Editor: Masha Zhdanova
In our current era, it is difficult to imagine that Tatsuki Fujimoto is anything less than a household name. His landmark work, Chainsaw Man, enchants millions in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump every week, and characters like Makima, Power, and Denji are icons among anime and manga fans. In 2011, though, Fujimoto was just an upstart, whose debut one-shot, Niwa ni wa Niwa Niwatori ga ita, had just been nominated for the Jump Sq monthly award. His first extended series, Fire Punch, launched in Shonen Jump+ in 2016, to immediate success. For the next two years, Fujimoto would write a smattering of one-shots, as well as Fire Punch, which ended in January 2018. These initial successes proved to be a prelude to his defining work, which officially launched in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump on December 3, 2018.
By the time the Chainsaw Man manga debuted Fujimoto had gained a reputation as a daring writer, painting intriguing morally gray characters in bleak worlds, battling the eternal question of existence itself. At the same time, he was known for his mastery in portraying abstract themes such as hope and values and tying them in with biting social critiques. Chainsaw Man’sexplosive storytelling, compelling and complex characters, and bleak-yet-hopeful themes of contemporary life and its anxieties quickly skyrocketed the series to success, earning numerous awards as it became one of the highest-selling manga of all time.
As such, few were surprised when Weekly Shonen Jump revealed that the series would receive an anime adaptation by MAPPA studios. And MAPPA would entrust the directing job to Ryū Nakayama, a promising and reoccurring key animator & storyboard artist for multiple popular shows such as Black Clover, Fate/Grand Order, and Jujutsu Kaisen.
But this was his first time as a director for a full anime season. And he had a massive task handed to him. He would have to adapt Tatsuki Fujimoto’s Chainsaw Man, a series he was genuinely passionate about. But making a regular one-to-one adaptation wouldn’t be enough for Nakayama. Along with storyboard artist and episode director Masato Nakazono, they wanted to make something different. A tribute to their shared love of cinematography with the author Tatsuki Fujimoto. By the time the anime debuted on October 11, 2022, it seemed that everybody’s eyes were on it. Would the new adaptation live up to the excitement generated online?
With slowly crafted silent moments, the adaptation did not indulge our shortening attention span – It challenged it. Nakayama and Nakazono’s shared adoration of Western and Japanese cinema was a major inspiration for the direction that the Chainsaw Man adaptation took, which resulted in a dynamic adaptation of a critically-acclaimed manga that breathed new air into the genre.
But despite his enthusiasm, Nakayama’s passion for cinema came across as overbearing and inelegant at times. Some of his controversial statements alienated him from his audience. While the essence of his statement is that he wanted to move away from the prevalent moe culture in anime, he could have presented it in a more fitting manner. But the intent behind this interview was clear. He did not want to make a live-action adaptation. Nakayama wanted to bring cinema closer to anime and Chainsaw Man was his gateway to achieving that goal.
Attention to Detail: How Small Additions Set the Scene
Details have the capacity to vastly enrich a scene and add meaning where there previously was none. Whether it’s in the form of symbolism, immersion-building, or character-building, Chainsaw Man uses small details to further augment its story. Its details include more than just unique eye detail which captures characters down to their literal tear ducts. They enrich the story by emphasizing realistic details to enhance the scenes.
Starting with a clever aesthetic detail: after the sudden suicide of Denji’s father due to his inability to bear the burden of crippling debt in episode one, the elderly mafioso (called Yakuza) soullessly orders young Denji to gather an unreasonable amount of money to pay off what his father could not. After he makes clear that he does not care by what means Denji achieves this, we get a wider picture of Yakuza being parked in the middle of a flower field, from which he proceeds to drive off and crush every single plant underneath his car tires, with the glaring car tracks revealing his carelessness and absolute disregard for other lives.
Then we have Makima’s distant smile. Something more than a simple corporate smile of politeness. A smile that is so unnatural that it hides any semblance of emotion behind it. Throughout the series, her eerie nature is always in plain sight and yet it is never commented on by her peers. The distant smile that she almost always puts on further refines this perspective of her as a frighteningly uncanny figure.
Later on, some scenes paint a more subtle picture of the psychological dynamics between the characters. A particular detail comes early in the series when Denji puts on his suit for the first time. In chapter four of the manga, he seemingly made a perfect tie all by himself despite his lack of basic education. In the adaptation, they change this by having Makima tie it for him. This scene is more impactful than it would first suggest. It gives us an early glimpse into Makima’s dominant personality. This small, insignificant detail displays her demand for things to be her way just as she imagines them and her pathological need for control that she maintains throughout the season.
Chainsaw Man boasts an almost obsessive eye toward minor elements that make scenes realistic. For example, a person properly measuring washing machine detergent is hardly a vital element that needs to be animated, but the team did so when introducing Aki’s daily routine in episode four nonetheless. And the animation team continued building up Aki’s daily routine and the peaceful and quiet life he had and tried to maintain even after Denji showed up. In a world where death waits around every corner, seeing a fleeting regular moment feels special. The quiet moment of Aki brushing his teeth feels contemplative in contrast to the devastating and gruesome devil-hunting moments with the Bat Devil, Zombie Devil, and so on.
That’s to say nothing of the characters themselves. Instead, the various players feel closer to real, breathing individuals who actually live in Chainsaw Man’s gritty, gruesome world instead of static figures who only act when the main cast interacts with them. This creates a constant dynamic between the characters involved in each scene.
