There are many measures of success in the anime and manga industry. Chainsaw Man, the 12-volume manga by Tatsuki Fujimoto about a world where human fears corporealize as monstrous devils, recently surpassed 16 million copies in circulation in Japan alone, and it’s well on its way to competing with the towering commercial successes of its contemporary shonen series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba and Jujutsu Kaisen, both of which have set records around the world for what anime can do. But there are some metrics more revealing than sales figures alone, like cosplay.
Even a year ago, amidst the hype for new releases of Demon Slayer, Jujutsu Kaisen, One Piece, Dragon Ball, and Attack on Titan, anime cons were flooded with the white shirts and thin black ties of the Public Safety Division’s uniform. A government agency of Devil Hunters, who in Chainsaw Man fight back against the monstrous fears terrorizing civilians, the popularity of the altogether simple costume was conspicuous. At least in the U.S., the big names in anime have been just that – anime.
Usually, anime helps sell manga, which is the biggest incentive for manga publishers like Shueisha to sell the production and distribution rights of their properties. Anime is almost exclusively funded by production committees of various publishers, licensors, distributors, and merchandisers coming together to share in a risky investment. They may profit a little if an anime is successful, but they won’t lose much. The popularity of the Chainsaw Man manga, made possible by VIZ Media’s translation and digital distribution in English, managed to create a new avenue for success in an international industry. It’s no small feat that it has consistently appeared in New York Times Best Seller lists for the past year. But what, then, is there to make of this new anime?
There is money to be made, sure, but I think what Shueisha (the publisher), MAPPA (the animation studio), and Crunchyroll (the distributor) are playing for is something more important than record shattering profit—they want a cultural moment. Not a Demon Slayer with its international box office records, but a Dragon Ball with its iconography. Despite the commercial growth of anime in the past decade, hanafuda earrings and names like Yuji or Deku don’t carry any cultural staying power outside of anime fandom internationally. But everyone knows who Goku is (even if they think he looks like Vegeta). Here’s how they’re doing it.
In a fittingly unconventional approach to making an anime, MAPPA, the studio behind hit anime like Yuri!!! on Ice and Jujutsu Kaisen has foregone a production committee. It means they have much to gain, and much more to lose financially. But given everything about the series’ success, this doesn’t seem like a big gamble in the name of artistic vision. And MAPPA is a safe choice for a studio. Chainsaw Man even shares staff with crew on Jujutsu Kaisen 0, which first released in Japan less than a year ago and quickly became one of the best-selling anime films of all time.
I couldn’t tell you how drastically the anime adaptation would have differed from the one episode I’ve seen if Shueisha decided to go with a studio that wanted a production committee to take on the project. I’ve seen just the first of 12 episodes, which doesn’t give me much to go on other than: it’s faithful, so far. And so far what I like is that the anime is taking its time, knows when to ramps up or step back, and is unafraid to be somber and gray—all with an ambient post rock score by Kensuke Ushio (A Silent Voice) that kicks into overdrive alongside some of the best 3D animation I’ve seen anywhere.
While it covers some worldbuilding and exposition, the show—much like the manga—thoughtfully focuses on characterizing its protagonist, Denji, as an exploited young person. After inheriting his father’s debt to the yakuza, Denji very literally sells parts of his body to get by. He hunts nuisance devils for them to sell on the black market with the assistance of his pet, the canine Chainsaw Devil Pochita, and he lives in a literal shed, hungry. The commentary on the absurdity of debt, the precarity of contract work, and the very personal ways capitalism invades our dreams is all there.
The subject matter is likely personal for Fujimoto as a young millennial and a mangaka, a career characterized by precarity and exploitation. And you could see why the show’s staff would represent it so thoughtfully given they too are young creatives in an industry running on burnout (and MAPPA itself has been the subject of such ire). Following the studios decision to staff a young millennial team close to the mangaka’s own age, Chainsaw Man is the debut of many young animators at the studio, namely series director Ryu Nakayama. An established key animator, Nakayama has shown a glimpse of what he’s capable of as an episode director on Jujutsu Kaisen’s climactic “Black Flash” episode. Another safe gamble.
The series’ voice cast carries that sentiment as well. Denji’s Japanese voice actor, Kikunosuke Toya, makes his lead debut, while the young English voice actor Ryan Colt Levy (Rody Soul in My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission) cements his rising star. Among the main cast, Shogo Sakata also makes his principal debut as the swordsman Aki Hayakawa, alongside his upcoming English counterpart Reagan Murdock (Alvin in Don’t Hurt Me, My Healer!).
Veteran voice actors fill out the roster of lead roles, with Tomori Kusunoki (Llen in Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online) and Suzi Yeung (Lena in 86) as the mysterious femme fatale Makima and Fairouz Ai (Jolyne Kujo in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean) and Sarah Wiedenheft (Tohru in Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid) as everyone’s new favorite best girl, Power. Meanwhile, Shiori Izawa (Nanachi in Made in Abyss) features as the yaps and arfs of Pochita, the series’ adorable mascot character.
Adding to the spectacle, Chainsaw Man will be released outside of Japan via Crunchyroll the same day as it broadcasts on Japanese television next Tuesday. While we’re used to same day, subtitled releases now, the Sony-owned distributor and dub producer is stirring up a fervor in its marketing with an emphasis a concurrent premiere at 9am PT in markets on every continent and 5 dubs in production. The show’s English dub is set to premiere at New York Comic Con today, though its air date at time of writing is unannounced.
It’s cool that Chainsaw Man is as popular as it is, that there is so much hype for a character who embodies a complex relationship to his own sexuality and who learns the value of making a chosen family. It says something that a story about how young people are manipulated by those in power over us is as popular as it is to both audiences and corporations. Because while it smells like money, the spirit of Chainsaw Man lives on in Nakayama’s anime. Its fiction is compelling, the message resonates. You’d just have to see it.
Chainsaw Man will stream on Crunchyroll in the U.S. Tuesday, October 11th at noon ET.
Autumn Wright is a freelance games critic and anime journalist. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.
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