Source: Chapter 1, Chainsaw Man
By: Beata Garrett | @clearsummers
If you haven’t heard of Tatsuki Fujimoto’s Chainsaw Man, buckle your seat and get ready because you’re in for a wild one.
Chainsaw Man is a manga that began publication in 2018. Since then, it’s exploded and received an anime adaptation. Part 2 also began its serialization this month. The art is wonderfully over the top, the humor is gross and dark, and the characters and themes lend a heart to the chaos that is this manga.
This post is the beginning of a two-parter on how Chainsaw Man portrays agency and control through its protagonist, Denji, and other characters. Free will has always been a fascinating topic to humans and Fujimoto explores this concept in interesting ways throughout the manga by asking questions like: What does it mean to be free, truly free, in the kind of society that we currently live in? Is there any point to freedom? And what if, just what if, you could surrender that freedom, that control you have over your life? Why would anyone do that?
Disclaimer: This post and the manga contains discussions that may be triggering for some readers. Content warning for murder, body horror, gore, and gaslighting. By clicking “Read More,” you understand that you may encounter such content. Reader discretion is advised.Read more
What We Keep Living For
Fujimoto opens Chainsaw Man with something that’s probably familiar to many of us: worrying about finances. A boy, our protagonist named Denji, is reviewing his budget. It’s shown that he’s in extreme debt due to his father’s death transferring all the loans he racked up to Denji. Denji’s only companion is a dog-chainsaw devil hybrid named Pochita and the two team up to kill devils and sell their parts to the yakuza, the same people putting Denji in debt.
We are all controlled by something. If you live in a society, you are controlled by its laws, by the expectations of others, and by your own expectations. Even for those who are outsiders or who violate these rules, they are then controlled by desire. It’s hard for humans to live without any goal, desire, or drive and I would argue that every person currently alive is controlled by one of these aforementioned things.
Denji is driven by the desire to continue living. In a dark way, his budgeting reflects the ways in which most humans are controlled by money–we rely on money to survive, first and foremost, and we want money because it’s connected to feelings of freedom. At some point, once you’ve gained enough money, it can’t buy you happiness any more, but it sure is a start. Despite the fantastical setting Fujimoto introduces, Denji’s desire for a good life and to live is very grounded. Who doesn’t want a good life?
I think Denji’s life revolving around debt and him even saying, “Feels like I’ll be paying off my debt till the day I die” (Chapter 1, Chainsaw Man) is something many of us can relate to. For those of us who aren’t wealthy and had to take out loans for school, homes, or other reasons, our life is also about debt. This isn’t to say that everyone who takes out a loan is the same as Denji, who lives in abject poverty, but that, like Denji, we live for reasons besides paying off debt. We might not even pay off all our debt in our entire lifetime so we have to live for something as simple as delicious food.
There are many things out of our control, but it’s important to cement our agency and use it to make choices of our own will. Denji’s first meeting with Pochita proves this. This kid has just been told that his recently deceased father’s debts are on him now and that he has to pay an extreme sum of money back to people who’ll cut him up for body parts if he doesn’t. When he meets Pochita, he’s afraid, but sees himself in this dying creature. He offers his blood to Pochita and the two enter into a contract of saving one another. Instead of death, Denji chooses to continue living.
Dogs and Desires
Source: Chapter 1, Chainsaw Man
It’s this desire to live that makes Denji so exploited by the adults around him. No one is trustworthy in his life and they see Denji as a tool rather than a boy to protect or nurture. They see him as a dog. Dogs are an important animal in Chainsaw Man and are used as important imagery connected to the main antagonist, Makima.
However, imagery of dogs and Denji as obedient and somewhat unintelligent animals are brought up throughout the entire manga. The yakuza who gives Denji orders compares him to a dog in Chapter 1, condescendingly telling him, “You’re obedient like a dog and you work for cheap treats like one too. Thing is…I hate dogs–can’t stand the smell.” He proceeds to kill Denji.
