Note: This article was written by an anime-only Chainsaw Man fan who hasn’t yet touched the manga. Because of that, my speculations and interpretations might not match up with facts revealed in the manga series. Please don’t spoil it for me!
There’s no shortage of obnoxious male protagonists in anime. Heroes of this type are overly enthusiastic, unintentionally arrogant, and ignorant, with terrible senses of humor. I usually despise characters like this, although there have been exceptions that I grew to like slowly (i.e. Subaru from Re: Zero). But every now and then there is a character who fits the description of “obnoxious” and yet is somehow likeable – even endearing. There aren’t many cases of this; right now the closest example in my mind is Gon from Hunter x Hunter, but he was never truly obnoxious, so it doesn’t quite fit.
Forget finding other examples. The only one I’m interested in for today is a boy named Denji, the protagonist of Chainsaw Man. Denji is a fun, understandable, and easy-to-root-for character despite being rather obnoxious. He’s loud, he’s inconsiderate, and he’s a hopeless horndog. There were times in Chainsaw Man when Denji annoyed or disappointed me, but more than that, there were moments where I wanted him to live and be happy. But why? Many rambunctious anime protagonists have gotten on my last nerves, leading to me drop several shounen anime series. So why do I like this one obnoxious boy from Chainsaw Man?
It may sound cliché, but Denji has a good heart. I’m sure you can argue the same for some of the other main characters that have pissed me off in anime. Yet for whatever reason, those arguments just don’t outweigh the huge aggravation I feel whenever that kind of character opens his mouth. I’m not exactly sure why Denji is different, but any annoyance I feel toward him is outweighed by my desire to see him grow and succeed. I think it’s because I’m assured of his goodness. Denji may be goofy, brash, and a little gross on the outside. He also has a wild side that’s hard to deal with. However, I still say he’s a genuinely good kid.
There’s plenty of evidence to back my position. In the first episode of Chainsaw Man, Denji’s good disposition is very clear. He could justifiably be angry, bitter, and obstinate. Instead, we see a persevering, humble, and sweet boy who just loves his dog. Later on, working for the professional devil hunters, Denji saves the lives of bystander humans on multiple occasions. Nobody instructed him to do that; it was his instinct. There are so many occasions where Denji could be hateful or have a rotten attitude – instead, he buckles down and does whatever is needed for the situation. The examples go on and on. The fact is that Denji is almost too good of a kid considering all that he’s been through.
In episode 10 of Chainsaw Man, there’s an interesting moment where we hear Denji’s thoughts after he sees Aki crying. Himeno was just killed. It occurs to Denji that Himeno was the first human to suggest being friends with him. Shouldn’t he be sad now that she’s dead? But he doesn’t shed any tears or even feel depressed. For a moment, before he’s able to shake it off, this realization bothers Denji. He wonders if he lost his metaphorical heart – his humanity – in addition to his literal heart when he fused with Pochita. This brings us to a troubling question: is Denji really losing his humanity?
My answer to this question is a solid “No.” Nothing demonic is happening to Denji’s heart. This a normal response for someone in his situation. I’ll try to explain. Are you familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? There’s a good resource on it here if you want details, but the gist of it is simple. Humans have many needs. Some of the more basic ones – such as need for food or shelter – must be met before more complex needs can be addressed. The Maslow model presents the following categories in order of immediate importance: 1) physiological needs, 2) safety needs, 3) belonging and love needs, 4) esteem needs, and 5) self-actualization. Basically, if you’re still worried about having a roof over your head when you sleep, you won’t be thinking about how to appear confident at the next social gathering.
That’s all fine and dandy, but how does it relate back to Denji? Well, this boy has spent the majority of his short life without his needs being met. He was never fully assured of his safety, and had no sense of security in life. He barely had enough money to keep from starving, and he was forced to work dangerous jobs all day every day to pay back his father’s debt to the yakuza. Considering the level of deprivation he went through, Denji is not used to having even his most basic needs satisfied.
Now that he works for Public Safety as a devil hunter, his situation has vastly improved. Not only are the debt collectors dead, but Denji has a place to stay with electricity and hot water. He can eat multiple meals a day. You might be thinking that by episode 10, this boy should be physically and mentally healthy. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. When people have lived in “survival mode” for a long period of time, our brains and bodies become accustomed to it. We are constantly vigilant even when there is no threat, or constantly stressed out when there isn’t even much to do. There can be lasting effects on mental and physical health.
I recommend reading a bit about this topic if you want to understand better; but the main point is that on a subconscious level, Denji is still in survival mode. His basic needs are being met, but he isn’t used to it. He still operates as someone who is struggling with the first and second tiers on the hierarchy: physiological and safety needs. If those two needs are not satisfied, then it’s extremely unlikely that the third tier is well developed at all. (In case you forgot, the third tier is “Belonging and Love.”) Denji has no sense of emotional belonging, nor does he experience love toward his companions. For him to even begin to comprehend those concepts, he needs more time living a stable life.
Now, let’s go back to that moment in episode 10. Denji doesn’t cry for Himeno. He doesn’t even feel depressed about it. At first, this might seem heartless. But now we know that it’s normal for someone who went through what Denji did. Living in survival mode, and trying to fulfill his basic needs, he has no room in his mind to spare for strong emotional attachments to others. In short, Denji still has a normal human mind. He hasn’t become a heartless demon or anything. As long as Denji works a dangerous job as a devil hunter, he might never fully escape living in survival mode. However, he’s sure to improve if given enough time with others.
Just to restate, I believe Denji has a good heart. His lack of grief over Himeno’s death is not proof of heartlessness. In fact, it’s a good sign that he stopped to worry about it for even a brief minute. Someone who was truly heartless probably wouldn’t give it any thought at all. I’m not saying Denji is perfectly admirable, because he has a lot of growing up to do. I’m also not saying he has no “devilish” attributes – he can be pretty sadistic in a fight. (We know how he likes to aim his kicks at the enemy’s balls.) But he doesn’t go around starting fights without a good reason. All I am saying is that Denji is good at his core.
That’s it for today’s Chainsaw Anime Rant.
Thank you for reading~