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Humans, Devils, and Chainsaw Man

What is it that separates Chainsaw Man’s fiends and devils from its human characters? Figures on each side of this divide seek glory and happiness, mourn their loved ones, and employ devilish, supernatural powers in the pursuit of their desires. It is no wonder that Denji sees this distinction as arbitrary; all that this hierarchy has ever provided him is an assurance of injustice and suffering, as he is punished for factors entirely outside his control. And though Aki might claim humanity is some quality intrinsic in certain beings, the only significant difference between him and Denji is likely their personal comportment, the sense of dignity and pride with which Aki carries himself.

Could that, something no more significant than a style of dress, really be the dividing line between beasts and humans? Surely not, but Aki’s perspective nonetheless points us in a productive direction: perhaps our nature is what we do more than who we are, as we all contain what others may call “beastly” and “human” instincts. And in a world that demands decorum and servitude only to reward us with cruelty and rejection, perhaps only a synthesis of what is beast and what is human can guide us.

Chainsaw Man’s overseers bear no misconceptions about this union; every devil hunter is a beast granted conditional humanity, mourned only by their fellow provisional humans. So it goes even for the loyal Aki, who opens this volume facing off with Himeno’s stolen Ghost Devil, now strung up as a fresh enemy to be slain. The bureau’s employees are a burden it must suffer tolerating, a perspective not unlike how most corporations view their employees these days. With consolidation stripping healthy workforces for the sake of venture capital’s imagined profits, and owners dangling the threat of AI and automation in front of so many dedicated laborers, it is clear that capitalism sees workers as an unsavory byproduct of the wealth creation process, not as an essential component of a healthy society.

In this world where both enemies and employers deny our humanity, we must cling all the more fiercely to the connections we’ve made. Perhaps humanity is simply mutual understanding, and beastliness the rejection of the other – at the very least, there seems great humanity in Aki’s memories of Himeno. As the life is choked from his lungs, tightly stacked panels reveal Himeno offering him his first cigarette. Given Himeno was his gateway into smoking, one can imagine the sensation of grasping for breath actually draws them closer – and as Aki recognizes his friend within this revenant, the tension recedes. Fujimoto’s mastery of paneling and negative space makes it easy to “feel” the devil’s grip loosening, as closely packed panels lead into Himeno alone, no longer constrained by adjoining images.

After all those tightly packed panels of Himeno’s fateful conversation, the visual “silence” of the Ghost Devil offering Aki’s first cigarette back to him feels all the more impactful. In spite of this terrible world, in spite of their employers’ efforts to grind them into productive fuel for capital, this precious gift can still be passed from one hand to another. Though Himeno is gone, her love and charity are preserved in this one final act. And of all things, it is a cigarette – a symbol of maturity, perhaps, or a reflection of their understanding that time is fleeting, and we should claim what pleasures are still available to us in the moments we have left.

“Easy revenge,” the cigarette reads – a reference to one of the great works of listless youth, and also an acknowledgment that Himeno knew Aki would be the one to bury her, and that he’d likely seek revenge for her as well. Her final way of protecting him, making it that much easier for him to survive a revenge mission that she’d never ask of him, but which she knows he’d pursue regardless. As Aki mounts the field of flowers coating the Ghost Devil, the scene feels almost like a memorial, or perhaps an act of penance. Though his enemies seek to dehumanize him and his loved ones, Aki walks without fear, knowing Himeno is waiting as he sends her last remnant onward ahead of him.

In contrast with Aki’s high-minded, ostensibly “more human” motives of love and revenge, Kobeni’s motivation for sticking with the bureau is as simple and “beastly” as they come: “because we get our bonuses soon.” There’s a grim comedy in this, and also a larger point – Public Safety isn’t really all that much worse than any other job, and thus the same carrot-on-a-stick incentives that keep us chained to whatever job we find are applicable and effective here. How many of us have stuck with work we hated because there was hope of some promised bonus or promotion down the line? Kobeni’s behavior might seem bleak, but it’s perfectly rational; she is an animal hoping to survive, and she will claim whatever wealth or stability is within her reach.

