It’s said that while Katushiro Ōtomo was working on Akira he affixed a note to his draft board that read, “If you eat, whether it makes you laugh or cry, it all comes out shit” as a reminder to himself that there was no use fretting too greatly over the reception of his art because it would inevitably end up nothing but psychic waste product. For an author as meticulous as Ōtomo, whose every single line seems endlessly calculated and whose works are drawn with an architect’s unerring eye to function and form, it must have been a balm, a slice of inspirational nihilism that made bearable, if not welcome, the possibility of failure.
For an artist like Tatsuki Fujimoto, whose Chainsaw Man -- the story of a debt-strapped adolescent named Denji who is murdered, only to be reborn through the sacrifice of his pet devil into the titular superhero, a half-devil-half-human hybrid who sprouts chainsaws from his head and arms whenever he tugs at a pull-cord sprouting from his chest -- is all diarrhetic excess, a phantasmagoria of vulgarity, it reads something more like a mission statement: this is a series, after all, that starts with the hero selling off “one of [his] nuts for...not even 100,000 [yen].” If Fujimoto’s fellow artists at Weekly Shōnen Jump trade in crassness -- contemporary Gege Akutami’s Jujutsu Kaisen numbers among its supporting cast a horny panda who enjoys sexually harassing his female teammates; Koyoharu Gotōge’s ludicrously successful Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba features a major character who spends half of his time shrilly professing his lust, and a minor female character who is 90% cleavage by volume -- it’s always as a matter of course and within prescribed limit, waggish bits of juvenile stupidity the authors seem to have inserted less from any need to indulge personal proclivities than from a professional understanding that the occasional boob joke and panty shot and skeevy comic relief character are the prices one pays to enjoy publication in the most successful boys' comic magazine in the world. Similarly so the violence: no matter how much blood is shed and how many limbs dismembered and corpses piled up it all often feels paradoxically weight-less, in part owing to a house style that has come over the years to emphasize a speedy, clean, slick professionalism that allows for no greater indulgence than lavish property destruction.
Not so Fujimoto, who with Chainsaw Man pushes again and again and again against the limits of Weekly Shōnen Jump’s bland sensibilities with a bawdy style of toilet humor hell-bent on casting all things carnal in as grimy and lurid a light as he can find. Where other series feature characters who joke about groping, Denji literally stakes his life on copping a feel. “You guys all got big important dreams? Lucky you!! [...] If I rip you apart... then that makes your dreams worth less than touching boobs!!” he taunts a “leech devil” sporting rows of hideously shriveled and stretched utters, the situation ripe with Freudian overtones so grotesque that it inadvertently and rightly renders similar declarations from the Jump canon -- Naruto’s hope to become Hokage, Luffy’s confident assertion he’ll become the Pirate King -- laughable. When finally the target of Denji’s lust does indulge his wish, it is over a toilet full of her shit that she categorically refuses to flush, the whole lurid interaction framed as an awkward, hollow, and ultimately repulsive-but-hilarious act. His first kiss devolves into similar scatological farce as drunken co-worker Himeno disgorges (in a lovingly detailed full-page-spread) a fountain of vomit into Denji’s mouth while Denji, trained by a lifetime of deprivation to take nutrients where he can get them, is disgusted to find himself involuntarily and almost gratefully swallowing it. Such scenes of effluvial exchange soon become commonplace as Denji and his other half-devil companions find that there is no medium that will restore them to fighting shape as quickly as blood, which is often harvested in battles that end (at least when they do not devolve into sack-tapping contests) in sprays not just of gore but of viscera, ropes of organs bursting out of bodies and disgorging their contents into puddles of sick-making slick. That the series’ greatest revelation is in many ways fodder for its greatest shit joke seems only fitting: the discovery that Chainsaw Man’s true power is the ability to erase devils from existence, and with them the very concepts they represent, by devouring them -- among his prey number everything from “Nazis,” “World War II,” and “nuclear weapons” to “the light of a particular star that would break children’s minds” -- carries with it the attendant implication that all of humanity’s greatest evils are defeated by digesting them and reducing them into metaphysical and metaphorical feces. When Denji defends his attraction to his boss Makima from accusations that “her personality [is] crap...” by protesting, “I like crap,” it’s difficult not to read this as Fujimoto’s own tongue-in-cheek reclaiming of Ōtomo’s advice, and a defense of Chainsaw Man’s fixation on all things excremental.
