Manga Review: Chainsaw Man (Tatsuki Fujimoto)

Chainsaw Man is one of the most beloved new series to have featured in Shueisha’s famous Weekly Shounen Jump magazine, sharing the prestigious 66th Shogakukan Manga Award in 2021. Written and illustrated by Tatsuki Fujimoto, with a profusion of influences from Western horror media to the Kizumonogatari anime and Nihei Tsutomu’s esoteric Abara, it is at once very Jump-like, but also surprisingly fresh for a magazine that often runs with a very tried and tested formula.

Set in a world where ‘devils’ lurk among the living, feeding and growing stronger off of human fears, our hero Denji is a youngster on the margins. Having been raised in poverty by the Yakuza following his father’s death, Denji fancies himself as a bit of a rogue devil hunter, battling fiends with his own devilish companion: a small dog named Pochita with a chainsaw protruding from its head.

Denji collects money from defeating these beasts which he uses to pay off his late father’s debt, but when a situation suddenly goes awry, Pochita merges with Denji, who becomes a human-devil hybrid who can transform into the eponymous Chainsaw Man. However, before he can even process the situation, Denji is taken under the wing of the enigmatic Makima, the leader of a Public Safety force comprised of other unique human-devil individuals. Denji soon finds himself both hunter and hunted, as he’s targeted by devils and devil hunters the world over, who take a keen interest in obtaining his heart.

At this point it probably sounds more than a tad convoluted, and certainly it falls victim to a bit of a lightning pace that quickly gets going before you really have a handle on the situation — but maybe that’s the point. As readers, we aren’t so dissimilar to Denji, thrust into an alluring and confusing world, but accepting it all with an ignorant smile and willfully jumping aboard. It’s fun, frantic, and poses a lot of questions that crave to be answered.

The notion of ‘devils’ isn’t so different to something like ‘hollows’ in Bleach, ‘yoma’ in Claymore, or any other such monstrous creatures in a number of other shounen manga, with devil hunters akin to other ability-possessing characters from manga such as My Hero Academia and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. The difference in Chainsaw Man is that the devil hunters make contracts with the very devils they hunt, thereby abilities overlap between characters and become numerous. Some abilities are a tad overdone, and others don’t feature enough, but almost all are exciting and represented well visually.

The world itself is the sort of action-fantasy fare you’ve probably seen inklings of before, but the manga’s novelty comes in its staunch ferocity, with exciting and often very violent action, sometimes closer to something you might see in Gantz rather than its shounen cousins. Author Tatsuki Fujimoto is a fond admirer of the horror genre, declaring his love for films from Don’t Look Now to Hereditary in each volume foreword, and has very much borrowed the genres reputation for character deaths. Even early on, it’s clear much of the cast aren’t protected from a potentially untimely demise.

The character’s themselves are fairly archetypal — the aloof hothead, the boisterous sidekick, the smiling enigma, the pragmatic samurai-type, and so on — with none of them particularly new or original in manga, but most have a past that is sufficiently detailed and they serve their functions well. There are stand-out members of the central cast that are notable in their growth and maturity as the manga progresses, and while many of the secondary characters succumb to comic relief, the outlandish scenarios they find themselves in are wildly entertaining. The lack of plot armour for many of the cast yields the manga a lot of weight and impact, making even the flattest of characters somewhat memorable, if only in death.

The plot steadily maintains intrigue, with a pace that doesn’t take much of a breather. The central mystery is well built toward, but certain details—some of which are quite prominent in the plot—are left rather vague and enigmatic even up to the end. These aspects, including the notion of ‘hell’ and some of the finer rules by which devils exist and influence the world, would benefit from more exposition, but knowing there’s a sequel on the way, those are likely saved for later attention. Still, sometimes the manga’s sparse explanation rather comes across as haphazard and lacking. What little is shown of the ‘other side’ is tantalising, while the designs of many of the devils are menacing and inventive.

In terms of themes, the manga skirts around questions of humanity and desire, but doesn’t quite go deep enough to leave a lasting emotional impression. However, it does make strides in depicting human connections that feel organic, and in exploring the contradictory harmony and dissonance of life, often through the perspective of ignorance and knowledge.

Despite the violent, blood-splattering artwork, Chainsaw Man is often very comedic and light-hearted, and at times very juvenile. There are many jokes about vomit and touching breasts which you might expect from a boys manga, while it also contains a lot of slapstick, manzai-flavoured humour mirroring the likes of Gintama and Ranma 1/2. These moments work well with the over-the-top action and make for a fun read, but I would have liked a larger emphasis on some meditative—perhaps more psychological—aspects to give it that added depth, lending some of the series’ more dramatic moments a bit more lasting profundity.

