Whether we may be living in a world completely bereft of conflict, or one drowning in it – whether our lives are filled with misery, or comforts, and whether or not our existence provides us with joy or inhibit us from finding it – At the end of the day, we all just want to be happy.
But this happiness is based on perspective – given what has become our normal, what we may view as a happiness we shoot for could be far different from someone else in a different walk of life. And when it comes to Chainsaw Man, our main protagonist’s threshold for happiness is much lower than the average person. To say that Denji grew up with little is the understatement of the century.
Straddled inhumanely with a debt he took on as a small child from his father killing himself without paying his mother’s medical bills, he was forced to hunt devils as repayment to the yakuza, getting incredibly meager compensation in return that was not nearly enough to provide him and his contracted devil dog, Pochita, with a comfortable existence.
And so, in the tiny, broken shack that he and Pochita called home, and warmed by nothing outside of his only friend, when Denji dreamed, he dreamed of.. normal, regular everyday things. But those were only normal, everyday things for those who live a regular life. From his perspective, they were salvation. An actual bed, being able to eat more than half a slice of bread a day, perhaps even being able to put some jam on that bread, and maybe, if he was extremely lucky, being able to be intimate with a girl.
To touch some boobs. To feel love. These are mundane things that so many people are able to do, but because of his lot in life, Denji reaches out for simple mundanity as if it’s a luxury. His lofty freedom is simply being able to know that he won’t be fighting to survive the next day, and that he can maybe.. relax, and enjoy himself, even just a little bit.
And he’s a horny sixteen year old boy, so if he can cop a feel, then he sure as hell will. Denji is grateful for what would be the absolute minimum for most people, because he does not have the perspective to properly understand that his normal was absolute hell. He is appreciative of the little things, and vows to live it up and experience all of them for he and Pochita both, viewing it as this glorious duty – when in reality, it’s just an everyday life.
It really helps put into perspective how lucky some of us are to live a regular life in a way, but more than anything, it helps calibrate Denji’s emotional trajectory. After making his contract, Denji sets out to live it up and views Public Safety, the Devil Hunters and Makima as a conduit towards that goal.
From his perspective, he’s won the jackpot and he’s begun living up his dream, and so he fights with a fervor as he doesn’t want to give any of this up. However.. being granted or achieving the things you dream of almost inherent comes with a sort of sacred aspect attached to them. As we experience things throughout our life that marks our trajectory as a person, we experience a series of firsts.
Our first day at school, first kiss, first job, moving away from home, et cetera. And especially when you also have dreams attached to that, these firsts are deeply important. Not in the sense that they should be idealized and perfect when they happen, but that they should be.. hopefully, natural and genuine. Life is a series of experiences as we stumble into understanding who we are, and there are naturally events that shape us, like these firsts.
However, Denji is a prized asset for his powers, and in his highly vulnerable state – where he looks at kindness and pretty women and cannot help but surrender himself – he is susceptible. And that puts him at extreme risk of his firsts, his innocence, being stripped away and stolen from him. And they are. One layer at a time. Viewing Denji with a modicum of empathy makes it clear that he isn’t leading his own life. He’s just being strung along.
A lot of people remember their first kiss as awkward, cringe, maybe a clumsy peck, immediately after which you turned red with embarrassment. A lot of people remember their first time being intimate as messy, inelegant or strange. And these firsts are rarely ever perfect, because they’re firsts, but they’re very often real and genuine, stepping stones to better understand the lives we want to lead, how we want to connect.
But while a lot of us look back and cringe at our first kiss because it was a dare or because we didn’t know what we were doing, Denji only remembers the taste of puke, from a woman who never had any genuine romantic feelings for him and was more or less using him in a haze, lost in her vices. Whereas other people may have conflicting but ultimately warm feelings about their first intimate experiences, Denji is preyed upon by a woman who needs him to be enamoured with her for strategic reasons.