It might as easily serve as Fujimoto’s defense of his aesthetic tastes, for Chainsaw Man looks like and sounds like and owes an unfathomable amount to dozens of disposable pop culture influences that the author takes no pains at all to hide: this is, after all, a comic that features a chapter titled “Shark Hurricane” wherein the eponymous hero rides a shark through a possessed hurricane in deliberate, shameless homage to Syfy’s Sharknado. And this, after all, is an author whose previous comic, Fire Punch, hinged instrumental developments of plot, psychology, and theme on various characters’ obsessions with trash culture: the central villain’s motivation for freezing the planet and condemning all life on it to extinction was the hope that whatever arose to replace humanity might finally produce a Star Wars sequel worth watching; another villain took as her dystopian society’s model what another character fondly describes as an “awful...C-movie” whose star and premise bear unsettling similarity to one of a thousand direct-to-video Jean-Claude Van Damme features. Little wonder Fujimoto might then choose for his next series both a title and premise that cannot help evoke associations with Gō Nagai’s landmark Devilman, while developments that see Denji being folded into an experimental paramilitary organization of devil hunters comprised almost entirely of devil-human hybrids or humans who have made contracts with devils suggests a writer fascinated with titles structured around similar high concepts such as Blue Exorcist and Tokyo Ghoul. The art likewise pays homage to what must be favorites: the scratchy line-work and liberal use of gray scale combined with often intentionally flat (one might say deadpan) compositions, and a grimy approach to shading broken up by the occasional interruptions of wildly meticulous detail, suggests a dead-end world only barely removed from Yoshihiro Togashi’s work on Hunter x Hunter. As if to reinforce this suggestion, there a number of visual effects, characters, and monster designs that look to be lifted wholesale from the very same. One particular battle that sees Denji and the rest of his squad running from legions of civilians transformed into murderous mannequins seems to have been modeled directly after two battles in Hunter x Hunter that featured similarly dead-eyed hordes of brainwashed citizens charging down hallways, up stairs, around corners, and over trampled bodies to get at their targets in page after page of balletically choreographed stampeding.
Not that Fujimoto contents himself to draw inspiration purely from Japanese sources: western horror films exercise a similarly outsized influence on Chainsaw Man’s iconography, with everything from zombies hordes to recurring images of foreboding, barred doors resting at the end of dimly lit dingy hallways serving throughout as symbols of the repressed and abject. American superhero comics of a particular vintage prove equally inspirational: when at last Chainsaw Man evolves/reverts to his most bestial form, his design resembles absolutely nothing so much as the muscle-backed brutes that Todd McFarlane and his progeny at Image Comics made so popular, as if he were the kissing cousin of Venom or Cyber or Maul or an iteration of Sam Kieth’s The Maxx who chose to hide his face not behind a stylized totemic paper bag but a chainsaw-mounted helmet; and if the story’s core premise is purely the stuff of Japanese comics, the atmosphere and tone of Chainsaw Man feel like they owe their debts to nothing so much as to the gnarly brand of American superhero comics that McFarlane and company ushered in. For all that there are occasional hints of Grant Morrison-style psychedelic wonder at play (the aforementioned discovery that Chainsaw Man can and has erased concepts from existence wholesale by reducing them to shit feels like a note taken directly from Morrison's Doom Patrol run), in the main the world of Chainsaw Man is as casually nihilistic as anything you might expect to come charging out of the bullpen of Image Comics in its edgy heyday, defined by what horror writer Thomas Ligotti decried as “potato masher relativism” where “any kind of existence is useless,” beyond a specific and narrowly defined purpose, where “nothing is self-justifying”, and so is destined to be discarded when it breaks. As with the morally ambiguous cast of government agents and hit men death-row inmates of those exemplars of '90s edge, the devil hunters of Chainsaw Man are not heroes who derive their supernatural powers from destined bloodlines or the fruits of hard labor; they are instead societal castoffs and coerced convicts forming dicey contracts with finicky devils who measure payment for their services in body parts, literally devouring those who rely on them the better to enforce the motif that is a world built on consumption, on the reduction of all things to, eventually, crap. Story structure only serves to reinforce the impression: characters seeded early in the run and built up for chapters as essential players or major threats may end up unceremoniously killed in a car crash, their misfortune quickly swept under the rug as simply the cost of doing business. Not a mission goes by that doesn’t find half a dozen named cast members -- in some cases core cast members -- reduced to smears on the wall.
