Denji and Aki Voice Actors Ryan Colt Levy and Reagan Murdock Show Us Why ‘Chainsaw Man’ Is Much More Than Gore
In the wellspring of glory that the fall 2022 anime season has brought upon us all, Chainsaw Man has been an obvious highlight. Chainsaw Man makes miracles happen, including making a scene where some guy touches a boob memorable as hell. But perhaps the biggest miracle of all is that, in a show named after a main character who has literal chainsaws coming out of his head and arms, Chainsaw Man is a vehicle for some of the most nuanced character development in the current season. And a huge reason such subtle work is selling is because of Ryan Colt Levy and Reagan Murdock, who play Denji and Aki respectively in the English dub.
I had the opportunity to chat with Levy and Murdock when it was a sprightly 8:00 AM in Los Angeles and a cool 1:00 AM on the following day for me in Tokyo, because time is weird (“It’s still technically morning?!” Levy ventured). As their online personae would suggest, Levy and Murdock were both warm, personable, and effusively excited about the series they were representing. If you’ve seen the Chainsaw Man dub (and, as someone who almost always watches subs, I deeply recommend you check it out), you know that they bring these qualities to their performances, as well.
Murdock brings enough warmth into Aki’s initially icy exterior to make that character’s growth seem natural. Meanwhile, Levy’s Denji makes walking the tightrope between “empathic tragic backstory” and “maniacally laughing as you kill monsters because you want to cop a feel” seem easy. These deep understandings of their characters’ roots run through their performances, even if, as I scandalously found out, Murdock is actually more of a tea guy than a coffee guy. (“I think I’ll ask for a pour-over set for Christmas, and we’ll see how things go,” Murdock said.
Levy excitedly jumped in: “I’ll help you out, buddy, don’t worry.”
To that end, there have been a number of scenes with Denji in particular that have stood out in the dub. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise with a series like Chainsaw Man, but there’s way more profanity in the dub than with your normal anime. One early-season moment that stood out to fans was when, after Power offers to let Denji touch her boobs if he takes care of the Bat Devil for her, Denji acts as if he suddenly remembers the Bat Devil is his long-standing rival and screams, “That fucking Devil!” My personal favorite comes a couple episodes later, when Denji has his arm suddenly cut off mid-victory celebration and cries out, “Shit on a stick!”
So I put the question to Levy: Was “shit on a stick” something he ad-libbed, or was it in the script? “If I remember correctly, it was it was one of the few options in the script,” Levy replied, “and I think we played with a few of them. And that was the one that just made us laugh the most and felt the most like what we thought he might say, considering. A lot of the time, in moments like that, we may have a few different options. It’s usually immediately like, I’ll hear Mike [McFarland], who is the voice director on the other end, cackling and we’re like, that’s probably going to be the one.”
What about “fucking devil”—was that in the script, too? “Yeah, amazingly,” Levy said. “There’s something really beautiful about how raw [Denji] ism… It doesn’t feel forced in a way that I think some other characters and other shows or projects that we see, sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s sounds like you’re trying to be edgy.’ Whereas we know that it’s not even [Denji’s] intention. A lot of it, I think, is because … his lexicon is small. He doesn’t have a huge wellspring of words to use or ways to express himself. And I think [that for] a lot of people, when they don’t have that, cursing is an easy way to access emotion and things. And for him, that’s an access point. So it feels both fun and funny, but also valid to his personality.”
But Denji’s courser side wouldn’t be as rich and believable without his background: the childhood he spent in essentially servitude to the yakuza, doing odd jobs to pay back an un-payable debt his father owed while living in poverty in a shack. Even given the cruel realities of real-world capitalism, which Chainsaw Man feels very familiar with, Denji’s starting point is an extreme low. Still, Levy, like many of us, found a point of personal empathy through which to enter the character. “I’ve have personal experiences where I’ve had a rough go of things,” Levy told me. “When I first read the manga, I felt a lot of connection to him immediately in that beginning state. It may not be a one-to-one, but I felt a lot of parallels … There have been a few things that I’ve been through and lived in circumstances where I’m like, ‘I know the core of this.'”
