Denji's bathtub scene in the second episode of MAPPA's anime adaption of Chainsaw Man
(MAPPA)

Why ‘Chainsaw Man’s Denji Is The Best Shonen Protagonist of 2022

I’m five episodes in to the Chainsaw Man anime and I’m already head over heels.

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The animation. The character design. The cinematography. The opening song. The end credits that are unique to every episode. I have the sensation that I’m watching greatness unfold. I’m watching a legend in the making. I’m bearing witness to a cultural touchstone and anime touchstone that is not only good but perhaps even great. Perhaps one of the finest shonen anime shows of the decade.

And its glory rests on the shoulders of the power of its protagonist: Denji

So who is Denji?

Like many other shonen protagonists, Denji is a victim of circumstance. His mother died of a rare and horrifying heart condition when he was young, and he was raised for a time by his father. His father was a deadbeat, and got in over his head borrowing money from the yakuza. After his death, his debts pass on to his son, Denji. After the bereaved Denji strikes up a deal with the adorable chainsaw faced devil-dog Pochita, he earns money for the yakuza by hunting down and killing devils.

In the first episode, he has already sold his kidney, his right eye, and one of his testicles in order to pay off his debt. He is nowhere close. His debts are astronomical. He will likely be working for the yakuza for the rest of his life, a fact the gang reminds him of often. He lives in a shack with Pochita, and survives off of stale bread. He often goes days without eating at all. He even eats a lit cigarette for a 100 yen coin at the request of a yakuza underling. To put that in perspective, 100 yen is a little less than seventy-five cents in U.S. Dollars.

Every other anime protagonist also has a shit life, right?

WRONG. Denji has the shittiest life. Oh boo-hoo, poor little Midorya from My Hero Academia doesn’t have superpowers? AT LEAST HE HAS A MOM WHO LOVES HIM. Oh no! Giant monsters ate Eren Jaegar’s mom! AT LEAST HE STILL HAS HIS HALF SISTER AND HIS FRIENDS. Uh oh! Demons killed Tanjiro’s entire family! EXCEPT HE HAS A SISTER, TOO. But Denji has NO ONE except his SWEET LITTLE DEVIL DOG. And do you hear him complain? Do you hear him swear, “I’m gonna KILL all the x’s that took my y and z away from me!” NO. He’s not on a quest to slay demons, he does it because it pays the bills.

He doesn’t swear to kill all the yakuza who were indirectly responsible for his father’s death, because he knows that he CAN’T change the world. He learned that lesson a LONG TIME AGO. And he DEFINITELY isn’t trying to be the greatest at something—”hero” or “hokage” or whatever BECAUSE WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? It’s an entirely self-involved goal that YOU CAN’T EVEN MEASURE. It doesn’t MEAN ANYTHING. Running around like Monkey D. Luffy trying to be the next Pirate King only serves YOURSELF. Denji doesn’t want any of that.

So what DOES Denji want?

Denji wants to eat toast with actual JAM on it. Denji wants to stop sleeping in a HOLE. Denji wants to pay off his debt so he can LIVE LIFE IN PEACE. And most of all, DENJI WANTS A GODDAMN HUG. You know what his “lofty goals” are? You know what is that the height of his ambitions? He wants to GO ON A DATE. He wants to, and I quote “play video games with a girl and then fall asleep hugging her.” THAT’S THE SIMULTANEOUSLY THE SWEETEST AND SADDEST THING I’VE EVER HEARD.

And why is that his greatest goal? Because Denji knows that the world is cruel in a mundane way. People are assholes. Loved ones die. Millions of people are starving, or homeless, or struggling under the weight of crushing debt. Meanwhile, Denji is THANKFUL that he has a roof over his head, a job to pay the bills, and the love of an adorable little devil dog. All he wants is what NORMAL PEOPLE WANT. But Denji isn’t normal, and not because he’s “special”—not because randomly found the ultimate McGuffin that will help make him the “greatest.” It’s because he is below normal. He is disadvantaged. He wants what every other teenage boy wants. What many other people take for GRANTED. Food, shelter, and human affection. THAT’S IT.

But does he let any of that slow him down? Not at all. Even when he has NOTHING he still manages to keep his spirits up. He still manages to get up in the morning in order to feed himself and take care of Pochita. And that is interesting. That’s one of the many reasons why he’s a good character.

It’s harsh, but it’s true. We don’t care about the suffering of a character. We care about what they do in response to that suffering. NOBODY likes a whiny protagonist no matter how shitty their life is. You know why? Because one of the many functions of art is to provide a source of INNER STRENGTH to the audience. We want to see someone surmounting their problems, because it shows us that our problems are surmountable as well.

Watching Denji crawl out of literal garbage in pursuit of a little love and affection tells me, “Hey, your problems aren’t so bad. Things could always be way worse. So many you should stfu about your problems and do something about them. BECAUSE THIS KID WILL TEAR DEMONS TO SHREDS JUST TO GET TO SECOND BASE AND YOU GOT THERE WAY EASIER DIDN’T YOU?”

But surely once Denji gets his Chainsaw Man powers he’ll want more, right?

NOPE. According to Denji, three square meals and a dangerous job is “the good life.” Now he wants nothing more than to satisfy his teenage sexual desires. And he will do ANYTHING for that. He will cut up a giant man-eating bat monster just to experience intimacy. And he’s got the strength and tenacity to do it. But this is the other side of the coin that makes him a great character. He is not only incredibly strong, but incredibly fragile as well.

Because Denji has such a lack of intimacy in his life that he doesn’t have a reference for what healthy intimacy looks like. He thinks that he has to risk life and limb to earn love. He thinks that he has to brush with death just to squeeze a boob, when half the kids his age have already done that for way less. But Denji is completely ignorant of this, and that’s why I care about him. He is so incredibly vulnerable that it hurts to watch, and yet he is totally unaware of his own vulnerability. He will bark like a dog to earn a little love because that’s how love works, and therefore I am afraid for him.

Despite his strength, he is so easily manipulated. So easily taken advantage of. So easily victimized. He doesn’t strive to be the best, he strives for love, and that’s why I want the best for him. He deserves it, more than any other protagonist I know. And yet, he is surrounded by people who will continue to use him to achieve their own ends, which is what makes his character so impossibly tragic. Chainsaw Man isn’t really a show about killing devils. That’s the plot, yes. But the theme of the show is to explore the twisted things that we do for love, no matter how much those things hurt us. We’ve all been Denji at some point in our lives in our own relationships, which is why I think we all can empathize.

(featured image: MAPPA)


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Author
Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels in crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.