Aki’s fight with the Katana Man is a prime example of this. Every movement during the fight felt engaging. Watching Aki desperately try to get three hits off to activate his Curse Devil contract perfectly exhibits his determination and sheer desperation to kill his foe to save his teammates from Special Division Four that he has grown so close to. His movements were sloppy, uncoordinated, and unrefined. Almost human-like. Aki is not a human merged with a devil. He is just a regular guy who made contracts with devils that didn’t (at the moment) grant him any physical refinements. Our bodies can only make so much movement without limitations. Though the end result of the encounter isn’t as fast or flashy as some would hope, the overall sensation remains exciting and, most important, believable.
Camera Angles: Unique Expressionism
The camera remains a filmmaker’s most important tool, as a well-framed shot can capture the viewer’s attention, build up suspense, and even change the interpretation of a scene entirely. Some anime that pop into my mind most notable for their great camera work are Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Monogatari, and Paprika. The Monogatari series, for example, draws heavy influence from nouvelle vague. Characterized by frequent jump cuts in any dialogue between characters, frequent fourth wall breaking, like with Senjougahara praising her own voice actress in episode 13 of Bakemonogatari, and too many close-up shots to count, the Monogatari series consistently retains the viewer’s focus on the constant shifting scene and keeps them absorbed in the dialogue.
Chainsaw Man, however, draws its influence from notable American and Japanese film producers. It presents an equally powerful cinematic performance, which wears its global influences proudly on its sleeve.
Throughout the series, the episode directing was stellar, with many camera angles bearing the hallmarks of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill) and Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring).
Signature camera angles such as Tarantino’s extreme close-up and tracking shot – which can be seen during Power’s striking walk to Makima’s office– and Ozu’s tatami shot as seen during Makima’s and Denji’s first ride in a car together played a large part throughout the season. Each shot was carefully chosen and framed to create unorthodox perspectives that would still feel right, as they directed viewers’ attention, built tension, or emphasized specific elements of the mise-en-scene.
The close-up first-person view through Denji’s eyes as he passes through a dirty and abandoned alleyway at the very end of episode twelve stimulates paranoia in the viewer. An extreme long shot of Makima approaching Denji for the first time in episode one, fully displaying the aftermath of his fight with the monstrous Zombie Devil and its countless grotesque swarms, allows the viewer to realize the sheer scale of the fight, and how many devils Denji took down throughout his restless battle, only to finally be relieved by the sight of Makima approaching, making the camera work in Chainsaw Man always feel in place.
But arguably the most breathtaking effect of such camera work came about during the rooftop fight in episode eight between the vengeful Katana Man and the bloodthirsty Chainsaw Man. The slowly-rising close-up of Katana Man that swaps to a long shot of the two hybrids as they stare each other down making the atmosphere boil with intensity, only to bounce back to close-ups of both characters before they charged into battle was brilliant cinematic execution, which adeptly built up the tension until the two finally crossed blades… and chainsaws. The entire scene was exceptionally complemented by the energetic Maximum The Hormone’s Hawatari Niku Centi playing in the background, leading to their rematch just before the cut to the opening theme song KICK BACK by Kenshi Yonezu. This particular sequence sends shivers down my spine every time I rewatch it.
All of this was complemented at the moment perfectly with the upbeat song by Maximum The Hormone playing in the background leading to their rematch just before the cut to the opening song by Kenshi Yonezu. This particular sequence sends shivers down my spine every time I rewatch it.
Sound in Chainsaw Man: Beauty in Subtlety
If a director wants an adaptation based on realism, they need to remove aspects that are “unnecessary” to make the adaptation feel as realistic as possible to the viewer. This approach is heavily influenced by neorealism. This philosophy extends to the sound, (or the lack thereof) which plays a pivotal role in how scenes are constructed in the Chainsaw Man anime. If a fight is brewing the background music starts playing, while in most other scenes, there is a distinct lack of sounds or noises that wouldn’t be present in everyday life. Even when background music is playing, it’s always gentle, appearing as a pleasant hum.
Sound can also be suggestive of a viewer’s emotions, which shines most beautifully with Makima and how she is presented. Background melodies play during Makima’s scenes especially when she is giving Denji or Aki hope or compliments, which gives her subtle manipulations a more laidback implication from the viewer. Her actions feel subverted and almost like practical jokes against the casual background tunes. This adds to an increasingly eerie feeling that creeps into the adaptation over the course of the season. This unsettling feeling is heightened by the general lack of background music throughout the series, making Makima’s scenes seem unsettling while elevating her to an even more fearful figure. When coupled with Tomori Kusunoki’s quiet and gentle voice acting, a very faithful adaptation of Makima’s adaptation is anything but faithful.
Finally, there are the silent moments in which the series shines its brightest. This is best exemplified in an anime-exclusive scene, in which Aki is brewing coffee and reading the newspaper outside early in the morning. Throughout this segment, only the sounds of rush hour traffic can be heard. The noise in this sequence is interrupted only by the crackling of paper, transforming it into a serene, peaceful scene that invites the viewer to lose themself in the moment.
Ultimately, MAPPA’s Chainsaw Man anime was a love letter from directors Ryū Nakayama and Masato Nakazono to Tatsuki Fujimoto’s original work and, more broadly, to the art of cinematography itself. The adaptation took on an identity of its own by fusing signature cinematographic elements from radically different cultures to create a unique product that blossoms from its multicultural inspirations, strategic use of sound, and an almost obsessive attitude toward detail.
Furthermore, it will be remembered as a compelling, unorthodox experience that perfectly encapsulates the abhorrent and unjust world that is Chainsaw Man.