The art is a mixed bag — certainly not bad, but with room for improvement. The page spreads and larger action pieces are generally very well done, but problems lie in other areas. There is a lot of ‘white space’ in many of the panels, with a lack of shading and background detail, and often an overuse of and reliance on screen tone. This can be seen rather overtly in the page above, which takes place in the inside of a car, the outline of which you can see roughly in the last panel. The general action and movements certainly flow adequately enough between panels, but for a visual media, there’s just not much in these and other such pages that is very eye-catching or detailed.

The art certainly improves in the action scenes, where the author illustrates movement well through his motion lines, creating a sense of astonishing speed and impact. These panels feel more complete than the dialogue driven scenes, but there is still often a lack of background detail, and sometimes the choreography feels like it skips a few notes, with few lead-on panels. Still, the big action spectacles deliver some spectacular arrangements that you’ll want to marvel at before turning the page, and even though the action would sometimes benefit from more minute detail, when it hits the mark it does so with intensity.

Throughout, author Tatsuki Fujimoto is quite notable in his depiction of total destruction. In one chapter, he illustrates annihilation not only through an impressive array of page spreads, detailing collapsing infrastructure as if swept up in a cyclone, but also by listing off the abundant names of causalities in place of sound effects or dialogue. It depicts to great effect how substantial and brutal the demolition is beyond what the limited pages of Shounen Jump allow, and is just one of several interesting techniques throughout the manga which might not seem all that compelling explained here, but in actuality works very well in practice.

About two volumes in, I discovered there exists an official colour version of Chainsaw Man. These colour editions are digitally coloured by Shueisha and are comparable to the colour prints of manga such as JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and One Piece. I’ve usually avoided these colour editions in the past, feeling that the colour rather obfuscates much of the detailed linework that authors such as Hirohiko Araki painstakingly depict, and also because they are made with minimal involvement from the author. However, as Chainsaw Man is often without shading, the colour versions add depth that I felt was quite welcome.

As you can see in the comparisons above, the colour versions add shadow and shade that is lacking in the original black and white artwork. In the bottom panels, the abundant screen tone in the black and white print makes the artwork feel flat — there’s little distinction between layers. In the colour version, there’s more depth and distinction between background and foreground, with screen tone that is less oppressive.

Of course, it is all preference — some may enjoy the sharp look of the original black and white. I swapped over to the colour edition from volume three until the end, comparing along the way, and found that, in general, I largely preferred the colour print. However, this version is also not without its issues. I feel like the colour choices for some of the more menacing devils made them look less ominous than they do in black and white. Furthermore, in the colour version, the many blood sprays and spillages of devils are sometimes depicted as blue, green, or purple, which visually looks very vibrant, but detracts somewhat from the often graphic and savage nature of the manga as rendered in the black and white (where all blood is black ink). Resultingly, the feral action sometimes comes across as more muted and tame, where it certainly leaves less to your visceral imagination.

All-in-all, Chainsaw Man is a relatively quick read. The art is overly simple at times, the dialogue isn’t very complex, without much psychological musings or monologue, but it certainly leaves an impression, with creative ideas, thrilling set pieces, and a cast of excitable characters that are chiefly entertaining despite some flaws.

The series often feels more tightly knit than many of the other prominent Jump manga. It certainly contains the publisher’s signifiers, but the pace and its willingness to dispose of central cast members allow it to stay relatively fresh. Some arcs are better than others, but there’s never the sense that the story, the characters, or the manga itself, is outstaying its welcome. It avoids becoming stagnant with pressing, organic, and compelling concepts that are always rolling, always evolving.

Ultimately, the manga ends as a blend of much loved shounen aspects with a particular ingenuity to it — like fresh flavours added to a familiar palette. The influences (particularly those from the horror genre) are thrilling to see; it’s easy to tell the author is very passionate about his creation, and that it is something born of genuine affection for the both the genre and medium. That said, the second part is headed into a school arc, which is an extremely common setting in manga, often riddled with predictable plotlines. Here’s hoping that author Tatsuki Fujimoto presses on with eccentric ideas. I’m excited to see where some of the more elaborate concepts lead.

Lastly, I feel that Chainsaw Man will adapt quite well to anime. In terms of the action, though Tatsuki Fujimoto could have done more with the choreography at times, he illustrates impact and ferocity very well through his larger art pieces which are often brutish and wild, with a melting pot of imaginative designs. If Studio MAPPA (the animation studio been behind adaptations of manga such as Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack on Titan) adapt well its intensity and energy, it could very well become one of the best action series in recent times.

The second part of Chainsaw Man is set to begin publishing this autumn in Shueisha’s Shōnen Jump+ online magazine, which also featured Tatsuki Fujimoto’s previous series Fire Punch.

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