Chainsaw Man and the New Shonen Protagonist

If you’re at all familiar with the world of anime, you’ve probably heard the phrase typical shonen protagonist— most likely accompanied with full-body sighs and rolling eyes. (It’s not usually seen as a positive attribute, just in case you’re somehow not up to speed.) Shonen anime, or anime marketed at a male young adult demographic, is widely beloved for its action-packed sequences, meticulous worldbuilding, and charismatic young heroes. Satisfying a demographic that’s not only familiar with but expectant of a perfect delivery on these elements, however, means that shonen relies on stock characters and stereotypes more often than not.

Chainsaw Man
Chainsaw Man began streaming on Crunchyroll in October 2022

A main character designed to be the object of young men’s admiration has to live up to his status: he has to be noble and just, driven by a strong sense of purpose and a dream that he’ll dedicate himself to with everything he’s got.

We see this in shonen time and time again. The classic (and some might say the most iconic) series Naruto depicts the eponymous main character as childish and naive, but strong-willed and persistent in his goals. He desires to become the hokage, or head of his village, and will stop at nothing to achieve his dream, constantly citing the power of hard work and confidence. The similarly ubiquitous Bleach‘s protagonist, Ichigo Kurosaki, toils near-endlessly to be at the top of his game both physically and intellectually to protect those he cares about. Asta in Black Clover strives to be the next Wizard King despite a lack of magical ability, forcing him to streamline his drive and passion into the goal.

Naruto stops at nothing until he achieves his goal of becoming a hokage

This trope has my no means been extinguished by modern-day anime, however. Just look at Deku, the hero of one of the most prominent shonen on TV today, My Hero Academia. Born powerless in a society full of superheroes, he made his dream of becoming a professional hero a reality through hard work and passion. And, yeah, he might tear up a bit more than the average guy, but that’s just because he feels so strongly about what he does, right? He’s hardworking, kind-hearted, and headstrong. What’s not to love about that?

Apparently: a lot. Despite being the protagonist of his series, Deku is nowhere near the most popular out of the cast of characters, with the fan favorite being the obnoxiously blunt bully Katsuki Bakugou. A quick search on any major social media reveals posts upon posts bashing him as “annoying”, “boring”, “pointless”, and a “crybaby”. One post even went so far as to call him a “shell of a human being” and went on to add, “fuck Deku and everything he stands for”. Biting words, indeed. Even so, the protagonists of almost all the major shonen airing today fit into the same golden boy archetype, from family man Tanjiro Kamado in Demon Slayer to big-dreaming Hinata Shoyo in Haikyuu!! to goal-chasing Monkey D. Luffy in One Piece. So what gives? If the audience is starting to grow restless with the same cookie-cutter teenage boy protagonist over and over again, why does he rear his oh-so-perfect head in just about every modern day shonen?

Despite his reactionary and brash characterization, Bakugo is a fan favorite in My Hero Academia

Perhaps the answer lies in a form of idealism; audiences want someone better than them that they can project themselves onto. It’s easier to approximate ourselves onto someone with a milquetoast or nondescript personality than someone with a more decisive backstory and a character arc. It’s also possible that viewers prefer a main character with strong morals and a good conscience because it makes it easier to root for him in whatever sticky situation he finds himself in. One anime, however, is calling all of this into question— and may be permanently making its mark on shonen as we know it.

Tatsuki Fujimoto’s manga Chainsaw Man debuted in Weekly Shonen Jump in 2018, with the anime adaptation being released by Mappa in October 2022. The series quickly rose to popularity due to its unique art style, captivating characters, and breakneck blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pacing. The story takes place in a world where “devils”, or physical manifestations of human fears, live among us, and grow stronger as the collective fear of them increases. It follows the misadventures of a young man known as Denji, who fuses with the Chainsaw Devil to become the ultra-powerful Chainsaw Man. He and a ragtag crew of buddies work for the Japanese government as state-appointed Devil Hunters, chopping up devils for cash rewards. Chainsaw Man, although not particularly revolutionary in plotline, felt new and exciting to readers in a way that shonen hadn’t in a long time. This is in no small part attributed to the intricately detailed world Fujimoto outlines, the delightfully gory fight scenes, and the expertly written dark humor interspersed throughout. However, there’s one revolutionary and indispensable key factor that contributes to Chainsaw Man’s novelty: Denji’s characterization as the anti-shonen hero.