Considered alongside the bizarre alternate timeline Chainsaw Man’s events take place in, such attributes suggest debts stretching even further back to John Ostrander’s original run on Suicide Squad: here is a world where Cold War paranoia and the attendant distrust of all things institutional still dominates, where the Soviet Union never did collapse and Japan’s major geopolitical function is as a buffer between the communist nations of east Asia and Japan’s American quasi-colonizers, where not even devils, who might represent human fears of concepts as terrifying as Hell and the dark and control, with all the power that attends such fears, are anything more than pawns. As Makima, head of the public safety division’s Devil Hunters, brags, “the truly necessary evils are always kept collared and controlled by the state” to be used up and ultimately discarded. While the torrents of raucous humor and fast pace of it all (so clipped one might describe it not inaccurately as “breezy”) do their part to offset the overwhelming sense of nihilism that pervades Chainsaw Man, the impression of futility is such that it’s difficult not to take the fiend Power’s late-story assertion that “all lives are equally trivial” as reflective of author Fujimoto’s own personal views. Nor is it easy to dismiss the nagging feeling that the slapdash assemblage of visual and narrative styles he’s Frankensteined together rank as anything but pastiche, that “cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusions” cultural theorist Fredric Jameson derided for yielding nothing but “a neutral practice... without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.”
Yet for all that Chainsaw Man does seem hopelessly sophomoric in its worldview, committed to nothing but a sneering pessimism, there is a satiric impulse at the story’s center meant to affirm that Fujimoto is, if not on the side of our better angels, at least not in league with our worst demons. It’s there in the most obviously tender of the story’s moments, of course: a montage of everyday people singing their praise of Chainsaw Man that could have been pulled from nowhere but the camp of Sam Raimi’s own endlessly optimistic Spider-Man movies, or Power’s desperate one-woman stand between Denji and the forces of a government that far outnumber and outgun her. Other moments are more subtle, though, taking sudden turns into the touching: a day-long date between Denji and Makima that starts in derision as the two laugh at garbage movies ends in somber reflection that finds them both crying over an admittedly awful movie and reflecting on how there is merit in days frittered and wasted on crap. “It’s not even a poignant scene...!” Denji finds himself protesting as he breaks down into tears, only to later admit “I’m gonna remember it until the day I die” with Makima concurring, “Me, too. That one... was worth the cost of all today’s tickets.”
Even the moments of the most shocking and exciting violence often give way to similarly touching (if gutting) revelations. Perhaps the most effecting example of this is a late-game chapter wherein the Gun Devil, the manifestation of all humanity’s fear of the destructive potential of guns, manifests off the shores of Japan and proceeds to murder scores of victims across a series of gorgeously-detailed two-page spreads that have been meticulously cluttered with the names and ages of all 921 of the Devil’s victims. Given the event’s place in the story -- defeating the Gun Devil has been built up as the ultimate goal of Denji’s department from the very beginning -- and the attendant anticipation of violent spectacle that promises to eclipse anything we’ve seen before, it is understandable if readers choose to gloss over the monotonous task of reading these pipsqueak obituaries. These are, after all, no names we know, no faces we recognize. Even if they were, who could care? The world of Chainsaw Man has conditioned readers to treat even important cast members as grist for the mill, meat for the grinder; the death of a few dozens civilians hardly ranks. It’s only when one stops to go back over the list and tries to read them that they come to realize something of the enormity of this incident and the effectiveness of Fujimoto’s gambit. If reading name after name of civilian casualties devoid of context beyond the occasional glimpse of a painfully contorted face in the middle of all that lovingly rendered wanton destruction feels dull and alienating, that’s precisely because it is: it is a kind of memorial, after all, a ritual of memory that runs contrary to the ethos of disposability that defines the world of Chainsaw Man. It is an act meant to lend significance to names that the world says could not possibly have significance. And so, readers who might at series’ beginning find something amiss in Denji’s own admittance that he “can’t cry, like, at all” in the face of his squad mates’ deaths (“If Makima died... I think I’d be back to happy in three days” he mutters to himself), here confront the reality that apathy like their own is the long-term effect of immersion in a world uninterested in any argument that life and lives might be defined by something other than quantifiable value. It is in such moments that Fujimoto reveals there’s something more to all the pop-culture references and the wild reveling in ultra-violence and the endless scatalogical humor. That this endless agglutination of vulgarity and disgust, this “cannibalizing” and digesting of culture’s detritus into crap, is not in fact a matter of mindless masturbation or immoral enterprise, but instead a mission statement from Fujimoto: a declaration of the importance of the things we flush or throw away. It’s no accident that both times Denji is reborn it is literally from a dumpster, that the champion of all the world is a debt ridden cast-off redeemed not by his utility or by any mysterious inner worth, but by the love of other similarly disposable people: who else would be fit?