It’s revealed that the yakuza made a deal with the Zombie Devil for more power and wealth. It’s a typical villainous motive and one that has deeper meaning here for the story’s themes and for Denji. Denji feels as if he’s being punished for crossing some line and that he should’ve been satisfied with his life and what was “normal” for him. He internalizes being called a dog because after all, a dog knows its place, doesn’t it?
Source: Chapter 1, Chainsaw Man
Simultaneously, Denji is bewildered by the yakuza’s motive. For a boy who has lived in poverty for most of his life, the yakuza’s desire for more when he seemed to already have everything bewilders him. However, he also sees himself in this drive for more. Denji recognizes that the yakuza had his own dream and that “Everybody dreams. You can’t help it. Then dreaming’s not a bad thing” (Chapter 1, Chainsaw Man). What makes Denji special as a character is that he catches onto these nuances in people’s actions and can empathize with them to a degree, but he’s also incredibly determined to put himself first.
For a boy who has put his own dreams last in the name of survival and whose dreams have been hopeless so far because of things out of his control, Denji’s drive is special. The violence in Chainsaw Man just hammers this home. Pochita becoming Denji’s heart and transforming him into the eponymous Chainsaw Man is also a beautiful ode to their friendship. Pochita wants Denji to live his dreams now that Pochita has fulfilled his desire to be hugged by someone. Pochita lives on in Denji’s memories and even his desires, shown by Denji echoing the wish to be hugged at the end of the chapter.
Source: Chapter 1, Chainsaw Man
Of course, this wish is also Denji’s wish to be held by a girl. His first wish is fulfilled in this moment and we’re introduced to what will later become the manga’s greatest antagonist.
Makima is no different from the other adults in Denji’s life in the most important ways, but she isn’t as blatantly villainous as them, which makes her much scarier. She makes this clear by offering Denji two choices: to be killed by her as a devil to be kept by her as a human. Makima proceeds to call Denji her “pet” and the first temptation to surrender control is presented. In return for becoming her pet, Denji will receive comforts he hasn’t before, including food and a place to stay. However, it isn’t stable as it’s based on how well he can kill devils and keep Makima happy. Yet…isn’t this what he was doing before?
For Denji, this is a better version of what he had before. Giving up some control isn’t that unusual or difficult for him to do as he’s done it already. He says yes and his journey begins. Throughout the manga, we see Denji gaining all sorts of new experiences and relationships that he’s never experienced before. It’s overwhelming and joyful in the most chaotic of ways, but one thing that never changes until the last arc is Denji’s belief in his own dreams.
As the manga progresses, Makima shows herself to be the true antagonist. She cuts Denji off from anyone outside the task force who could be his friend or companion, most notable with Reze. By surrounding Denji with people that she already controls, she tightens her leash on him, but someone like Reze, who entices Denji to “run” from being a devil hunter and away from Makima is considered too much of a threat.
In Chapter 42, Reze presents one of Aesop’s fables to Denji about mice: would he rather be the town mouse, who gets to eat more delicious food at the cost of living with more predators or would be rather be the country mouse, who isn’t at that much of a risk to be eaten, but who doesn’t get to eat delicious food? The Angel Devil poses the same question to Aki and says that his own choice was taken away because “Makima caught me and brought me to the city.” This shows that Makima’s manipulations extend outside Denji. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the mouse wants and that there are more predators than the cats that hunt the mice.
Denji chooses to be the town mouse, which is in line with his motivations to this point–he lives for today and the hedonistic pleasure of the present. Reze’s offer to run away with him is an offer to become a country mouse and it’s one that Denji eventually accepts.
Source: Chapter 52, Chainsaw Man
However, like with the Angel Devil, it’s ultimately a choice that’s taken out of his hands when Makima kills Reze. This is part of how Makima controls those around her and it’s a tactic that abusers use to isolate their victims from anyone who could help them.
The Doors Closed for Us
Source: Chapter 53, Chainsaw Man
An important symbol in Chainsaw Man are doors and it’s notable that what Makima does is choose which doors to open and close for Denji. Fujimoto takes his time to draw doors and people entering and exiting even before Denji begins dreaming of a voice telling him not to open a door. I would argue that this anxiety about doors begins with the battle against the Eternity Devil in which the task force finds themselves unable to leave. Very quickly, every character’s flaws are revealed as they find themselves trapped and without an agency they’re typically used to exercising.