Denji’s actions are often driven by a desire for attention or recognition, rather than personal achievement

Make no mistake. Denji isn’t evil, or unkind, or malicious in any sense of the word. He’s not an antagonist or a villain at any point in the story. He simply breaks free out of the box of stereotypes for a protagonist in a way that feels like a breath of fresh air for long-suffering fans.

Denji has a goal and sticks to it, just like his shonen predecessors, with the one crucial difference being the nature of his desire. He doesn’t want to be the greatest hero/hokage/sorcerer/what have you of all time, no. Interestingly enough, Denji makes it clear from the start of the show that he’s motivated by one thing: teenage hormones and the chance to fondle a girl’s breasts.

While this may come across as off-putting or excessively horny, it actually functions to vindicate his character. At the beginning of the series, he appears single-minded and utterly fixated on sexuality, which can be construed as him being one-note. However, as the storyline progresses, we learn that this is a front for the insecurity and lack of emotional connection in Denji’s life. As shown right from the first episode, the kid’s had a rough go of it. Growing up completely on his own and being financially and emotionally destitute has taken its toll on Denji, and he projects his loneliness onto the image of an attractive woman, hoping desperately for someone to fill the void his long-term neglect has created within him. It’s also a crucial reason why he joins the Devil Hunters in the first place, spurred on by the prospect of being able to work under the alluring Makima-san, as he calls her.

Denji’s extrinsic motivation and innermost desire for connection

The steadfast sense of morality in most shonen leads is nowhere to be found in Denji, either. He doesn’t live his life by any set of ideals or principles, preferring instead to judge each situation as it comes. Chainsaw Man contains no internal monologues about the power of friendship, nor does it shove any sort of moral teaching down viewer’s throats. Denji isn’t concerned with saving the world or benefitting the majority, and he’s not afraid to let others suffer to do what he thinks is best. After years of living in poverty, he’s hard-wired to put his own survival first, even if that means going against what others consider to be appropriate. This ties into a recurring question throughout the series of who the devils really are and where the acceptable boundaries of interaction with them lie. Denji is one to push this boundary, sparking fascinating discussions about deeper themes of human nature within the show—- his ideals are far more intellectually stimulating than listening to your average do the right thing spiel day in and day out.

Denji’s moral ambiguity is effective because at the end of the day, life is complicated, and often contains dilemmas too nebulous to be solved by a mid-fight monologue. Viewers, especially the young men that shonen is aimed at, want to see someone onscreen that looks like them. That is, someone that’s messy and unsure of himself and makes more than his fair share of mistakes, but ultimately finds a way to move forward and grow from them. As the shonen viewer base grows older and finds their own sense of character to be increasingly complicated, the purehearted protagonist archetype becomes less and less relevant and relatable.

Denji saves a cat over humans in Chapter 102 of the manga

Unlike the classic hero who toils tirelessly to make sure that he’s reached the absolute peak of his potential and everyone around him knows it, Denji keeps it real. He certainly has no qualms about displaying his flaws, whether it be his poor manners, impulsive decision-making, or all-consuming desire for human connection. He comes across as so well-rounded to viewers because of these foibles, however, not in spite of them. In today’s day and age, fans need a strong character to look up to that’s resourceful, resilient, and razor-sharp, while still being realistically imperfect. Chainsaw Man has undoubtedly changed the game for shonen, with Denji leading a revolutionary new movement for protagonist possibilities— chainsaw-first.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I'm a college student on the East Coast studying psychology. I'm passionate about all things pop culture, especially anime, literature, and film. allthestarstodeath@gmail
Edited by Sunni Ago, alexpasquale.

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64 Comments

  1. Richard

    This article is an excellent example of an action-comedy horror dark fantasy. However, I am not a huge fan of dark amines, and this type of series is too graphic. On the other hand, Tatsuki Fujimoto’s storytelling is stylish and aesthetic, which appeals to the teenage generation and fans of this genre.

    • Thank you! I completely understand, as it can be difficult to stomach some of the gory parts for some people, but the story and art really is amazing!

  2. Sunni Ago

    I picked up this manga after reading your article and I have to say, you definitely did a good job in highlighting what makes Denji unique in the scope of most shounen protags. I don’t know if I’d say the new, as that implies a genre shift but he’s definitely unique as compared with his contemporaries.

