Content Warning: Discussions of sex, violence, heteronormativity, homophobia, and infantilization
Spoilers for Chainsaw Man
Countless anime and manga, especially shounen series, have friendship as a central theme and place a lot of value on these relationships. Naruto centers on how bonds can help people overcome their struggles, friendship in Baccano! keeps characters tethered and fulfilled even through dire circumstances, and Fairy Tail is just about how cool it would be to do wild stuff with fifty of your best friends all the time. Yet these series rarely depict relationships between men and women as purely friendship, and feel the need to tack on romantic underpinnings.
Chainsaw Man, a Shonen Jump series by Fujimoto Tatsuki, has its main character, Denji, realize the value in having a strictly platonic relationship with the leading female protagonist, Power. How Denji reaches this conclusion is incredibly messy and more than a little frustrating in places; which is to say that it epitomizes the uncomfortable struggle of navigating platonic relationships with someone you have the potential to be attracted to, a common aspect of growing up for many, and it’s both heartwarming and validating to see a character experience this part of life in a shounen manga.
This is exactly what makes Denji’s character arc, and Chainsaw Man as a whole, so incredible. I’ve been where Denji’s been, and seeing him work though the issues I struggled with as a teen is nothing short of euphoric.
In particular, these struggles focus on Denji’s obsession with sex and his overwhelming desire to be in a physical relationship with someone. Within the narrative of Chainsaw Man, Denji’s motivations mostly come from him being a horny teenager, combined with the belief that he could never have, or even deserve, a romantic or sexual relationship due growing up in abject poverty. While under this mindset, he met Power, a bombastic fiend even more unmoored from society than he is.
At first, Denji can only view Power as a means of sexual fulfillment. He even goes so far as to eviscerate a hulking Bat devil on the flimsy promise that he’ll be able to get to second base with Power afterwards. He does, and then immediately has an existential crisis where he questions the value of the intimacy he holds in such high regard. Without any kind of emotional connection to Power, feeling her up was a pretty hollow experience for him. His depression endures until his primary love interest, and the main antagonist, Makima explains how deeply knowing a partner affects and enhances sexual relationships.
While he processes all that jazz, he begins to form a genuine connection with Power. The two bond over briefly losing their pets, and then start living and working together. In classic shounen fashion, they form strategies to overcome their grueling training together and later realize that their shared status as humanoid Devils makes them closer to each other than anyone else. They still annoy each other to no end, but their shared status as outcasts gives them a kind of solidarity and a unique bond.
Chainsaw Man’s art style is critical in hammering home the dynamics of Denji and Power’s friendship. Unlike One Piece, where sex appeal is at the forefront of most female character designs, or My Hero Academia and its dips into misogynistic fan service, Chainsaw Man’s characters are more evenly proportioned and their sexual marketability is only a small part of their designs.
This makes every interaction in Power and Denji’s budding friendship feel more genuine, as they’re not undercut by a sexual element that only exists to appeal to a reader’s baser desires. In that same vein, when Chainsaw Man does feature sexually explicit content, like when Denji’s parsing out his competing romances or when Quanxi has sex with her partners, it’s more impactful because it relates to their identities and emotional arcs.
Narratively, the platonic nature of Power and Denji’s relationship is cemented when, after narrowly escaping death at the hands of a cosmic horror, Denji begins to help a traumatized Power recover. The two become even closer in the process, as Power’s afraid to even bathe or sleep alone. While in these typically intimate situations, Denji realizes he doesn’t have any romantic or sexual feelings for Power. Denji has learned enough about her and himself by now that he knows that he cares for her a great deal and doesn’t want to change the dynamics of a platonic relationship that he deeply treasures.
There aren’t a lot of anime and manga, or stories in any medium, that tackle this specific kind of adolescent growth. This is understandable, to an extent, as this process is uncomfortable and most people are somewhat ashamed of this period of their lives. While countless relationships in manga become strained due to a character’s insecurity or conflicted desire, few are as direct about why teenagers can have trouble forming friendships with people they’re attracted to. Even fewer of these series have the courage to respect characters who just want to be friends and instead use that phrase as part of a “will they, won’t they” subplot.