His first kiss, and his first instance of intimacy – both are ruined – well, kind of, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Because Denji is a kid who simply wants to live out his very normal dreams, taken advantage of by those who would use him as a tool for their machinations. His innocence is being stripped from him, and he has not the perspective to understand this because he is so blinded by the light of his not-so-lofty ambitions.
And while Himeno definitely doesn’t cover herself in glory, it’s clear that Makima is the primary core of this all. Because through her articulations, she gives back some of the things he thought himself were taken from him, or left him feeling shallow. Providing him with that grope, that indirect kiss. But this is from a woman who is clearly using him.
She tells Denji that these intimate acts only matter if they’re with someone for whom you have a deep connection. And so by her own logic, these acts means nothing. Because in actuality, her uses for Denji are far different than he tragically assumes. Denji is manipulated and taken advantage of, a total victim in every sense of the word. And because his goals are so blunt and relatable, a lot of the things he says come off as very funny through how they’re conceptualized out of context. But in context? This is horrific.
Being intimate, simply hugging someone, eating toast with jam – these simple joys of a normal sixteen year old kid wanting the least that should be afforded to him in life are simply the framework from which he navigates the world, through base desires not granted to him in the first place. But when used coldly and pragmatically and taken advantage of by one who clearly sees what he’s all about, the comedy turns to a tragedy.
Honestly, his experience with touching Power is the only one that feels anything close to normal and healthy. Naturally Denji has plenty of maturing to do and he finds it difficult to interact with and conceptualize women and his relationships with them, and this whole circumstance is evidence for that – but it was consensual, non-predatory, real, and similar to situations that people his age experience around the world.
It was a mistake, but it was his mistake, and he learned from it. It was Silly, cringey, ultimately unfulfilling, yes, but imbued with the genuine, raw awkwardness that encapsulates what it means to grow up. He doesn’t even realize that he’s being used in this way by Makima for who knows why, and that’s arguably the saddest thing.
Because he mistakes it for the love he so craves. Not realizing that what his heart yearns for is completely hollow here. And this immense yearning for maintaining this average, beautiful lifestyle is why he will fight until he cannot fight anymore, through blood and hellfire, simply to maintain what I and many others have been able to have throughout life just by existing. But unlike a lot of us, Denji knows what it’s like to not have this.
And now, with this greater perspective, he knows he cannot lose it. These simple joys – even the ones that are false – are so necessary from his perspective. And that’s why he fights for them, and why, when they’re stolen from him, it is more than he can take. And even though he understands this, his blind spots make this somehow even sadder than he realizes.
Denji is one of the most realistic and nuanced depictions I’ve seen of a teenage protagonist starved of love and compensating for this hollowness in his life. Outside of Pochita, he had nothing, and somehow found some peace. Yet the soul yearns for more, and one he got a taste of it, he wasn’t going to let it go.
But the thing is, he doesn’t seek the heavens after this. He just wants what he has – this semblance of comfort and, from his viewpoint, family and connection. He doesn’t know that he can justifiably expect more out of life. That he’s being treated like shit. How could he? He has no experience or exposure, and no adult figures in his life capable of guiding him in a healthy way.
And so he finds himself doing what he does. He is horny and immature, but he is also so heartfelt and sweet, just wanting happiness, warmth, connection and love and conceptualizing it as only he can. But this world is not one that allows someone like that to thrive, much less one who is as naive, innocent, and powerful as Denji, and this is what makes him so sobering.
Denji is a kid who was never able to be a kid, who was never afforded simple joys or even just semi-confortable mundanity. And when he is finally able to experience all of those things, he is often used, his innocence taken advantage of and stolen from him, and forced into defending the tiny glimmers of light he’s grabbed hold of. Now of course, it’s not all bad, and he has stumbled into a beautifully dysfunctional family of his own.
And he will hold on to that, as much as he can. But a big part of the journey through Chainsaw Man involves hoping that this boy will somehow be able to see the light and understand who really has his best interests at heart, and what he can do with his life. Many thanks for reading.
That’s me, Andreea Blaga, author of the blog anime-everything.com. I work as a content creator in the US. I am also passionate about Japanese Anime.