A great way to gauge what’s rising in popularity is to see how many people are cosplaying as characters from a property. At Otakon this year, there were the usual standbys from previous years: Dragon Ball, My Hero Academia, and Demon Slayer, but multiple times I saw young people in white shirts, black slacks, and an enormous chainsaw jutting from their forehead. Despite not having an anime on TV (though one has been announced to be in development) or any merchandise presence in the US, Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto has garnered a following from its manga alone. Chainsaw Man is basically an adrenaline charged dirtbag shlock comic with a heart and some great artwork and it is gaining a devoted following.
Chainsaw Man is about Denji, a loveable, almost Dickensian, street urchin, paying off the debts of his dead father with the part time job of hunting Devils. Devils are the physical manifestation of mankind’s assorted fears (blood, spiders, sharks), and they lurk in every corner waiting to pounce on people. Denji’s only friend in the whole wide world is Pochita, a chubby dog-like Devil with a chainsaw embedded in its face. Denji and Pochita are cut to pieces in a fight with a more powerful Devil, but before they could perish, Pochita makes a pact to live on as Denji’s new heart, and in return, Denji can transform into Chainsaw Man, an absolutely manic force of destruction with chainsaws jutting out of his limbs. Denji immediately attracts the attention of the Japanese government’s official Devil Hunters where he meets other Hunters with amazing powers due to pacts with Devils, but Denji is the only one to fuse with a Devil and retain his humanity. What follows is an absurdly escalating war between Chainsaw Man and the Devils as Denji tries to acclimate to life as a government employee and wondering if his co-workers are truly trustworthy.
When I first heard about the manga Bleach many many years ago, all I knew was that it was about people coming back from the dead to fight ghosts and demons, and in my head I conjured up something akin to The Crow meets Battle Angel Alita. I was sorely disappointed to find that wasn’t the case with Bleach, but Chainsaw Man more or less makes good on this non-existent manga I dreamt up when I was 15: an orgiastic explosion of action and grotesque creatures. While undoubtedly a refreshing comic, Chainsaw Man certainly trades in some familiar supernatural and action comic motifs, and in particular, Go Nagai’s Devilman. Both have a protagonist that fuses a human and a devil, a war with demons, and an apocalyptic level of escalation. Though it's also possible that Devilman has influenced the zeitgeist for decades to the point where these are just standard plot points since these motifs are also present in the work of CLAMP and Kentaro Miura. Chainsaw Man also has its share of (unconfirmed) visual influences. The grandiose scope of the Devils certainly echoes Tsutomu Nihei’s work in Blame! and Hiroyu Oka’s Gantz. I saw elements of Simon Bisley’s work on Lobo in the rippling muscles and toothy grins on Chainsaw Man, while the Devils possessing a multitude of limbs wielding blades reminded me of Al Columbia’s grotesque monsters. Chainsaw Man becomes a Rorschach test of sorts for what comic influences could have led to its art, but to reduce it to just these references would be doing Fujimoto’s work a disservice.
Fujimoto’s first and foremost goal is to present some very spectacular fight scenes, but there is a philosophical spark to Chainsaw Man that has made it resonate with readers. Chainsaw Man has an almost anarchist bent (but not totally since so much of the story revolves around civil servants). It believes the world is inherently chaotic and cruel, that the institutions of the world society trusts so deeply in will very willingly sacrifice lives of the people. But as a manga marketed to young men, there’s an angle about personal growth, responsibility, and the Shonen Jump-esque power creep, where protagonists like Goku can go from just being able to punch really hard to altering reality and the laws of physics on a whim. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and Denji overcomes some great obstacles on his path towards victory. This is still a Shonen Jump comic through and through.
Speaking of Shonen Jump, Chainsaw Man’s distribution in the US is just as interesting as the story of the comic. Currently in the US you can purchase roughly half of Chainsaw Man in six volumes of books, each priced at about $8. But since Chainsaw Man ran in its entirety in Shonen Jump magazine, it is also available to readers in the states on the Shonen Jump app, where for $2 a month you can read the entirety of Chainsaw Man, as well as new releases and older titles like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and One Piece. No official subscription numbers have been released yet, but the barrier to reading the entirety of Chainsaw Man legally is very low. This led to me voraciously devouring the entirety of Chainsaw Man faster than I had ever read another manga of this length before. I can’t help but wonder how I would have savored the story as a steady drip instead of wolfing it down, but when each chapter ends with just the right kind of hook to make you keep turning (or swiping) the pages, how can you resist? Though when every character is more or less dressed the same (a uniform of black pants, white dress shirts, and black jackets), coupled with how Fujimoto gleefully kills off cast members, there were a few moments where I had to re-read to remind myself who was among the dead or the living. Chainsaw Man is utterly frenetic and at just shy of 100 chapters it doesn’t overstay its welcome either. While undoubtedly steeped in genre tropes as many Shonen Jump titles are, Chainsaw Man is elegant without pretentiousness, grotesque without being slapshot, mean but without being cruel. Like its titular device, Chainsaw Man is a well oiled machine that is also gleefully destructive.