The Silent Darkness of Chainsaw Manby Michael Basile,
Chainsaw Man is a manga known for a lot of things. Explosive action set pieces, breakneck pacing, striking visuals, but above all else, what truly impressed me about this manga is its ability to convey complex, often incredibly dark emotions while the actual dialogue says very little or even nothing at all. For this video, I want to go through some examples of this to show how brilliant this manga can be in that regard, and we're gonna be jumping around the whole story, so major spoilers ahead.
We'll start with some fairly basic examples. Much like the story's pacing itself, Chainsaw Man certainly doesn't waste time in employing memorable visual imagery. In the very first chapter, when we see Denji's flashback to the first time he meets Pochita, we get a brief image of Denji hanging from a noose as an emotional response to him seeing Pochita bleeding out. Here, Denji sees himself in Pochita and so he attempts to revive him by feeding him his blood. I do think it's rather noteworthy that the image brought to Denji's mind is one of suicide rather than a more generic dead, as it implies that, were he to do nothing about his situation, he would basically be killing himself, and so his subconscious mind spurs him to act in a way that would allow him to keep living.
Now, most of Chainsaw Man's visuals aren't quite as quick and easy to skim past as this one. One of my personal favorites comes at the end of the International Assassins arc when Cosmo traps Santa Claus with her powers. As Cosmo describes how she will force the entirety of the universe's knowledge into Santa's brain, Santa's body becomes smaller and smaller in each progressive panel, conveying the approaching threat of Cosmo's power, until we finally reach the page turn, giving us a miniscule speck of Santa Claus drawn against the vast wealth of knowledge being forced into her brain. There is no further internal monologue describing how Santa's mind is unraveling as a result of this knowledge because we don't really need it. The weight of the imagery alone is enough to convey the immense horrors of her final moments of life before she goes completely insane and dies from not being able to heal her wounds, and the use of the word “Halloween,” invoking the notion of supernatural and unearthly beings coming over to our plane of existence to represent this cosmic horror, is a perfect cherry on top of a truly bone-chilling concept.
Jumping back a few chapters, we have what might be the most iconic shot from the entire manga, the appearance of the Darkness Devil. After Denji's group and the assassins trying to kill them are cast into hell, all of the fiends incur an intense level of dread upon feeling the presence of the most powerful devils in existence, one of whom, The Darkness Devil, soon appears to them. After seeing a splotch of dark material fall to the ground, we are presented with this incredibly striking image of the Darkness Devil dwelling just barely within sight, as a row of bisected astronauts posed in prayer stretch out towards it, their guts strewn out in a bloody mess before them. The choice of using dead astronauts to represent darkness calls to mind the vast nothingness of space and how, despite all of humanity's technological advances, we are still nothing compared to the empty black void that comprises most of the known universe. The prayer pose itself is also hauntingly captivating. It could be as vague as praying to an unknown entity we don't fully understand, or it could be as specific as a reference to the photo of the Apollo 1 crew praying to a miniature of the capsule that they intended to land on the Moon in, only to tragically die in a cockpit fire less than a year later. Putting aside whether this was the intent or not, the sheer power of this image on its own, from its gory details to its phenomenal use of blocking and lighting, conveys a sense of true awe and terror befitting one of the most powerful devils in the series, thoroughly conveying its otherworldly nature with almost zero lines of dialogue being used for its description.
This next moment technically does use a lot of words, just not in the traditional sense of creating readable dialogue. In a desperate attempt to kill Makima, the President offers the Gun Devil a year off the life of every American citizen in exchange for Makima's assassination. What follows is a deluge of wanton destruction by the Gun Devil as it makes its way towards Makima. Coupled alongside this imagery, we are shown the name of every single person the Gun Devil kills during this assault, with over 900 different names spread across 13 pages, all of this taking place over just twelve seconds.. Until now, most of the mass deaths in this series were treated simply as spectacle, bodies to be thrown at enemies in order to create flashier fight scenes. Here, however, the idea that hundreds of people are dying enmasse over such a short period of time is presented not as just another tragedy filled with nameless deaths, but instead something much more personal by naming every single person who is killed, giving life to faces that you only see for a brief moment, some of whom aren't even drawn on the page, but exist nonetheless. It attempts to punch through the thick-skinned apathy that we cloak ourselves in so as not to be burdened by the innumerable tragedies that we experience in our own world, reminding us that those who die are real people, not numbers, that their deaths should not be ignored as just another statistic, a concept that seems to be growing more and more relevant to our own lives every day.