    • Whoa, I’m super flattered that this inspired you to read it, thanks so much! He’s definitely unique, and I can’t say for sure, but I use the word “new” because I’m predicting a more general shift in shonen protags in post-CSM manga. 🙂

  3. He isn’t a typical shounen hero that’s why i love him. He’s different and relatable. Just a teenager being a teenager, he’s perfect.

  4. I’ve only read a few chapters but Denji easily became one of my favorite protagonists.

  5. Ali Ponce
    1

    He’s just painfully relatable and i think that’s his charm. all of the problem he faces, while not everyone will deal with them, they are someone’s story who is living right now. a lot of people are in debt and they’ll never be able to get it off. someone right now has no access to education in a world where education is provided and required in our society. someone who has every reason to hate their parents. somewhere right now, someone is struggling to get by, with barely shelter and food to live off of. someone is a sad, hormonal loser who’s only goal in life to have a romantic chance with someone they find attractive because they’re miserable virgins.

    Maybe not all together, but each of them, they exist right here, right now. it makes him so human because people DO live like that.

    • Really true, thanks for your comment! He’s definitely not perfect and he makes the best of a terrible situation, which I think a lot of people can relate to.

  6. The character development of denji is insane.

  7. I love Denji, he was such a pleasant surprise and a treat to watch as a fighter, as a meaningful character with depth and being really funny and charming as well.

  8. Madeline
    1

    Great analysis. I want to note that Chainsaw Man portrays sex in a mature way that many manga/anime rarely do. The only other one that comes to my mind at least is Evangelion.

    • Super interesting point– sex is very interesting to Denji at first, but even he himself admits that it wasn’t all he was hoping for and wasn’t fulfilling without an emotional connection behind it. Oh man, I honestly could do a whole other write-up about sex in Evangelion, and you’re right about that! Thanks so much for commenting and for the kind words. 🙂

  9. Since I’ve read CSM for the first time, I felt really empathic towards Denji and his tragic life, and I felt really sad and disappointed when I found out how a big part of the fandom just see him as a horny boy. I come from a very disfunctional family, where my parents were never emotional aviable and absent, and they were present just to inflict verbal, psycological and even physical abuse to me and my siblings; plus I was molested by one of my siblings when I was a child. I became an adolescent, and I started to recklessy searching a girlfriend, someway to cop a feel and to be intimate exactly like Denji, but always failing and getting extremely hurt in the process and hurting people around me. I realized only recently how much I was doing that just to try to fill the void left by the abuse I received my whole life, and how much I just wanted to be loved in the way other people get loved normally, on default, by their family since childhood. At the same time people around me thought I was kinda of a loser for that; I remember my best friend of the time laughing at me when I said that my biggest desire was to have a girlfriend.

    Then I read CSM and I read about Denji, and shit man if this story speaks to me. From the first time I’ve read the story I was able to emphatize with him, and how much his quest for sex is just him trying to find love and healthy relationships but not having the right emotional tools and right persons around him to guide him.

    Thank you for this good analysis, because seeing people misunderstanding Denji kinda hurts me.

    • Eliz, thanks so much for commenting and sharing your story– I’m very sorry you had to go through that and hope you’re in a better place now. I completely agree with you about the fandom’s misunderstanding, and it sucks to see people write CSM off as “just another horny/sexist anime”, as it’s far beyond that. So many adolescents idolize sex and relationships as a way to fill an emotional void, and CSM acknowledges that and follows Denji through that realization, which I think will be validating and eye-opening for a lot of teenagers in a similar mental state. Your point in that “his quest for sex is just him trying to find love and healthy relationships but not having the right emotional tools and right persons around him to guide him” is extremely powerful and accurate, and I really appreciate you sharing and discussing it with me.

  10. I just want Denji to be happy.

  11. When you realize that Denji’s life is as sad as Naruto’s life.

  12. This is the one of the biggest animes I wish I hadn’t been spoiled by. It was a wild emotional ride reading the manga and probably would have been Top 10 anime of all time in the end if I was going in fresh.

  13. He is the best written shonen protagonist.

  14. The only thing I didn’t like about denji was his reaction to makima fucking up power.

    • haaahn
      2

      To be fair he was in absolute shock he just lost aki he was absolutely broken not in the right state of mind and could only think of something to make him feel better which was makima.

