Denji has almost nothing. I say “almost” because he does have a couple of things. He has over 38 million yen (US$260K) in debt inherited from his dead dad, and he has Pochita a trusty pet chainsaw “dog”. The latter is called a devil, which Denji (voiced by Toya Kikunosuke in his debut) uses as a weapon to hunt other devils to pay back the debt.
But it’s never enough. The yakuza he works for squeeze Denji for every last finder’s fee and admin charge until a ¥400K job only nets him a measly $1,800 … which he has to stretch for a month. He’s sold all his redundant organs from his eye to his nut, but he’ll still eat a cigarette for a ¥100 coin … or at least pretend to eat one.
If that didn’t put you on this poor wretch’s side, his backstory would. His dad’s body was still warm in the ground when his debtors told Denji to get them ¥700K (almost $5K) by tomorrow, no matter what he has to do or have done to him. As he sits by his dad’s grave in the rain he first meets Pochita, who is mortally wounded. Pochita makes for a perfect fantasy animal, equal parts adorable and fearsome, and as sympathetic here as Denji.
Denji offers to let the little guy bite him (blood heals devils), if the devil agrees to let him use him as a weapon for hunting. The two have been inseparable ever since, and it’s a genuinely touching boy-and-his-mutant dog tale. He and Denji live off of slices of bread in a corrugated shed. Denji dreams not of having it all, but having enough—a normal life. Meals, a girlfriend, things of that nature. Then he coughs up blood, like his mom who died of a heart condition.
He’s too hungry to sleep, and even if he did, his yakuza master arrives to take him to his next job. As Denji puts it, they won’t even let him dream of a normal life. But after a beautifully depicted car ride to a remote dilapidated warehouse, Denji learns this isn’t another job, but the end of the line. The yakuza has decided to make a similar “deal with the devil”, only on a grand, grotesque scale.
He’s become a giant horrific monster with a horde of zombie devils at his beck and call. Denji is no longer needed, so he has the zombies stab and slice him to pieces and throw him in a dumpster. It’s a needlessly cruel and violent end, on the level of the martyrdom of a saint in one of the bloodier biblical tales. But on another level, maybe it’s for the best; maybe death is a welcome release from Denji’s lifelong torment.
In the dumpster, blood drips from Denji’s lifeless body … and into Pochita’s mouth. It heals the little devil enough for him to remember what Denji told him on a better day in the past, when they were felling trees and cutting logs. Denji knew he probably wouldn’t live to pay off his debt, but if he couldn’t have the normal life he dreamt of, he wanted Pochita to have his body, life that normal life, then die a normal death.
But Pochita doesn’t accept Denji’s sacrifice. From the gloomy day he was saved by Denji’s blood, Pochita owed Denji a solid. So instead of possessing Denji’s body, he heals it, and then becomes Denji’s new heart, replacing the defective one that was going to claim his life sooner or later. In a touching idyllic scene in the suddenly fully-lit dumpster, Pochita speaks (with Nanachi’s voice). In exchange for his heart, Denji is to show him his dream.
When Denji wakes up, he’s fully healed, and Pochita is gone. All that’s left is his familiar ripcord tail, which is now lodged in Denji’s chest where his heart once was. The zombie devils spot him and start shambling over to attack him again, but this time he’s not having it. He pulls the ripcord and vows to kill them all.
The zombies surround and pile on top of him as their zombie devil king assumes he’s being devoured and won’t come back. But then the muffled sound of a two-stroke motor emanates from that pile, which is suddenly shredded and turned into a messy blood fountain by Denji, sporting a chainsaw lodged between his eyes and on both arms.
This man of chainsaws—let us call him Chainsaw Man—goes to town on the hapless zombies, cutting through them like a Wüsthof through flan. They’re dumb, so they keep coming, so he keeps cutting through them, then turns his attention to their boss, who whimpers and cowers and lashes out with his gross fleshy tendrils to absolutely no avail.
Nothing made of flesh is any match for a chain of blades spinning at 10,000 RPM. Denji gives himself to the bloody gory spectacle, living in a state of pure vengeance. It’s a hard watch, but it’s also cathartic, and a long time coming. It’s a scene that would make Tarantino proud (and that he’d have to film in black-and-white to avoid NC-17 rating).
Dawn breaks, and a Toyota Century slowly pulls up to the warehouse. Three figures in long black coats make their way inside: two men with fedoras and a young woman with rose-colored hair. They see all the yakuza zombie devils already killed—the job they came to do.
Then they see who did it: Denji, still in Chainsaw mode, standing motionless in the middle of the bodies, spattered with their blood. The men posit that he’s another devil that’s still alive, but the woman says no; he doesn’t smell like a devil.
She approaches Denji, who lets out two words: “hug me.” The woman, named Makima (Kusunoki Tomori), obliges, giving Denji perhaps the first hug he’s ever been given by anyone. His chainsaw attachments melt away, reveailing he’s still human. Makima smiles and introduces herself as a member of Public Safety who came to do the job he already did.
She tenderly eases him into her lap, and gives her a simple choice: she can kill him like a devil, or she can keep him as a human. Keeping him means being fed properly. When he asks what that entails, she lists a whole bunch of foods he in his long-standing destitution would consider lavish: bread with butter, with jam; salad, coffee … dessert.
Makima just describing a normal meal. But for Denji, she’s describing a dream—a dream she can easily make true. Freed from the bondage of the yakuza, Denji has been offered a new life doing honest work for fair compensation. He’s been offered a chance to show Pochita his dream. And damnit, he’s going to take it.
* * *
Chainsaw Man is the best premiere of the Fall. It’s possibly the best premiere of the year. It’s about as flawlessly executed an episode of anime as one could ask for, and made me immediately want to watch it over again as soon as the credits ended. Its premise is so simple and elegant, yet contains multitudes of human suffering and redemption.
It explores the brutality and beauty inherent in humanity, the malice and the mercy. Earlier I likened Denji to a saint and a martyr. His new chainsaw body is a terrible miracle, and so is the show in which he stars. It gives you exactly what’s in its title, and so much more.