Keeping with the theme of infamous moments, we'll jump forward a bit to chapter 81. After killing Aki due to his possession by the Gun Devil, Denji decides to completely give up on making his own choices and asks Makima to decide everything for him from now on, to which she happily agrees. Immediately following this, Power knocks at the door to bring Denji a cake for his birthday, and Makima tells Denji to open it for her so that she can kill Power. Thus follows the haunting double-page spread of Makima leading Denji to the door. In the background hangs a portrait that belongs to a series of illustrations by Gustave Doré titled “Paradise Lost,” with this particular piece displaying Lucifer being cast out of Heaven and becoming Satan. There's a lot to unpack with this image and, in true Chainsaw Man fashion, it's not 100% obvious what the precise messaging is. The title itself and the visual of a fallen angel could represent Denji losing his own paradise that he found in Power and Aki by deciding to put all of his faith in Makima. It could also be a reference to the misuse of free will, though this interpretation is a bit muddier since Lucifer used his free will to rebel against God while Denji simply rejects his free will entirely. I think the most powerful interpretation however, would be one of betrayal. Denji recognizes that he is betraying Power in this moment, much like Lucifer knew that he was betraying God, and yet he chooses to go through with it anyway to fulfill his own desires of not having to think for himself, thus losing the only friend he has left in this world. As a brief aside, when I first learned that Makima was the Control Devil, I initially predicted that she would use her powers to force Denji to kill Power himself, but the fact that Makima used her emotional control over Denji to have him open the door of his own free will, thus allowing Makima to kill Power, is somehow even more upsetting than my initial prediction.
The examples I've used so far are ones that lean very hard into the negative, moments that haunt you with Lovecraftian imagery or hit you with a thematic gut punch out of nowhere, but for this last example, I want to bring out some of Chainsaw Man's optimism. At the end of chapter 52, Denji is waiting for Reze in the café she works at. This is shortly after he fights her in her Bomb Devil form and allows her to escape because he's still in love with her and can't bring himself to kill her, asking her to meet him at the café if she wants to run away with him. Unfortunately, Reze never shows, not because she rejected his offer, but because Makima kills her before they can reunite.
As Reze lays dying in a nearby alleyway, Denji waits in the cafe with a massive bouquet of flowers. As the night wears on, Denji hopes wanes until the door suddenly swings open, jumpstarting his anticipation, only for Power to stroll through the entrance with his usual brashness, and so Denji sinks back into disappointment. When she asks if the flowers are for her, Denji says nothing and starts eating the flowers, thus ending the chapter. Here, rather than dole out an internal monologue where he tries to process his emotions regarding Reze and her failure to show up, he simply takes a few beats of silence before symbolically consuming his love as a way of moving past her. With this being his first heartbreak, combined with his overall lack of life experience, Denji most likely doesn't even have the vocabulary to describe what he feels, and so he chooses to let his instincts take over when he needs to move on, and it's the little things like this that make the darkest moments of Chainsaw Man feel just a bit more bearable. The world kinda sucks and bad things will never stop happening, but if we can find ways to keep going, whether it's symbolically swallowing our feelings or repeatedly kicking someone in the balls, then we just might be able to keep on living.
Before we close, I do want to address how we typically talk about the visual concept I described here, which is colloquially known as “show, don't tell.” “Show, don't tell” is considered to be a cinematic truism stating that conveying an idea through actions, symbolism, or other cinematic language is better than simply explaining a concept via dialogue. In reality, “show, don't tell” is simply another tool in the artist's toolbelt. It is neither inherently better nor worse than explaining something outright. Many of my favorite anime and manga do not abide by this rule in any capacity. In fact, I can think of several moments that would be actively hindered by not outright explaining the point. Much like the shadow cast on a character's face or the space between two characters on screen, words can be just as powerful at conveying a message given the right circumstance. It just so happens that the ideas and concepts behind Chainsaw Man specifically are greatly benefited by this concept because a lot of the emotions present here are not readily definable, at least not in the specifics. Denji and the others so often experience things that are well beyond their ability to communicate verbally that it would do them a disservice to even try, and so showing us how they feel via complementary imagery and paneling allows these moments to land much harder.
This brevity with dialogue is also a major boon to the fight scenes. With a lot of shounen battle manga, there's often an intense amount of dialogue devoted to describing the thought processes of the characters during battle, either for the sake of explaining their strategy or elucidating their motivations, and when it's done well, it can add a whole new layer to the visual components. With Chainsaw Man, however, these fights would only be hampered by excessive dialogue because A. the combat in this series is, comparatively, very simple and doesn't really require much explanation outside of what you can obviously see, and B. Fujimoto's tendency towards large panels and double-page spreads with big, imposing artwork would make text bubbles an unnecessary distraction from the composition of the action. In any case, Fujimoto's mastery of expressing complex concepts while directly saying very little is an absolute marvel and one of many, many things that makes Chainsaw Man such a memorable and fascinating series.
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