This is a text version of my recent video about Denji from Chainsaw Man. If you would prefer to watch that instead, here is the link.
Chainsaw Man is a stupidly stupendous manga, and the recent anime adaptation that covers the first half of the Public Safety arc recently wrapped up and fender-bended my expectations for it. As a result, I highly endorse both iterations over the act of breathing, so you should check them before reading this or anything because everything is a spoiler.
For the most part, I think audiences have met the series on its terms and have accepted the ride for what it is, Denji and all. But now and then, I see the occasional person who isn’t entirely sure how to take Denji himself. Denji, after all, has some inappropriate behaviour and views, yet he is the story’s hero. And when I was watching the anime earlier on, I did start to wonder what the logic was behind me unconsciously accepting Denji the way he is as opposed to other protagonists who might be considered similarly inappropriate.
So here are eight ways to understand Denji better:
1. Firstly Denji, unlike, say, Rudy from Mushoku Tensei, is not a piece of shit. Instead, he is a dirtbag, specifically a teenage dirtbag, perhaps the ultimate teenage dirtbag out of all media. By the way, I would highly recommend checking out The Take’s video on dirtbags, as I think many of the points made in that video apply to Denji. But to make my point on this, Denji is malleable, not someone who needs to change but is still in a state of development.
2. Secondly, it probably helps that, in this case, the story allows for equal opportunity across genders on who gets to be a dirtbag, particularly by contrasting and paralleling Denji to Power, who arguably outdoes Denji a lot of the time and is widely beloved by the fanbase as a result.
3. Thirdly, while Denji is presented as a bit off-putting and a bit weird who won’t shut the hell up about his motivations to get some, a lot of that behaviour and mindset are contextualised by the fact that he is feral. Think about it. Denji is orphaned, has never been to school and has never received any meaningful adult authoritative guidance in his entire life. He’s had to sell off some of his body parts, and his only interactions have been with criminal types, so his lack of a support network has been unhinged. So when we see Denji talking about all the eroticism he wants to do with a girlfriend in an annoyingly unfiltered manner that would generally sound off alarm bells in our minds, our subconsciousness instead has probably connected that behaviour to the context of his upbringing. If anything, one would probably be impressed by someone turning out as well as Denji if they’d gone through the same scenario and see any residual feralness as a tragic circumstantial outcome.
4. But also, Denji’s ferality is flipping awesome. For better or worse, he is a survivor who can take on the challenges of being employed by the Public Safety Bureau as an actual man made of chainsaws that can rip the shreds out of his powerful opponents. And while public safety is sketchy, we do end up seeing Denji thrive under this system, unlike what he was before.
5. Chainsaw Man is set during an alternate 90's Japan, which in real life was a time of financial hardship over there. And there have been several manga that could be seen as being made in response by mangaka, who had to live through that time. Denji is portrayed as carrying the most nightmarish financial outcomes, which causes him not to have any aspirations about his future. This depressingly echoes what many people have gone through or are currently going through and definitely will be going through in the future unless something is done about these economic realities.
6. When Denji gets into a marginally better situation where he is literally beaten up to have goals, it’s interesting that Denji’s chosen goals are food and sex because humans evolved to experience these things as pleasurable because they are essential for humans to remain existing. And since people are social creatures who are blessed with the miracle that is their life which is limited by time which they can use to create their own meaning that is, for the most part, supposed to exist outside of just surviving, it is both hilarious and sad that Denji chooses what are physical needs as his psychological needs. At least until he is hit with the realisation that he wants something more profound than that, which I would say most of us do go through. We can’t expect Denji or anyone to have advanced desires until their basic needs are met.
7. There is a constant state of anxiety for audiences watching Denji figure this out, especially since he is surrounded by adults who don’t necessarily have his best interests and personal development in mind. We watch and are invested in Denji because we want to see him successfully navigate to the healthiest answers despite his past and current circumstances, as we should hope for all people, especially for anyone like Denji.
8. Lastly, Denji is a devil. Or is he? In Japanese Shinto belief, there is a god for everything, and Chainsaw Man appears to be transgressively riffing on this concept by having a devil for everything. So when Denji fuses with Pochita and becomes the devil of chainsaws, it’s inferred that Denji is a god. Or at least he’s like a god. And at the end of the Public Safety arc of the manga, we can see that Denji is on his way to becoming the master of his life. In a hopefully upward trajectory that we should all be aiming for. But we’ll see.