The Chainsaw Man’s greatest strength is his lack of narrative or representation

The Chainsaw Man anime adaptation has been met with glowing praise so far. The production value is top-notch, offering crisp animation, strong voice acting, and all that extra attention to detail that makes the anime feel like an all-encompassing experience rather than just paying lip service to its manga and already established fan base.

*While we’ll do our best to avoid major spoilers, there are certain story beats we’re alluding to here. If you’d rather watch Chainsaw Man without spoilers, check back at the end of the season!*

If there’s one Achilles’ heel that the anime genre in general suffers from, it’s its clunky, sometimes unnecessary dialogue that finds its way onto screens. Exposure dumps, characters putting into words whatever is on their mind in the heat of battle, and awkward narrative meant to grab the viewer’s hand and guide them through the story that instead pulls them out of the experience entirely .

The root of the exposure problem comes from a few sources. The most obvious is the process of adaptation from one medium to another. Big bubbles of text in manga are welcome because that’s the nature of the medium. Reading a lengthy speech in the middle of a fight sequence or as a means of breaking up a particularly visual byway isn’t sneered at, it’s expected. The problem occurs when the source material is fed into the anime media. A balancing act ensues where producers and creatives must balance fidelity to the manga/source material against better flow of the story as a cinematic work.

Another source of lengthy explanations in the anime comes from the originally intended demographic it was written for. Shonen manga (and by extension its anime adaptation) is aimed at adolescent boys and emphasizes flashy combat and action that a more open-minded youthful mind can sink their teeth into. As a genre aimed at a younger audience, the heavy exposure and handholding make sense. Children sometimes need a narrative written explicitly for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Jotaro Kujo
Image Credit: David Production via Crunchyroll

We see this in super popular anime like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, an adapted manga that started out as Shonen and transitioned to Sein (the demographic age group one notch above Shonen) in its later editions. The first two storylines of JoJo’s anime are packed with information dumps and explanatory dialogue, just as you might expect from a show aimed at younger audiences. Dragon Ball Z is guilty of this too, notorious for allowing its characters to reel off blunt, clunky snippets of dialogue that describe their thoughts in the moment and analyze the events unfolding before them.

Chainsaw Man cuts this practice off at the bud. Both the manga and anime’s refusal to guide viewers through each bar elevates it to a higher level and embraces the more mature demographics that consume both manga and its anime counterparts outside of Japan. Billed as a shonen, the manga is aimed at a younger audience, but the content – at least to our more sensitive Western sensibilities – is far better suited to more mature viewers. When MAPPA and his creative team saw the writing on the wall, they decided to produce the anime with the tone and texture of a series intended for adults, similar to what the manga’s creator Tatsuki Fujimoto intended.

The anime owes much of its polished pace/tone to the foundation laid by its source material. Fujimoto creates according to the age-old principle of storytelling: show, don’t tell. His sense of pacing is restrained, with an eye for building suspense and giving sequences the time they need to play out naturally, free of convoluted explanations. Fujimoto’s innate eye for the cinematic favors beautifully detailed panels over lush text, turning his work into a storyboarded roadmap for animators to pick up and work with.

Fujimoto’s characters are subtly drawn (literally and metaphorically) and revealed through details scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the manga’s progression. Denji’s maturation is teased through his actions and inactions rather than exposed openly. Aki and Himeno’s true affection for each other is danced around, much like their romance in the story. The world and its players grow organically, and the anime thrives as a result.

The strongest example of Chainsaw Man switching to showing over storytelling comes in the first episode of the anime. Our introduction to this bizarre world of devils walking among men is delivered with subtlety and a level of nuance that pays respect to its mature viewers. Denji’s background story is not told through long internal blocks of dialogue, but through flashbacks. His position of immense debt is casually inserted into the narrative through a mumbling conversation he has with Pochita.

Denji and the Tomato Devil in Chainsaw Man
Image source: MAPPA

Then, within the first few minutes of the series, Denji sneaks around a corner, cranks up his cuddly devil chainsaw, and gets to work on a gigantic tomato devil. He doesn’t sit there and explain that it’s a devil representing mankind’s fear of tomatoes. He doesn’t count on his position as an amateur devil hunter paying off his debts to the yakuza. He simply rips off the cord and gets to work.