Plenty of awkward and lonely teenagers go through a time in their lives when they’re attracted to people who are just being kind, or would jeopardize a friendship at the slightest hint of physical intimacy. People go through this phase for a variety of reasons, but often it’s because they don’t like themselves enough to see their inherent value and need a relationship to feel like they have proof of their own worth. Other times, they just don’t know enough about themselves to realize that they don’t need a relationship to be happy, and just pursue one at every opportunity because society expects them to be in a monogamous relationship.
Chainsaw Man captures this headspace perfectly with a brilliant page where Denji has the terrifying realization that, despite being infatuated with somebody else, he’s head over heels in love with a girl he just met because she probably likes him.
This is the first manga in a long time that hits me where I live so often, and has characters go through the things I struggled with as a teen. I dated people I didn’t like just because they’d let me date them. I had a hard time forming more than arm’s-length friendships with most of the girls at my school because I would prioritize wanting to have a girlfriend over wanting to have a girl as my friend. All of the stuff that I realized in my early 20s as just me being caught up in my own bullshit is in Chainsaw Man.
I can’t help but think how much easier it would have been to get through that phase of my life, or how much more of a complete person I could be now, if I had Chainsaw Man to help me get through these feelings as a teenager.
All of this isn’t to say that Chainsaw Man perfectly navigates this uncomfortable and personal space, though. Chainsaw Man has its flaws like any media, and it’s especially troublesome that it takes Power’s infantilization for Denji to realize that he doesn’t want to have sex with her. A similar trope appearing in Fujimoto’s previous work, Fire Punch, unfortunately creates a trend of male protagonists growing from the disempowerment and suffering of the women close to them.
Power’s disempowering is especially frustrating as she’s a really fun character and an unabashed gremlin. She ranked first in Chainsaw Man’s only popularity poll because she’s such an entertaining wildcard. It felt cheap and like a disservice to her when she suffered intense PTSD in one chapter, only to have her bounce back completely two chapters later with no apparent long-lasting repercussions once Denji has his breakthrough.
Similarly, Denji’s juvenile and unaddressed homophobia is a blemish on the series, although Fujimoto’s handling of gay characters in his previous work—and the sympathetic Quanxi— makes me hopeful that the series will address this part of Denji’s character in the announced continuation of the series.
Even with these missteps in the series, it’s still a delight to see Denji and Power getting into hijinks together. From dawning prop glasses because they believe it will make them smarter, to Power casually nibbling on Denji’s arm when she’s hungry as Devils can survive on blood alone; their interactions are as hilarious as they are endearing. Even the way the characters are posed together, often touching or hanging off of the other in a casual way, is adorable. They are completely comfortable with each other, and that’s something that we very rarely see in relationships between men and women in shounen manga.
Makima even describes Power and Denji as being like siblings and, because Chainsaw Man is less skeezy than other manga with similar relationships, that means that assessment is explicitly meant to nod to an absence of sexual tension between them.
This manga would be markedly worse if Denji and Power’s escapades were interrupted by one of them blushing at every innocent touch or internally monologuing about hidden meanings in innocuous comments. As the story isn’t forcing them into a relationship, they get to be more fully formed people with consideration put into other parts of their personalities. Such as Denji’s budding love of movies or Power’s odd obsession with awards and titles. They’re goofballs, and every panel they share together is a treat.
Chainsaw Man is unlike any other major manga to release recently, and a big part of its success is due to how it works through the parts of life that many are ashamed of, while still having fun and holding firm that these characters are worthy of happiness and a fulfilling existence. These characters are lovable because we see ourselves in them and the story is about these characters proving to themselves and others that they’re worthy of that love. There’s no telling where Chainsaw Man will take its story whenever it resumes, but it’s sure to be a delight regardless and we can only hope Denji and those he cares about continue to inch closer towards the lives and friendships that they deserve.