Chainsaw Man

5 out of 5

Directed by: Ryū Nakayama, Masato Nakazono

covers season 1

I knew Chainsaw Man would make for a fun anime. The manga was a hit; it’s willful embrasure of its “cool” / dumb imagery – the demon-meshed Denji has a ‘chainsaw demon’ bonded with him, causing a giant chainsaw blade to stick out of his face and hands upon pulled a chest-mounted ripcord – would definitely translate to cool / dumb animation, especially if given to a studio with a knack for such dynamically wild imagery, and sure, let’s give it to MAPPA, who’d turned Jujutsu Kaisen into a hit, stemming from somewhat similarly-toned source material.

Furthermore, the manga’s questionable “balancing” of fan-service-y stuff with plot felt uneven to me; something that could be smoothed over with a set, 30-minute-per-episode pacing.

And Chainsaw Man is fun. It’s one of the most fun – and best animated – things I’ve seen in forever, confirming, if there was any doubt, MAPPA’s place as a current king in this scene. But even further than that: the same emotional beats the team managed to add to Jujutsu Kaisen are here employed in such a way that it blows past fan service, and transforms the show into that rarest realm of subversiveness: subverting protagonist tropes, and fan service itself, and lampshading all of its dumbness while also wholly providing blood and guts and chainsaw-wielding ass-kicking a’plenty.

Jujutsu seems a fair comparison: a mix of Bleach-y demon kinetics struck through with some emotional components that the long-running Bleach proved to sorely lack. JK, though, doesn’t quite know where to toss its focus: on the lore; on the characters; and so MAPPA’s tonal cross-cutting tends to be more of a distraction game, though they do a mighty fine job of it. Chainsaw Man, meanwhile, hardly puts stock into its plot of a demon hunting agency, and the big bad ‘Gun Demon’ that many of them are hunting. This stuff is all happening – alongside some fascinating politics that boss lady Makima machinates behind the scenes, and small arcs dedicated to particular demons – but the series is very much focused on Denji, and how he pings off of the other characters.

His offhand cool seems like normal protag business, but the show keeps taking sidesteps to remind us how naive and simple Denji is, and while his quest to, first, squeeze some boobs, and then procure a kiss, may seem childish and fanservice-y – especially once we learn he’s underage, and being flirted with by adults – the show pursues this stuff first with a lot of discomfort (almost punishing Denji / the viewer for expectations) and some, by earned degrees, a sweet innocence. It is a tricky balance, and early on in the show, not one I was sure of, but as things go on, these interactions become misleadingly complex and so, so rewarding; it’s always a good sign when every main character feels good to spend time with – that no one exists just to be a one-dimensional something-or-other.

The show also isn’t aimless, though, it’s rather just sneaky with its plotting, giving a ticking clock to a lot of the characters – demons working for the demon-hunters, like Denji, are pretty much treated as disposable, and Denji is fine with having a death wish – and the humans who choose to make deals with demons, granting them some nifty powers, generally have to give something up (e.g. lifespan…) in return.

Directors Ryū Nakayama and Masato Nakazono, and all-around amazing voice actors, nail a lot of nuance through the latter’s performances, and the editing / pacing employed throughout, which hits frequent laugh-out-loud comedic beats, but then can also do the MAPPA trick of cross-cutting flashes of thoughts / scenes which make an affecting juxtaposition at the moment; this is MAPPA’s smoothest, and most consistent use of this technique.

Not to mention the insane (and bloody!) action.

There’s a lot of love here. And, so oddly for what looks like such a dumb show about a dude with a chainsaw head whose initial goal is to feel a girl up, a lot of heart.

Two finals praises: the show rewards rewatches, and the show has made me want to revisit and reevaluate the manga.