Source: Chapter 63, Chainsaw Man
Another notable example of doors is when the task force is pulled to hell. They enter an otherwise peaceful landscape in which the sky is full of doors. These doors taunt them as they’re inaccessible and once again, these characters find themselves stripped of any control and ability to exit. The doors prove ominous once again as one opens and the Darkness Devil enters and the resulting carnage is enough to traumatize the survivors of this incident.
Like the Eternity Devil, Makima keeps those under her control trapped by allowing them the illusion of freedom. It’s a cruel reality when she rips the free will from her victims as she does with Denji, who even states that he would rather be in the dark about some things and that “Whatever’s behind this door…I don’t need to know” (Chapter 71, Chainsaw Man).
Source: Chapter 81, Chainsaw Man
Denji wishes to stay ignorant and innocent if he can, but Makima takes that from him. Even if it’s by his own choice that he wishes to become her dog, she creates the conditions that lead to this. Here, I’m reminded of a quote from Anne Bogart’s A Director Prepares in which violence is defined as the removal of an actor’s choice and their ability to choose. Makima’s machinations are indeed violent and Chapters 81-82 reveal to what extent she went to hurt Denji and make it so that his only choice, in the end, was her.
Making Denji open the door so that she could kill Power was especially cruel of Makima. At this point in the story, Power is all that Denji has left as everyone else has either left the task force or died. After killing Power, to which Denji reacts with disbelief, Makima shows the first sign of genuine joy. It’s chilling as she laughs at Denji’s pain. She then explains that she needed to completely destroy Denji’s chance at any happiness and that she purposefully raised his standards of living and cultivated his relationships with others just so she could take it all away.
Makima also reveals what exactly Denji was repressing: killing his father. She then proceeds to pin the blame for Aki and Power’s death onto Denji and the visual framing makes the power imbalance between them clear as Denji is depicted as a child. In fact, he is a child as he’s sixteen and Makima is telling him sentiments that he’s internalized himself and has fought against throughout the series: that he doesn’t deserve happiness or a normal life.
This is the dark side of surrendering control and the consequences of handing over his last piece of free will to Makima. While it may feel good to give oneself over to someone, it’s clear that Makima abused the trust that Denji gave her in doing so. Furthermore, Denji giving himself over to her is also a desperate attempt to move past the grief of Aki’s death and the guilt that he feels for it. If someone else controls your life, it seemingly displaces responsibility from you onto them. What Denji wanted by going to Makima was to survive and receive unconditional warmth and care, a safe space in which he could be “free” of the burdens of living.
From the beginning of Chainsaw Man, Fujimoto has set up Denji’s core personality and desires well. He’s also shown from the start how manipulative Makima can be, but readers may have brushed these signs off because we believed she was firmly on the good guys’ side. Mentors who are a little manipulative or threaten to put down their students if they become a threat or useless aren’t new, either–take Gojou Satoru from Jujutsu Kaisen or Levi Ackerman in Attack on Titan. What matters is that these mentors usually turn out to be wholeheartedly on the side of justice and may even protect them when everyone else wants to kill them.
Makima subverts all this. Her masterful plan and, by extension, most of the manga is a trap for both Denji and the audience. It’s a joy to watch Denji grow and form these relationships, close and loving ones with people like him, and devastating for it to be snatched away within a few chapters. Heroes in the pit of despair aren’t unusual to see, but I truly felt for Denji’s plight. When he asks Makima to make him her dog, I wondered whether that desire to give up total control would be appealing in real life.
I think it absolutely would be, especially for young people. In a time when many things feel out of your control (the economy, your relationships, your own self-image, etc.), giving it all up would be very tempting. Yet we cling onto control too and hold onto the ability to make our own choices and those decisions gain more importance as other things in our lives fall outside of our control.
Humans are strange, wanting to be free in one moment then controlled in another, but Fujimoto does a fantastic job interrogating these seemingly contradictory impulses. I’ll see you in Part 2 for more Chainsaw Man and the conclusion to this analysis!