Incidentally, Kobeni’s arrival also offers another clever moment of articulating her powers – or rather, of Fujimoto’s refusal to pin down precisely what she is capable of. Fujimoto excels at using the withholding of visual information for dramatic effect, amplifying the otherworldly mystery and terror of powers like Makima’s by presenting them as fundamentally unknowable. It’s a trick that takes advantage of comic storytelling’s base fundamentals; we are accustomed to panels conveying a progression of movement designed to maintain visual clarity, but Kobeni’s power thrives on impromptu introductions of her form to places she wasn’t previously. We never see Kobeni “move quickly,” she is simply there where she wasn’t before, making Kobeni seem supernatural through her exploitation and deviation from the “rules” of progressive visual action.

After a chapter spent venerating what is most noble, perhaps most “human” in our nature – our capacity for love and connection stretching even beyond death – we return back to the ground with a delightfully ridiculous sequence of Power chomping on a zombie arm while Denji gags. Aki might strive for a higher humanity, but Denji and Power are content to live among the beasts, and Chainsaw Man would not be half the story it is if it did not venerate both these instincts. Sometimes the only way we can deal with the cruelty and tragedy of the modern world is by raising both middle fingers high, saying fuck you to this job, this town, and the concept of decorum altogether. It is the punk rock spirit, embracing all the ways we deviate from societal expectations, and making those deviations a righteous flag. As Power rips through a crowd of zombies, she exults in her deviance, crying out “I’m dignified! And beautiful!” Her name is well-chosen – in her refusal to bow to this world, her utter lack of apology for rejecting “human” decorum, she truly embodies power itself.

Meanwhile, Denji’s rematch with the Katana Devil provides a fine articulation of just how hollow our performance of humanity can be. Though the Katana Devil’s bearer opens with “let’s talk” and “we’re willing to surrender, depending on the conditions,” Denji seems indifferent to such calls for diplomacy. And the reason why soon becomes clear: in spite of this man’s lofty rhetoric, he’s still ultimately uninterested in hearing Denji’s side of the story, and still ready to condemn him for things beyond his control. Denji isn’t rude and blunt because he’s actively trying to insult and aggravate these people; he’s simply done with the bullshit, done being asked to feel bad for things beyond his control, and ready to get on with the violence that is sure to ensue.

Is Denji supposed to apologize and feel terrible for doing his job, when doing his job was the only way he was able to avoid being killed in the first place? No, fuck that. I don’t feel guilty. Do what you’re going to do, just spare me your sanctimonious monologues. The only thing that is truly sacred is life itself – that’s what Aki values once you strip away the pretense, what Chainsaw Man itself sees as beautiful and worthy of veneration. But these allegedly “lofty” ideals of diplomacy, loyalty, decorum? They’re bullshit, and Denji is happy to say so. Only things of true meaning deserve to be framed as meaningful, and Denji is rightfully tired of things like “the honor of combat” or “your duty to society” being framed as such, when they are in truth just tools others use to shame, constrain, and exploit him. 

Fighting for the honor of a man who possessed none, the Katana Devil embodies all the arbitrary, self-aggrandizing “virtues” that Denji has come to despise. His idea of “justice” is rightfully incomprehensible to Denji, relying as it does upon sympathy for a man who never offered Denji anything but threats, abuse, and an eventual death sentence. Denji has learned to see such honeyed, superficial ideas of justice and righteousness for what they are; he understands that no matter what his tormentors or superiors may say, they are ultimately only looking to exploit him. He possesses the wisdom of the caged beast, and though he’s still exploitable by preying on his base, immediate desires, he will not be swayed by naïve paeans to ideas like “justice” or “righteousness.” He is here to survive as long as he can in spite of living in a world controlled by such false arbiters, and so he’s going to aim for the balls every single time. To this man’s grand declarations of intent, Denji can only smile and spit, stating “didn’t your granddad ever teach you that a beast shouldn’t trust a hunter?”

