Warning: This article contains spoilers for Chainsaw Man.
I knew next to nothing about Chainsaw Man when I started it a few months ago. All I knew was that there was a character named Power, a guy with chainsaws, and a really cute chainsaw dog in it. (And that it had some wild pacing.) Of course, I’ve been hooked from the moment Denji cleaved the Tomato Devil— but not just because of the show’s dynamic animation and hilariously down bad main character.
It’s easy to dismiss Chainsaw Man as gratuitous and juvenile thanks to its unhinged sense of humor, gory fights, and ludicrously randy main character, but these (admittedly extreme) red herrings distract from the show’s subtextual richness. From its commentary on gun violence to its take on existentialism, nearly every scene of Denji’s story gives the viewer something to think about. But what stands out to me is what it has to say about entering the workforce and surviving as a young adult.
Denji, the show’s main character, is forced into poverty and servitude after his dad—who owed the yakuza a mammoth sum—killed himself, passing his debts on to young Denji. Before he can escape, the yakuza boss forces him to pay back what his father owes, or be killed. With the help of Pochita, his loyal Chainsaw Devil (that looks like a dog), Denji toils away for years, working off his inherited debt.
The yakuza boss keeps Denji in poverty, paying him meager fractions of what he makes from slaying demons—boss makes a dollar, Denji makes a dime (if that). Denji is forced to live in what seems to be a toolshed outfitted with a mattress, with only Pochita to keep him company. Diseased and dying, all Denji can afford are slices of bread for dinner; he’s forced to stretch every yen to its fullest as he’s degraded and abused by his boss. His wildest dreams appear absurd and mundane; all he wants is a girlfriend and jam on his toast—things that’d been out of his reach for years.
All of this is, of course, until the end of the first episode, when the yakuza boss reveals he’s been working with a devil to achieve even more power. Denji dies fighting both the boss and his puppet master before Pochita sacrifices himself to save Denji, giving Denji his chainsaw powers. Denji slaughters the waves of zombies hurled at him by the devil with his newfound abilities, passing out when his work is done.
Enter: Makima. A high-ranking official in a devil-hunting organization, she was initially on her way to dispose of the very same devil Denji killed. Denji’s only alive because of his ties to Pochita, so he’s considered dangerous; Makima would normally have to kill him. Instead, Makima recognizes Denji’s tunnel-visioned, easily manipulated aspirations and decides to take him in. She promises him a better life, so long as he acts as her “dog.” He gets a roof over his head, jam on his toast—maybe even a girlfriend! The catch? If he tries to leave his new home or disobeys Makima, she’ll have him killed. He’s too distracted by the carrot being dangled in front of him to care.
I found this entire story oddly resonant. The specifics aren’t exactly the same, but I recognized the trap that Denji was in immediately. While I can’t say I have a particularly deep understanding of any culture other than the one I was raised in, this plight is universal; an overwhelming amount of people are born into debt, or forced to accrue debt, just to catch a glimpse of a comfortable life.
Denji slays his captor, presumably guaranteeing his freedom—only to be trapped again. Like many people who willingly go into debt in order to maybe get a taste of the life they want, he willingly accepts Makima’s deadly, degrading offer, because his only other option is to starve or die fighting for his life. And now, he’s ostensibly stuck under her thumb forever.
Chainsaw Man exceeds as an allegory for young adulthood. Watching Denji relish his first taste of udon and sausage, I saw a mirror of myself unable to express my profound gratitude whenever a friend or loved one gives me a meal. The show’s exploits are certainly a different caliber of experience than anything I’ll ever face (hopefully), but they all represent something I feel at my core.
Fighting the Eternity Devil, our team of heroes all but give up. They become stuck in a moment in time that never ends, in an infinitely looping eighth floor of a hotel. According to every clock, time is standing still—but not for the people stuck in this purgatorial nightmare. I’ve felt more and more moments that feel like an eternity since entering adulthood; time loses all meaning when you’re stuck in a state of limbo, applying for job after job after job or working an unrewarding one. There’s no alternative or escape. Rent’s gotta come at the end of the month and you need to feed yourself. As days of refreshing an email inbox bleed together, sense of time goes out the window. Weeks become long, interminable moments. Meals sometimes come in between sleep, work and staring at a wall for minutes on end. It’s easy to feel ready to give up.
The way our heroes defeat the Eternity Devil is the way we defeat it in real life: the only way out is through. Denji dives into the literal belly of the beast, carving it up as he drinks its blood to gain more and more power. Even if it means suffering, nothing we can do will change the cards we’re dealt, so we play them and hope for the best.
The sense of catharsis and relief that accompany finally breaking through an unrelenting, impenetrable phase of hardship is palpable. Chainsaw Man captures that feeling so well in both the relief that comes with knowing your problems are gone (albeit temporarily), when Denji collapses. As he lies unconscious on the ground enjoying his first rest in days, Denji’s teammates decide to go out and celebrate.
At that dinner, Denji finally gets an opportunity to kiss a coworker. Not a lofty goal in the slightest, but one that’s crystalized over and over throughout the show. As things often go for Denji, he gets a twisted version of what he wants. After his first kiss goes terribly wrong (to say the least), Himeno, his drunk coworker takes him (passed out) back to her place. The episode ends with her asking him if he, “wants to do it,” after he wakes up.
For many people my age, the grass on the other side of the fence isn’t just greener; it’s an alluring, verdant emerald green whose dazzling promises of comfort, stability, a full fridge, and a roof over our heads is the stuff of dreams. Denji’s raison d’être isn’t as out of reach, but he quickly learns that getting what you want can feel like a monkey’s paw. You might get that cushy full-time job, but you find yourself no time to see your friends or loved ones. You might get that kiss you’ve always wanted, but… well, you know the rest.
Chainsaw Man gets that life is relentless, and the way its cast faces that often dour fact is one of its best aspects. Where Himeno and Aki find meaning in revenge and the occasional hit of nicotine, Power looks for feline companionship, and Denji savors every slurp of a noodle, every bite of karaage and, yes, every bite on his finger, because he wants to make the most of his second lease on life. His offbeat sense of optimism in the face of such volatile comfort serves to remind both the other characters and the viewer that dwelling on the negative in any situation can only result in misery.
Even the show’s opening, which shows Denji’s team enjoying everyday things like a trip to the movies or bowling interspersed between intense fights serves to remind the viewer that even when faced with death or impossible odds, life’s simple joys, like a trip to the beach with your friends, can give it meaning.
Next time you sit down to watch Chainsaw Man, by all means take in every gory detail in the inevitable fight scene, but also pay attention to its surprisingly rich commentary when chainsaws aren’t revving.