  15. Opened my eyes up to what I initially thought was just a funny simp of a character.

  16. The reason manga readers like me love this show so much is completely different from what anime only people think.

    This show is a tragedy, and it teaches people what really is connection and what is not.

    What is really important in our lives. So, many nowadays forgot what’s important to them, and like Denji, like anime only fans, they are taken advantage of and lured into the place they shouldn’t be.

    It’s a cautionary tale of obsession, and toxic relationship. A maze of pain and suffering coated in honey.

    Something that can only be overcome by forging the real relationship slowly, painfully through mistakes, disappointment, and bitterness. And at the end of the day, even though something beautiful we had was lost, this show also teaches us how life isn’t over.

    How even if we failed, we can live with our failure. Even when we’re disappointed, we can move on. And eventually if we keep living, hopefully one day we will find a reason to truly live.

    • Simpton
      0

      I’m an anime only and all of this applies to me, I don’t think it’s fair to generalize. Nice comment though.

    • It’s a tragedy at its core, but one that appreciates and exemplifies the beauty and power of relationships with others despite the world we live in! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  17. Bentley
    2

    Great read on Chainsaw Man and Denji (he’s probably my favorite characters in Jump right now). How on the surface level it’s like “Haha touching boob boob lol he’s just like me Fr lol” and follow it up with a very mature lesson in meaning less sex and how empty and pointless it is.

    I just love how Denji can always be relatable, sad, humorous, and at times kind of a douchbag.

  18. Isabella
    2

    Denji is so tenacious.

  19. I’ve just watched the last episode (10), and it’s just blatantly stated in his speech. Making him one of the most nuanced mc’s out there, not what the horny simpelton every considers him.

  20. moaa
    2

    Seeing him so happy just getting the basic need of life makes me grateful for mine.

  21. Libby Short
    2

    Denji grew up in a house of fire, for others, it was sad, melancholic, maybe even depressing but for Denji, it was normal for him that a sleep without getting burnt is a welcome one.

  22. Ismael
    2

    I read the manga well over a year and a half ago but as I’m watching this anime!

  23. Jagger
    1

    Denji reminds me of Yuji Itadori from Jujutsu Kaisen a lot, but I’m not sure why. They’re very different lol

    • I thought the same thing even though they are quite different in character! I think they both in different ways break the mold of the shonen protag, so I definitely had the same thought! 🙂

  24. grim
    1

    People keep forgetting that Denji’s a kid. A slightly feral, not well adjusted kid. There are constant imagery and visuals that compare him to a dog because, aside from comedic moments, he’s always the one getting led.

  25. Elsie
    0

    Denji is an amazing character. The more i read csm multiple times the more i love him. he is really misunderstood by the community.

  26. Barne
    0

    Season 1 of the anime doesn’t even scratch the surface of the mental hell Denji is going to go through in the future. Painsaw Man starts with Season 2.

  27. lail
    0

    I’ve never really liked Denji (I’m more a Deki guy) and was more than happy to see he wasn’t the main protagonist of part II.

    • How have you been enjoying part II? I love Asa, War, and Yoshida and have really enjoyed seeing them featured more in the current arc!

  28. Kiera
    0

    Denji is fujimoto…a minimal sad individual.

  29. boyle
    0

    i think so many people see denji as the “haha funny boob character” but i feel like there’s so much more to him.

    • Saniyah
      0

      Honestly, anyone who doesn’t take Denji’s character seriously doesn’t have good media literacy. I mean, the first page of the manga tells you that this is a serious, dark story, considering that most protaganists don’t sell their organs to the Yakuza and suffer from heart diseases at a young age, and live in utter destitution. His goals, while simple, are sympathetic, and they drive the plot forward. When he achieves his goals, he undergoes further character development. Denji is kind of like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill and watching it fall down and wondering if it was worth it to see it get to the top, or if pushing it was better.

  30. Christof Claude

    I’ve just watched episode 10, and I cannot agree more that he has been finally presented not just as a second plan character.

  31. Denji is an super amazing and brilliant character

  32. zophitia
    0

    I truly wish that Denji ends his story with a family and home truly his own. the man deserves it and so much more.

  33. Eliezer
    1

    Deji has an unfair life with a gangster that used him as his throwaway puppet, thinking things are going to change but the viewer fast realizes all he has done was switching to be Makimas puppet in the exact same way.

  34. Kasey
    0

    Thank god denji didn’t have access to 4chan.