For Chainsaw Man is not, to be clear, an apologia trumpeting the worth of crap: in a world of “potato masher relativism” where nothing lasts beyond its intended purpose or breaking point, where the ultimate fate of all things from gods to grunts to death itself is to be devoured and reduced to shit, it is essential to mount a defense that does not make the mistake of trying to make good on the use of shit -- inevitably reducing it to one more thing to be evaluated on its functionality, just one more thing to be used up and discarded when the time comes -- but to instead simply appreciate it. And Chainsaw Man is ultimately nothing if not a celebration of junk: dark as it can be, it is before anything else a delight.
This is evident in places as inauspicious as the torrents of puerile humor, what might read as juvenile in theory playing in practice as wildly, refreshingly funny. To have a bunch of teenage dirtballs behaving as teenage dirtballs with all the stupidity and horniness and irreverence that implies without ever once letting them slide into the smug, smothering nobility (when asked why he fights, why he “wants to be Chainsaw Man,” Denji breaks down into sobbing about how he “[wants] to have tons of sex!”) characteristic of the cliché Shōnen Jump protagonist, or the grating superiority of irreverent self-reference a la Deadpool, is unusually liberating. It hardly hurts that Fujimoto is a master of comic timing, knowing exactly how much patience audiences might have for shenanigans and going so far past their limits that it’s hard not to laugh at the audacity of it all: one scene that finds a group of hapless fast food workers trying and failing to deliver a meal to a berserk Chainsaw Man has to rank as one of the most brilliant uses of repetition and delay in recent history. It’s evident as well in how Fujimoto marries this sensibility to the high-flying action and surrealistic tableaus that accompany so many of the story’s brilliant set-pieces: a battle against the literal embodiment of darkness that promises to be the harrowing culmination of an already exhausting gauntlet of battles descends quickly into a series of brilliantly campy, surrealist spreads that transitions with whiplash intensity into almost minimalist depictions of brutality and then back again; a rumble that sends Chainsaw Man flying into space gives Fujimoto a chance to show off some of his boldest, most dynamic action layouts, to play with perspective and composition and inks in a way that celebrates the iconic, expressive possibilities of action sequences few other artists ever dare with all the glee of a child in a sandbox.
And yet nowhere is this celebratory impulse more on display than in the story’s most unexpectedly delicate moments, which manage the rare understanding that these disparate elements are not best when balanced one against the other -- as if they existed in opposition and were best served when keeping each other in check -- but rather that in combination they might bolster one another. All the aching pathos that underlines Denji’s final battle against his friend Aki, now possessed by the Gun Devil, would mean little if it was not delivered with unhinged visual panache and was not dedicated to characters whose absurdity and venality and pettiness is what made them both so funny and so sympathetic; the ludicrous sight of Chainsaw Man dousing himself in gasoline to fight back against a devil who remains invincible so long as they hide in the dark would not be half as uproarious absent the utterly demoralizing slaughter that led to it, and nowhere near as cathartic if Fujimoto did not take such obvious pleasure in pushing every confrontation to its aesthetic limit; the grandiose depictions of Chainsaw Man slicing through the hosts of Hell would read as bloated and soggy if it lacked Fujimoto’s wickedly humorous visual sensibilities and was not in service of exploring Denji’s own total psychological break.
