idea that ignorance is bliss; it does not want you to surrender in your darkest moments to the idea that you’ve got it all wrong and that out there is someone else that can make it all right. It wants to show an (extremely warped) look at what it means to give up your sense of self - what it means to give up the ability to act with kindness, or with self-preservation, and let some other ethereal force take the wheel. Here is a series which makes the explicit argument that giving up doesn’t stop you from feeling drained - it just drains you even more.


And I find it interesting how Chainsaw Man attributes much of Denji's selfhood to dreams. These are the very things that drive Denji to despair in the first place - the very goals that Makima is able to destroy in order to break him - and yet ultimately they are the things that keep him grounded. On the night before Denji's last stand, he's confronted with a news report of how his heroic actions are observed by the general public, and to his amazement...they love him. The revelation is enough to supercharge Denji's wants and desires into the stratosphere, culminating in the most ridiculous monologue from an already ridiculous character, as he learns to place value on himself and his wants and needs:


The real truth is I'm tired of eatin' stuff like toast with jam for breakfast! What I really want... is to eat steak for breakfast every morning! I know I shouldn't! I know it's terrible! But it's the same when it comes to girls too! Deep down... I want five! No, ten girlfriends! I WANNA HAVE TONS OF SEX!!! That's why... That's why I... I wanna be Chainsaw Man!

(Chapter 93)


It's corny, edging in on 'the power of friendship', but in the midst of the mind-bending horror that comprises most of the series, it's a sentiment that Fujimoto works hard to achieve, and in doing so finds real value in it.


And I want to reiterate the point especially: Fujimoto doesn't just stumble into a bout of positivity in order to wrap Chainsaw Man up with a pretty bow - he fights for it with a sublimely told piece of art. A lot of that is down to the sheer craft on display. So much of Fujimoto’s visual direction is key to the impact of these scenes, and he organises them with a rhythm and layout that is almost impossible to convey in an essay (I hope that the panels I've used give a sliver of insight into what I'm talking about). There’s a restlessness to his style which suggests a very cinematic mindset, whether it’s his confident use of mundane activities to create an atmosphere and mood, or his use of strident techniques only available in the comic book format to convey the action of a given scene (I will forever be bowled over by the sequence in which the Gun Devil attacks Japan, with Fujimoto conveying the destruction in these huge double-pages of carnage, overlaid with an endless list of the dead that scrolls on for a dozen pages).


The power of craft is never something to take for granted, but it helps that Fujimoto also tinges his philosophy with enough world-weariness to stop it from feeling hollow. Even at the end, Denji is never admonished for letting Makima take control - in fact, Fujimoto displays extraordinary empathy towards his character's decisions and mistakes. And when Denji breaks down to his colleague Kobeni, bemoaning how he's likely always going to be living in someone else's obedience like a dog, her response may be the most subversive, and generous, of all...


"Isn't that just normal though?

“There’s no such thing as a life free of bad things…

“Except in your dreams…”

(Chainsaw Man, Chapter 92)


Denji & Kobeni
Chapter 92

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