He continued, “When we first meet [Denji], he’s at his most hollowed out—literally scooped out, organs missing. He has been so trained to not value himself. And yet, there is still a shred of optimism. And there’s still a shred of joy and personality, mostly with Pochita and how they connect. To me, it was both understanding that darkness, but also knowing what it’s like to have optimism within it, and there’s a resilience that, even if he feels like every day is probably his last, he still wakes up the next day and keeps going …”
Given all of this, both Levy and McFarland, the ADR director, knew Denji couldn’t start out with the cockiness he would later exhibit. Levy has mentioned on Twitter that he was actively trying to grow Denji’s confidence through his vocal delivery, to show he has made a transformation from the dark place where we meet him in episode one. “By the end of the first episode … he is let off the chain,” Levy reflected, “and then from here on out, we’re seeing someone experiencing the world for the first time, at an age where he’s already in this intense developmental point.” (Denji’s about 16.) “He’s never had an education, he’s never had people say kind things to him, he’s never had any form of real family … And now he’s experiencing all of this stuff, literally down to having a soda. It’s a really fun process exploring that. And even still, there’s so much more room for him to grow and change and become more and more of who he is internally and find a new version of himself. I’m so excited about it.”
But, of course, Denji isn’t the only character to grow and change over the course of the series. We also witness Aki, who is initially presented as an icy hard-ass, gradually soften up. For those who have read the manga (no spoilers, I promise), Aki’s journey is particularly memorable, so I asked Murdock if he has read ahead of the series. And of course he has. “It is really helpful as an actor to know where your character is starting and where they’re going to go,” he elaborated. “It gives you a lot of insight as to how you can watch your character grow and the different ways that they’re going to interact with the world, because it changes a lot, especially with Aki. In the beginning, he’s very trapped in this in this traumatic experience he’s had early on, and the way he deals with that will change a lot over the coarse of the series. It’s a really, really beautiful story that I am so very blessed to be a part of portraying.”
At this point, Levy praised his co-star. “Aki is such a difficult character to portray, because he’s so full of emotion and feeling … but he can’t show it to anyone, and he’s trying to keep it all in and put this facade over it. Reagan does such an incredible job of showing all of that underneath.” He pointed to a scene in episode four, where Makima knowingly asks Aki if Denji is having an influence on him. “[Aki] tries to offhand it like, ‘I haven’t changed at all,’ and you can hear underneath that he’s like, ‘Oh shit, have I?!‘ … I love it so much.”
I jumped in to say that scene stuck out to me as well, and the combination of these compliments clearly left Murdock genuinely flattered. Levy, too, was flattered whenever I commented on something specific about his performance. It was one of many moments during this interview when I strongly felt these characters I care for were in good hands. In the wrong hands, Chainsaw Man could easily fall into the “edgy for edgy’s sake” category. In its current hands, at all levels of its development, Chainsaw Man is blossoming into a story in which a gory, cruel, dystopian world creates opportunities to illustrate how relatively simple gestures of caring for another person are an important, precious, and inarguably herculean act.
This small scene with Aki and Makima is the first real tease of a larger development in Chainsaw Man, which will come into full bloom in the series’ second season, wherein Aki, Denji, and Power become, in Levy’s words, “this weird misfit family, almost by accident.” Murdock chimed in, “A lot of them really do not like each other at first. But you’ll see the way that each of them kind of has an influence on the other, and they all make each other better people in many ways.”
The extreme care and tenderness that Murdock and Levy bring to their characters extends to the show, as well. Levy especially engages with fans on social media on a regular basis. Beyond that, he often engages with fans who unsuspectingly post into the Twitter void that they don’t like the Chainsaw Man dub, to ask them exactly why they don’t like it. I used the term “bitching” to describe this kind of posting, but Levy clearly disliked the idea of antagonizing that section of the fanbase.
“It’s more the idea that I just love this show, and this project, and this character so much,” he said, very thoughtfully. “I knew going into it, just like with anything, there’d be people who liked stuff and don’t like stuff. But I just genuinely want to do the best I can in this role. And I know, no matter what, I’m not going to make everyone happy. But I’m not afraid of criticism. I actually find it to be very important, as a creative person, to always be able to grow and listen. And it doesn’t mean that I’m going to take in everything … But I value everyone’s opinion. And art is subjective.”
The subject quickly turned to the often artificially antagonistic, dualistic nature of the “subs versus dubs” debate. “I’ve never been a person who likes the idea of ‘this versus that,'” Levy mused. “I’m just more on the train of trying to unify more people to just enjoy stuff together and celebrate things, instead of feeling like they have to put out negative energy for no reason. Especially when a lot of the time it may be a bias that isn’t necessarily even attached to like an experience.”
All this kindness, sensitivity, and unifying energy from what seems, on its surface, to be simply the goriest anime of the season. “I hope you can get some sleep,” Levy told me, quite emphatically, as we signed off.
This is exactly why I love Chainsaw Man. Season one is currently streaming on Crunchyroll on Hulu.
(featured image: MAPPA)
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