It’s not that Fujimoto lacks for the understanding of subtlety, the depth of psychology, or the technical restraint and expertise necessary to tell this story some other way - it's more that there is no other way to tell it. To present any single element in more rarefied form, with a self-conscious classiness, would be to undermine Chainsaw Man’s insistence that there are delights to be found down among the muck. When Denji confronts his former boss Makima about her plans to remake the world in her image, using his ability to erase through consumption, it is not merely a cute throwback to their first date or a crass joke that the decisive question he asks her before committing to mortal combat is “....will there still be crappy movies?” It is all of those, yes - Denji, like Fujimoto, is a dork who would sacrifice the world for a good joke and a corny one-liner. But it is also a moment essential for affirming Denji’s belief that if the world Makima desires is not so obviously cruel as the one they currently endure, it is still one in which those without a use -- the castoffs and the misfits and the losers and the freaks: in a word, the “crap” -- will be flushed away. In Fujimoto’s view, a world devoid of the “crap” he loves is not necessarily a cleaner world so much as it is a world that has worked only to eradicate those things that present a threat to the dominant ideology -- practical and utilitarian -- that determines the worthiness of art, of emotions, of people. It is not a world devoid of filth; rot still festers in every corner. It’s only that the rot, with its growth so long encouraged by the powers that sought to profit by it, has suffused the world’s foundation to such an extent it has virtually replaced that foundation. If the dominant logic of this system holds that things which cannot be consumed and reprocessed any further are unclean, it should come as no surprise: all rot knows to do is consume.
So it is in our own world. On a planet dedicated to the avaricious production, acquisition and consumption not only of commodities, but of people -- of communities, of cultures, ultimately even of the planet itself -- anything which resists such classification, and in doing so gives lie to this domineering philosophy, is to be distrusted, belittled, and vilified before ultimately being flushed away. It’s a dogma immediately apparent in questions of aesthetics, yes, where the regular rhetorical tactic for discrediting the quality of art is to point to its low sales numbers or to point out the critic of mass culture’s own lack of commercial and critical success. But it is also the dominant logic of markets, of human estimation, where again and again we find that economic and judicial systems bend to the will of the powerful and wealthy, where workers are routinely treated as interchangeable parts to be thrown out when they break, where thousands upon thousands of lives -- soldier and civilian both -- are sacrificed to bloody conflicts that do little beyond bump the stocks of arms manufacturers, and where dullards defend the inhumane decisions of billionaires by suggesting that their critics would be worth billions too, if their ideas possessed even a scrap of value, all the while forgetting that our systems of value are not universal laws but stopgaps we fabricated wholesale. Ligotti was not wrong to describe our world as one “where any kind of existence is useless” - he was wrong only insofar as he took this as a reason to despair, when it is in fact the assumption that existence should have value, should justify itself, that leads to despair and the profoundly anti-life equation that only what can be demonstrated to have worth deserves to exist.
For the reality is that there is no underlying purpose to life - at least not one that is measurable, defensible. Similarly so with all that is best in life: we might argue for the worthiness of our artistic pursuits, for our passions, but in the end they matter to us for reasons beyond coarse calculation. We do not choose those we adore because we recognize their utility, sit them down and cut them up and measure them out according to how conveniently they fit into our ideas of our lives; we do not choose the art we respond to, the books and music and the comics and the movies that, like Denji, we will “remember until the day we die” based on meticulously kept lists of criteria that determine some objective value, or because we find the brute logic of sales numbers convincing. We may, with the blessing of hindsight, try to make some sense of these attractions and rationalize our proclivities -- the better to explain to others what earns our admiration -- but there is an inherent and self-sabotaging futility in this action, born of our fear that things without seeming purpose, without value, need to be defended. That Tatsuki Fujimoto not only understands the futility in this effort, but makes its absurdity deeply felt through a work as deliberately and wildly trashy as Chainsaw Man, isn’t surprising when one understands that there could be no better way to convey this truth. Only a story built by, around, and for the castoffs of a system dedicated to capturing something of the joy in that status could avoid the mistake of trying to prove its worth; only a story unconcerned with the strictures of good taste and good morals, a story happy to be disposable, to be so wildly self-indulgent and celebratory, could land a blow this savage with this much force.
Maybe those, like Makima, who hold the opinion that there is too much excess of everything in the world, and we would be better off for a mass purge, have the right of it. Maybe the people we love and the art we love would, once eliminated, make way for a planet more efficient, more fine-tuned, more beautiful. Maybe those who, like one of Denji’s nameless enemies, warn us that “having an unrefined palate lowers happiness” are justified in their contempt. Maybe Ōtomo is right. Maybe all things in life, whether they make you laugh or cry, all come out shit. But that’s fine by me. I like shit.
I like crap.