REVIEW: Chainsaw Man Vol. 1 Begins a Future Shonen Jump Classic

Taken to new heights of popularity in the early '00s by the likes of Tite Kubo's Bleach, monster-slaying has become a staple subgenre for Weekly Shonen Jump. From Blue Exorcist to Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba and everything in between and beyond, stories of teenagers collecting, hunting or befriending rogue spirits, demons and other kinds of creepy creatures has become a standardized formula for success. As such, it's always difficult for creators to cut through the competition. But out of the multiple supernatural battle series currently running in the iconic manga magazine, none quite hit the way that Tatsuki Fujimoto's Chainsaw Man does.

Viz Media's first collected volume of the manga -- which began serialization in Jump in 2019 -- is a highly anticipated release for the magazine's English-speaking audience. Though Fujimoto's story began publication about a year after Gege Atukami's Jujutsu Kaisen, which has a loosely comparable premise, it has an entirely different kind of bite. Almost every shonen protagonist follows a zero to hero path. Usually, there's a more than a whiff of Chosen One destiny about them, brought on by the circumstances of an abnormal birth, heritage or the happenstance of them being gifted/cursed by great power early on in life. Chainsaw Man's Denji might fit this mold on paper, but right from the first few pages, it's clear that the mold is only there to be broken.

Destitute and isolated, Denji is suddenly left to try and pay off his late father's debts to the yakuza. He does this any way he can: selling off any bits of himself he deems extraneous, and using his faithful doggy Chainsaw Devil, Pochita, to take up the dangerous freelance pursuit of devil hunting. Orphans and loneliness are hardly new to heroic origin stories, but the harsh reality of Denji's life on the fringes of society -- dreaming of simple home comforts in a ramshackle den -- is so unflinching, you might forget you're reading an urban fantasy tale, and instead think you may have wandered into a Dickensian parable about the plight of the working class. (Or less than working-class in Denji's case.)

Chainsaw Man Volume 1 page

Then comes the real kicker: Denji is killed with brutal efficiency after walking into a trap set by devils disguised as yakuza thugs. As his master lies in a mess of his own entrails in a garbage bin, Pochita does the ultimate Good Boy thing and fuses himself with Denji's heart, resurrecting him as a human-devil hybrid. Revving himself up transforms the teenager into a chainsaw-headed devil executor. Why? "I love chainsaws!" Fujimoto explains in Volume 1's author biography. From there, Denji is quickly recruited into white-collar employment as a suit and tie-wearing Public Saftey Devil Hunter by Makima, who partners him with other members of her organization's Division 4, including the straight-laced Aki and the Blood Fiend Power, whom Denji forms a love-hate bond with.

Fujimoto first gained attention in 2013 with his award-winning debut one-shot Love is Blind. Prior to Chainsaw Man, he created Fire Punch, a post-apocalyptic series that lasted eight volumes. Fire Punch's expendable cast, conflicted antihero and themes of manipulation and abusive power pump through Chainsaw Man's blood -- blood that splatters and spurts around the page whenever Denji's devil form is unleashed. Through Denji, Fujimoto crafts a carnal worldview fuelled by base desires: lust, hunger, violence and control. Having gotten by on a single slice of bread a day, Denji isn't aiming to be the best or win the thing; coming from less than nothing, his needs and wishes are simple -- almost childishly so. Grateful for four walls around him, food on his plate and any sort of company besides his own, his motivation in this first volume is just to get to survive for long enough to just get to second base with a girl. (Preferably the mysterious Makima, but he'll settle for Power.)

There's a beautifully frenetic quality to Fujimoto's penmanship; thickly-sketched lines on individual characters and still moments convey the rough edges of Chainsaw Man's world, while action scenes are a barely-contained explosion when the Chainsaw Devil drives guts-deep into an enemy. Flailing limbs are differentiated by more delicate criss-cross work, while dots of blood splashes provide textural contrast but the gory chaos is eruptive nonetheless. It should be gratuitous, as should Denji's overwhelming hormonal urges. Instead, it just makes Fujimoto's story feel refreshingly unfiltered.

Chainsaw Man Volume 1 page

Chainsaw Man bears all the hallmarks of a standard supernatural action series, but its quieter moments are where its dark heart beats fastest. Futility, unfulfilled longing and bitterness seep into every page, while its protagonist bleeds himself dry through his monstrous transformation to make the world a better place, and for little else than life's simplest and most every day of pleasures. Though it's unclear, based on Fujimoto's previous work, how long the series will last, it's absolutely one to watch.

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