  35. mort
    1

    Denji is a kid put in very complicated and messed up situations who doesn’t have the tools necessary to comprehend or approach those perplexed feeling. He’s beyond sad but he can’t verbalize it or show properly which makes the sadness and pain of it all more cruel. I can’t describe how much i love what has been done with this young lad’s development of character.

  36. Wolf
    0

    Chainsaw Man is essentially the story of a guy clawing his way up Maslow’s pyramid.

    • Super interesting interpretation actually! Makes it all the more devastating when things are taken away from him 🙁

  37. h0mer
    1

    To me he seemed like generic and poorly written MC(I just can’t stand the simp type), but now I think he has some depth in him, if only he develops more and has room to shine better.

    • Thanks for reading! If you’re an anime-only, just wait, his character undergoes a ton of development that I think you’ll enjoy 🙂

  38. Kenya
    0

    Chainsaw Man’s anime made me cry 3 times. The manga never did that until… “snowball” (you know what I mean) and even that was just a tear.

    • oh man, I’m so nervous for that in the anime because it made me cry in the manga and I know I’m going to cry even harder when it gets animated T_T

  39. Billy
    0

    Denjis life is just really sad and tragic. I wouldn’t quite put it up there with Irumyuui as one of the most f*cked up stories but I’d say it’s the closest you can get in a semi realistic setting. My poor boy Dennis. Irumyuui’s story hurts because it is so unimaginably cruel that it’s hard to comprehend but Dennis’ story hurts because it feels so real.

  40. ruiz
    0

    Looking at what happens to Denji throughout the story, it would be easy to assume, without reading the manga/watching the anime, that it would be edgy misery pron, endlessly indulging in the suffering of its characters with no motive outside of nihilistic indulgence in pain. But Tatsuki Fujimoto has this incredible ability to bring sincerity and empathy to both the ridiculous and the painful aspects of life. He can tell a story about a man perpetually on fire and make it a tragic and moving piece about revenge, power, and loss. He can tell a story about a high school filmmaker unable to make a movie without including an explosion and make it an intimate look at introspection and social connection. He can tell a story about a vulgar teenager making a manga and make it a quiet and thoughtful look at regret and moving forward. And he can tell a story about a maladjusted teenager turning into a chainsaw and make it a beautiful depiction of finding purpose and learning self-value and love.

    The reason I think Chainsaw Man connects with me in that way is that it acknowledges the ridiculous and insane aspects of life as both something to find joy in and something deeply meaningful. Profound meaning doesn’t just come from the dramatic and the wide-reaching; sometimes, it can come from watching a bad movie, or eating dinner with your family, or fantasizing about your future with your best friend. Chainsaw Man doesn’t deride these experiences as lesser parts of being human because these are integral to that. Being human is messy and hard and contradictory but also beautiful and meaningful. And Denji is the perfect protagonist to explore this because all those mundane things mean the world to him. He has simple wishes, but that is never treated as a flaw by the narrative. He has a lot to learn, and his path to learning is messy and painful, but seeing it happen is quite beautiful.

    • perfect interpretation (you’re a great writer as well!) It is a tragedy but at its core I think chainsaw man is about love and care and human connections despite everything else going on around them, which is what makes it so beautiful and moving. Thanks so much for commenting 🙂

  41. Rishi
    0

    Aki is my favourite but Denji is probably objectively the best written CSM character.

  42. Savion
    0

    Denji is one of the characters I feel have suffered the most in this anime/manga and it is often overlooked at what he has gone through in his life. Also major props to his voice actor who has added so much depth to his character and MAPPA for such a fantastic adaptation so far.

  43. knight
    0

    Denji: I have the saddest backstory.
    Guts(Berserk): Get in line kid.

    (Just joking around here. Don’t take this seriously.)

  44. Nikolas
    0

    He is honestly the best protagonist to come out of Shonen Jump since Gon.

  45. montez
    0

    I want to just hug the dude and hope he finds a lady that won’t abuse, betray or try to kill him because Denji needs all the happiest possible.

  46. riayh
    0

    Can we please give props to his voice actor, Kikunosuke Toya?! Amazing job from a relatively young and new actor for the industry taking on such a huge role. He’s done such a great job at making Denji so likeable.

    • For sure, I think all the VAs have been doing great, sub and dub! I appreciate them casting newer VAs for main roles. It’s been great to see newer talent making the roles their own.

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