Missing the Forest for the Chainsaws

We’re delighted to welcome back an old friend and once-upon-a-time staffer here, Matthew, for this eye-opening reassessment of the controversial mega-hit, Chainsaw Man. May we all have ears to hear what he’s saying!

“How can you—a Christian—justify watching Chainsaw Man?” I saw this question after every episode. It’s true that Chainsaw Man is edgy and ecchi and too much for most. Unfortunately, this can keep many from seeing that, underneath it all, the series is a lament for a lost generation of men. It’s an ode to the male Millennial and GenZ experience. And I think it’s worth watching or reading if for no other reason than that. If we’re going to face the challenges that characterize our generation, then we have to know where we’re starting from in order to make progress. Improvement must come from somewhere specific.

It feels important to give a disclaimer here that I can’t, in good conscience, tell you to watch or read Chainsaw Man if doing so goes against your conscience. Personally, the CSM anime has danced along my own boundary lines in ways even the manga did not. But I’d like to look beneath the tangles (get it?) that cover the surface of the series and investigate some of the things that have made CSM such a cultural phenomenon and insightful parable for the GenZ and Millennial crisis.

(Major Manga and Anime Spoilers Ahead!)

From the Top Down

Interestingly enough (and no doubt a little confusing to Eric Conn if he ever sees this), this tweet is what made the connection for me between what’s going on in our world and perhaps the reason Chainsaw Man has taken off in popularity:

The context of that verse from Lamentations reads this way, 

We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows. We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought. Our pursuers are at our necks; we are weary and are given no rest. […] Our fathers sinned, and are no more; yet we bear their iniquities.

Lamentations 5:3-5,7

Sound familiar? The main character of CSM, Denji, was dealt a bad hand, to say the least. His mother died of heart disease. His father became an alcoholic, borrowed money from loan sharks, and tried to kill Denji in a drunken fit of grief over the loss of his wife. Denji killed his father in self-defense but was left with his debts. He also inherited his mother’s fatal heart condition. The loan sharks now view Denji as worth no more than the value of his labor or the price of his organs on the black market. When we catch up with him, Denji has already sold his right eye, a kidney, and one of his…family jewels. But even that isn’t enough to pay off his family debt because the sharks never intended to free him. 

Without Excuse but Not Without Reason…

So, how do these circumstances affect Denji’s view of the world? The weight of these inherited burdens causes Denji to develop a self-serving attitude for the sake of survival. Because he can’t dictate the terms of his life, pursuing what he wants whenever he wants gives Denji a sense of agency absent from every other part of his life. He seeks comfort, generally, in any form. He didn’t know love from his parents; his concept of family is so underdeveloped he doesn’t even recognize his desire for one. The only semblance of authority in his life are the loan sharks who plan to use him until he’s dead. He’s told his value is no greater than what he can provide and produce for others. It’s little wonder Denji developed an understanding of love as something transactional and as something he’s unworthy of. It follows that a teenage guy, starved for affection, relationship, tenderness, and esteem, would consider sex the highest goal. 

So, when Makima offers him a relationship, a sense of belonging, and the promise of sex if he’ll do what she asks, he jumps at the opportunity because it aligns with his understanding of how life works. But, more than that, Makima gives him direction and purpose in a way that doesn’t feel like an obligation. She flat-out tells him she will have him killed if he disobeys, but he’s so excited about basic conveniences like food and shelter that he doesn’t even recognize how red that flag is. The appearance of agency only adds to those comforts and creates a sense of pride he didn’t have beneath the weight of his parent’s debts. 

But this feeling of ownership and freedom is a hollow facade, and feeding Denji’s misconceptions about life just keeps him blind. It’s later revealed that Makima has the power to control people’s memories and affections toward her; but with Denji, she doesn’t really have to. Despite the horrible hand he was dealt, Denji has also played it poorly. His blindness to Makima’s red flags is equal parts a handicap of his upbringing and self-induced. It’s why he fails to value the sense of family that springs up between himself, Aki, and Power until it’s gone. It’s why he doesn’t feel any sexual attraction toward Power even though, according to Makima’s own standards for intimacy, he knows Power better than just about anyone and they find themselves in incredibly intimate situations. Denji and Power develop a kind of sacrificial love people in a marriage would recognize (though, maybe not the force-feeding each other vegetables part). But none of this is what Denji has built up love to be like in his mind. 