There is no such thing as true justice in this world, only revenge and personal satisfaction. Denji doesn’t let that bother him, though; he knows he’s an animal, and so he gleefully seeks out whatever will fulfill his animalistic desires. As Aki catches up with him, the Katana Devil bound and prepped for imprisonment, the two finally reach a point of agreement: they’ll compete to kick this bastard’s balls, and whoever earns the loudest scream wins. With Denji as guide, Aki for once embraces the joy of the beast – the immediate satisfaction, the kick in the nuts, the cigarette. As the Katana Devil wails in agony, all high-minded thoughts of justice or vengeance forgotten in the immediate experience of having his balls destroyed, Denji and Aki collectively laugh and roar in abandon, taking what they can steal from this messed-up bitch of a world. If Himeno can hear them up in heaven, all the better – but either way, this happy moment of kicking your tormentors straight in the nuts is to be cherished.

After proving that even Aki can enjoy the simple pleasures of the self-declared beast, Fujimoto proceeds to illustrate the reverse, celebrating Denji’s humanity through a chapter unlike anything we’ve seen before. Makima’s offer of a date is accepted with whatever grace Denji can muster, and the two thus embark on a theater-hopping marathon, gorging on a variety of questionably meritorious films. Beyond the novel mundanity of this outing, the date also provides our first clues as to who Makima really is, beyond the power and control. Her indifferent responses to their screenings feel like the first time she’s been truly honest – she enjoys observing, speaks frankly when capable, and is unmoved by the will of the crowd, possessing total confidence in her own perspective. And yet she still holds the door open for art to truly touch her. “I only find about one out of every ten movies interesting myself,” she admits, “but I’ve had that one movie change my life.”

Seeking human connection through art is always an uncertain process; frequently art will just seem strange, mundane, or impenetrable to you, leaving you all the more lonesome in your perspective. But as the two sit through their final film, each variably driven to tears by some union of personal experience and aesthetic intent, we see the electric spark of true connection that makes all the rest of life worthwhile. In this series that spends so much time ruminating on the dehumanizing cruelty of modern society, where workers are framed as slaves or dogs, and their masters sacrifice them for seemingly arbitrary reasons, solace is found in this moment of genuine empathy. Something in that story spoke to both of them, connected them in spite of it all. Is that the hope of Chainsaw Man? That it could be that rare story that brings us closer together?

It is in the wake of that point of connection, having seen something worth cherishing, worth crying over in that shared film experience, that Denji asks Makima if she thinks he has a heart. A question that wouldn’t really have mattered to Denji before – the kind of thing Aki frets over, too philosophical and vague to fit into Denji’s blunt worldview. But having shared that moment, Denji now wishes for the sort of emotional connection that goes beyond sleeping, eating, and having a roof over his head. He is not a dog – he is a human being who wishes to be loved, who seeks to understand others, who cries when he sees something that moves him.

Sifting through the refuse of this cruel and fallen world, we must remember to cherish the beautiful things, the things that make it all worthwhile. Though Denji has largely had no choice but to occupy himself with the baseline pursuit of food and shelter, he can still seek and appreciate beauty, still yearn for a transcendent emotional connection. Sometimes this world makes it hard to recognize our own humanity; that’s one of the crucial things art is here for, to remind us of our own emotional complexity, our capacity for compassion and understanding. Survival often necessitates embracing the beast within, and letting our basest desires guide us through a life scant in emotional or existential sustenance. But whether high-minded human or self-declared beast, all of us need to kick some balls once in a while, and all of us can also cry at the beauty of a film that moves us. Perhaps humanity cannot be claimed, only shared – it exists in the recognition of ourselves in another, wherever such connection might be found.

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.

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