In a universe that arguably deserves a lot of explanation, Chainsaw Man resists the urge to spoon-feed the viewer with the ins and outs of his world. The details of the public safety organization are not blurted out in a lengthy diatribe by Makima, Aki, or Himeno. Rather, over the course of many episodes, we have to figure out the subtle details and mechanics of the devil-hunting profession. The nuances are revealed through Denji’s partnership with Aki and later Power, teased out in a natural cadence that feels far more organic.

If an internal dialogue needs to be conducted, it suits the scenario in which it is used. Information is conveyed as needed, at moments when it makes sense for a character to think or speak out loud. In Episode 2, the concept of a Fiend is introduced to us not through a lengthy standoff with one character spitting out his portrayal, but through a very brief conversation between Aki and Denji as they stand on the threshold of a room where the Fiend is located . It’s short, it’s sweet, and it gives the viewer confidence that they can handle being momentarily ignorant of every facet of a story element and piece together the details as the narrative continues.

Denji fights Bat Devil in Chainsaw Man
Image source: MAPPA

In an almost knee-jerk comment on anime’s exposure problem, Denji’s internal monologue in the moments after killing the devil pokes fun at the subject. Instead of thinking deeply about the consequences of beating off the head of a devil-possessed person, Denji begins ranting passionately about wanting to touch a woman’s breasts. He doesn’t preach his morals, his devil hunter skills, the fight that just happened, or any typical flow of consciousness that we can see in the main character of an anime. The Moment is a hilarious teenage rant that perfectly fits Chainsaw Man’s attitude toward needless exposure.

Perhaps most importantly, the combat sequences aren’t chopped up with exposure. As alluded to above, although it can serve a function in the written medium as a character analyzing the events unfolding before them, nothing immediately takes an anime viewer away from the action. In Denji’s first major fight (after the zombie devil’s very one-sided carnage) against the bat devil, the two trade pithy one-liners and savage punches, never sit idly by, and engage in lengthy conversations about who’s going to win who.

As the battle rages on, Bat Devil uses an attack that seems to come out of nowhere: a mouth cannon that decimates everything in its path with a blast of air. While the attack charges up, Denji doesn’t stop to try to explain, nor do any of the other characters. It is left to the viewer to accept and analyze this for himself. The lack of elaboration not only keeps us in the plot, but respects our intelligence and also pushes our minds in new directions. If this bat devil has this hidden talent, what other skills is he hiding? What else can Denji himself do that we don’t know about? What other unique combat tactics do Devils have? Instead of simply explaining it to the audience, it intrigues and arouses curiosity, forcing us to come back in future episodes to learn more about this world.

Chainsaw Man Gun Devil Bullet Clump
Image source: MAPPA

Again and again, the series obfuscates information in subtle and clever ways. Makima’s peculiar eyes are not caressed and analyzed by Denji. He doesn’t make the connection whether Makima is a devil or a fiend, but the viewer does. Aki’s sword is not explained at length throughout the Eternity Devil arc, but is left as a point of mystery to be pondered for three more episodes before it is eventually used (and even then the mechanics are not fully spelled out). The Gun Devil, the main antagonist that appears in the background throughout Season 1, is slowly unearthed through the exchange of natural dialogue and missions that leave traces of his presence. Everything unfolds with nuance and a refreshing reverence for the viewer’s intelligence and attention span.

The culmination of Chainsaw Man’s dedication to allowing the story to unfold with virtually no exhibitions is a thoroughly immersive anime experience. Building on the foundations Fujimoto laid in his manga, it not only incorporates the mature themes that many shonen manga/anime do, but delivers them with the mystique and naturalness that an adult audience loves. Chainsaw Man walks the fine line between being faithful to its source and translating it into the anime medium. It treats its fans with dignity and allows us to explore the world at our own pace, confident in making the necessary connections.

Future anime should take this into account. This is how manga should be written/adapted, and if Chainsaw Man’s reception is any indication, fans agree, too. The Chainsaw Man’s greatest strength is his lack of narrative or representation

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