Denji thought what he wanted was sex as a prize he could win. Winning strokes the ego and maintains that sense of agency and competency. But his relationship with Power requires a lot of work, more than he was expecting. She’s not feeding his self-esteem. At her neediest moments, she’s barely feeding herself. She needs his help and it requires him to put her above himself. It’s real, not ideal. Denji is being confronted by, but failing to see, the fact that what he really wants and needs is healing. He wants a romanticized and idealized form of love to replace his pain with euphoria and fulfill him.

I think there’s plenty of evidence to show that Denji and Power were never meant to end up as a Platonic, brother and sister, buddy relationship. It’s clear that Makima has been pulling the strings to everyone’s emotions. Aki fails to see that Himeno loves him because Makima has such a tight rein on his affections that he can’t remember why he started liking her in the first place. Even the Angel Devil remembers that he loved a girl once before Makima brainwashed him and had him kill that girl. Again, Denji doesn’t require that level of brainwashing because of his repressed trauma, which sufficiently alters his perspective of things. Being torn between idealism and desperation makes him an easy mark for Makima’s lies. But, by the end of the first arc, Power has developed feelings for Denji because of the intimacy they nurtured. Denji is the one who still isn’t able to see any of that experience as love. He wants an ideal love that will take the pain away, but the relationship he has with Power is far closer to love than anything he earns with Makima. He’s just blind to that fact.

As Denji suffers more and more loss, the apathy of depression sets in until he’s not even interested in earning Makima’s affection or striving for goals. He lives off of Aki’s money, eats out whenever he wants, and plays video games with a girl he lives with but won’t commit to. He’s so jaded that he tells Makima he would rather be one of her dogs so he could be loved without having to think or make decisions for himself. In fact, the closing text of chapter 82 forebodingly reads, “Tranquility and despair…the path of domination?!” To which the answer is a definite yes. But even when Denji finally comes out of this dark valley of despair and resolves to live his own life, it’s merely a return to his self-serving, self-destructive, prior way of living. 

Then, What Kind of Story is This?

Chainsaw Man is a tragedy. Despite all that he suffers, Denji never actually learns or progresses. And yet it’s also a comedy because, as much as Denji pursues a self-gratifying lifestyle, he’s often forced into caretaking roles. He considers each one of them a hindrance to his happiness when, really, they place him in the kind of relationships he needs to mature, and the ones he would desire if only he were more mature. But, because Denji is blind to all that, we’ve arrived at something like a tragicomedy. No amount of suffering, familial love from Aki and Power, or training from Kishibe is enough to shake him free and change his ways. His apathetic, self-serving attitude can be frustrating to those expecting more of him, but lots of it stems from never having anyone to train his sentiments. C.S. Lewis described this phenomenon at a societal level as a culture that breeds “men without chests.” Such men have instinctive appetites (stomach) and the intellect to fulfill them (head) but lack the heart that gives them their humanity and keeps them from being merely “clever devils.”

We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. […] Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.

The Abolition of Man

But it’s not just a tragedy for Denji. Rampant devilry and destruction are hard enough to endure, but many people are suffering because Denji is less than he could be. He is Chainsaw Man. He is one of the most, if not the most, feared creature in Hell and Earth. He could use this power to become the hero the world needs, but he can’t rise above his own brokenness. He’s stuck in a selfish, child-like state, just trying to avoid occasions for suffering. Meanwhile, real-life, adult responsibilities are upon him whether he wants them or not. Pochita, the Chainsaw Devil he befriended at the beginning of the series, selflessly gave Denji the power to be Chainsaw Man so Denji could reach the potential he’d otherwise have been unable to meet, due to his circumstances. But Denji can’t dream any higher than self-gratification because no one taught him what love is, what life is really like, and how to be a man. 

So, what kind of story is this? For Christians who struggle to see the forest for the chainsaws, I hope I’ve shown you that there’s quite a bit more going on here than you thought at first. Few people pick up Chainsaw Man expecting complexity and I was no different. As strange as it may sound standing outside, on the inside, Chainsaw Man is a coming-of-age story for people who simultaneously grew up too fast and failed to grow up at all. It’s the story of many of us damaged boys who were never taught to be men, fighting against our calling and using our strength to gratify ourselves despite the world being in desperate need of that masculine strength. 

But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. If you’re wondering why Chainsaw Man appears in Shonen Jump, meant for an audience of 9- to 18-year-olds, the moral arc is essentially Denji’s need to rise above his circumstances. That’s a very Shonen message despite its very Seinen context. Likewise, many of us men need Shonen-level exhortation despite our now Seinen-level station in life.

