Chainsaws have an interesting place in pop culture. Whether it’s movies or film, they’re one of the handiest tools to have on hand during a zombie apocalypse (or believed to be, anyway). Video games like Gears of War and Dead Rising have further turned the power tool into punchlines where the joke is absurd display of murders. The new anime Chainsaw Man asks a different sort of question: what if your chainsaw was also your dog?
Based on the recently returned manga of the same name by Tatsuki Fujimoto, Chainsaw Man is set in a world where monstrous beings called Devils exist on Earth, and Devil Hunters are tasked with eliminating them. One of these Hunters is Denji, a teenager who was forced into the lifestyle after being burdened with paying off his father’s massive yakuza debt. Aided by a dog-Devil with a chainsaw on his head named Pochita, the two have spent years gradually chipping away at Denji’s debt while the teen continues to live in poverty and long for a better life. When a routine Devil hunt goes extremely south, Denji now finds himself with Pochita’s power and can turn into a human-Devil hybrid that has chainsaws on his head and arms.
An easy setup to get behind, no? As Chainsaw Man also stars a teenager who muses on living a full life getting suddenly thrust into an organization of supernatural heroes, it’ll easily feel like the show is playing in the same space as last year’s breakout shonen Jujutsu Kaisen. (That both shows were made by animation studio MAPPA doesn’t hurt either.) But that’s pretty much where the similarities end, at least based on the single episode—titled “Dog & Chainsaw”—provided for review. Chainsaw Man starts out with a slower, almost melancholic mood rather than the often playful (but no less melancholic) vibes that Jujutsu has successfully operated with over the course of a single season and prequel film. Surprisingly, that more restrained tone works to the show’s benefit.
For much of its runtime, the episode has no problem presenting Denji’s struggle as one that’ll forever hold him back from the future he would have if he weren’t busy cleaning up his father’s mess. One moment, he’ll actively try to figure out how to keep himself and Pochita fed through the month, and the next he’s rattling off the various nonessential body parts he’s sold off just to get by. The episode emphasizes that Denji’s living a dull, unfulfilled life, and co-directors Ryū Nakayama and Makoto Nakazono bring that dullness and yearning for something more fulfilling across in the visuals. Through different camera angles and shots of the city, Denji and Pochita can’t help but feel small and insignificant as they walk through town, which itself is often shown as idyllic and the type of place where you can make your own future. Colors are muted for much of the episode’s runtime, as if to mirror Denji’s exhaustion and hopelessness, but they bloom towards the end during two key conversations between him and Pochita.
Making a dog (or cat) the sole companion to a human is something that’s been done countless times across hundreds of shows and films. But in the same way that the show is blunt when it comes to its protagonist’s debt, Chainsaw Man doesn’t try too hard in regards to Pochita. He’s a good boy, yes, but the show doesn’t go out of its way to make him anything more than a dog that just happens to have a chainsaw for a face. And because of that choice, the decision he makes towards the episode’s end feels all the more touching because of how long Denji was operating under the belief that he’d spent the last several years with an (admittedly deadly) pet.
It’s not hard to see how American superhero comics have influenced recent shonen stories, and Chainsaw Man feels like it in some way is drawing inspiration from Venom. Denji may not have a hunger for brains or desire to take over random people like Marvel’s Symbiotes do, but his glowing orange eyes and long monstrous teeth certainly make him as equally frightening to look at as Eddie Brock’s lethal protector. It’s a shame, then, that the CG used to bring Chainsaw Man to life (and used earlier throughout the episode) can sometimes feel out of place. Because the rest of the show is in 2D, a CG Chainsaw Man that’s also operating on a different framerate from the rest of the 2D world looks out of place, particularly when he’s in minimal motion.
Even with the CG weirdness, Chainsaw Man isn’t the strangest looking thing the episode has to offer—that would go to the Devil that’s sent a horde of zombies to chew him to bits—but MAPPA’s talent for bringing monstrous manga designs to animated life once again shines. After initial bits of stumbling as he gets used to the extra weight that comes with his new form, Denji starts moving around the battlefield like a bloody force of nature. (And let it be said that even before Chainsaw Man shows up, the show isn’t lacking in blood.) As action director, Nakayama succeeds at making Denji’s new form look simultaneously like the coolest thing ever and something you would never want to be around up close. Seeing him snarl at the camera, it’s hard not to feel sorry for whoever’s going to be on the receiving end of chainsaws. And the show knows this, as the joy of seeing him carve through the zombies soon gives way to horror as he cackles with glee as he completes his job.
Closing out the premiere is the appearance of Makima, a girl who operates as a Devil Hunter for the government. After determining that he’s a human/Devil hybrid, Makima gives him the choice to join her in hunting other Devils or die, and he easily accepts. Considering the closeness of this show’s debut to the start of Gundam: Witch from Mercury, I couldn’t help but view this first episode as an Episode 0 to the real story that’ll begin in the coming weeks. Whatever MAPPA does with the debut season of their first series, Chainsaw Man’s already carved out an impressive, bloody niche for itself.
New episodes of Chainsaw Man will premiere Tuesdays on Crunchyroll.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.