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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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