What’s It Gonna Take?

Although I’ve focused on a lost generation of men, the manga is entering a new arc where we may see Fujimoto’s thoughts on the lost Millennial and GenZ woman as well. Like Denji, Asa Mitaka is an orphan who struggles with the loss of her parents. Except, while Denji’s brokenness appears in his selfish, “I want what I want” behavior, Asa’s brokenness is presented in an “I must distinguish myself and prove my value/competence/independence” kind of way. This may be why she is possessed by Yoru, the War Devil. Yoru’s ability allows her to create weapons from anything she touches. If an object inspires good memories or strong feelings of guilt, its strength as a weapon is relative to the potency of the emotion. This reflects Asa’s desire to prove her own value and competence. Perhaps—though this is just a theory to watch as the new arc develops—it could explain why Fujimoto has focused so much on Asa so far instead of Denji. The interaction between Denji’s hedonistic trauma response and Asa’s self-righteous, rule-following response to trauma can be funny, but it also might be the very thing Fujimoto is trying to showcase.

Many of us are no different than Asa and Denji, but the lostness of our generation isn’t an anomaly in history either (Matthew 9:36). Chainsaw Man just happens to describe Millenials and GenZ particularly well. When things are difficult, that doesn’t exempt us from imitating Christ. It also doesn’t exempt our elders from repentance and sympathy for the problems they left us with. All of us are called to Christ-likeness, and no amount of punches in your suffering card earns you an exemption. Why else do you think the “Good News” is so offensive? All have sinned and all are called to forgive because of the forgiveness shown to us.

Maturing is hard work, and even harder when you do it alone or are forced to do it faster than normal due to extenuating circumstances. Our first impulse is to pursue comfort as an escape from the pain, but an endless pursuit of mountaintops keeps us from interfacing with a reality where valleys are both a bug and a feature. For instance, when we look at 1 Corinthians 13, we realize that moving closer to the ideal love brings us closer to God’s own character.

But doing that work isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible for us to do alone. We can’t move toward the standards of God through our own strength. We need God’s strength to move toward God’s heart; He offers it. We need to be raised by the Father if we’re going to resemble Him, and thankfully, He offers to take us in. We can look at hardships as an unfair reality, which they are; but, like Denji’s reluctant roles as caretaker, they can also be the opportunities we require to move toward the kind of relationship with God that we need in order to mature, and would desire if only we were more mature.  

The Chainsaw Man anime can be streamed on Crunchyroll, and the manga is published by Shonen Jump and can be read on Viz.

Matthew G

3 thoughts on “Missing the Forest for the Chainsaws

  1. As a harem-genre-obsessed Catholic man who graduated from my country’s most respected and secular university not just with a degree in Creative Writing but also feeling way more Catholic than when I came in and what I ever expected, Denji is on the baseline in terms of the sort of Flannery-O’Connor-inspired protagonist I’d love to read, write, and act: a clearly depicted scumbag man who’s not just honest about his disorderly desires at least to himself but also has his scumminess foiled over and over like he can be a truly good man even when we refuse to believe in his God-given ability to do so, not a strawman being used to feed us readers’ egos into either condoning or condemning our fellow scumbags according to our warped images of God. And I’ve never even read and watched Chainsaw Man past clips and excerpts yet, so I’d like to thank you, Matthew, and your review here very much for further increasing my interest in this work I first got interested in thanks to Denji’s pitifully and hilariously relatable masculinity. And I gotta say that seeing God beneath the tangles of all these works that were likely never intended to be written as Christian or for Christians reminds me of God’s work on and through the Gentiles, the people who don’t really know Him but act like Him way more than we and even those fellow sinners themselves think. May God Almighty keep on guiding and challenging us all, then!

    1. Thanks for commenting, man. Yeah sometimes Chainsaw Man actually feels like an inverted harem series: he’s not oblivious, he likes them all, and gets none of them in the end lol. But, that connection to O’Connor’s storytelling isn’t one I made for myself. Thanks for pointing that out. I hope you’ll give Chainsaw Man a chance!

      1. You’re welcome! While the work I remember from O’Connor the most goes down the tragic route, it and other relevant stuff like an overview paper on Catholic literary writers had me realizing how more human in God’s eyes the journey from being a villain to a hero is. Might be more difficult to write, considering how the Lord lived and died here on earth, but I think it’s also more worth it to write, considering how the Lord lived and died here on earth. And I can’t guarantee that I’ll be going through Chainsaw Man myself immediately, but I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about it any time soon.

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