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‘Chainsaw Man’ Could Be the Biggest Anime Breakthrough Since ‘Attack on Titan’

The hype surrounding the new series is real, and the culmination of a long effort to popularize anime and manga in the U.S.

Crunchyroll/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In December 2018, the manga artist Tatsuki Fujimoto published the first chapter of Chainsaw Man, a modern twist on the figurative deal with the devil, in Japan’s Weekly Shonen Jump. A couple of years into its run, Chainsaw Man topped best-seller lists and sold out volumes all over the world. It was the rare manga series to build a substantial readership in the U.S. even before it had been adapted into an anime series, which tends to boost book sales. But the anime would indeed follow not longer after. In late 2020, the acclaimed studio MAPPA announced its plans to adapt Chainsaw Man into a television series. The earliest trailer was an exquisitely grim and blood-splattered showcase of some of the most striking animation of its generation. These first impressions lingered for more than a year without confirmation of a premiere date, while the manga series wrapped its first story arc (known as the Public Safety Saga) and went on hiatus. The hype for Chainsaw Man snowballed into a critical mass.

This week, the anime finally arrived, premiering Tuesday and simulcasting in the U.S. exclusively via Crunchyroll. The Chainsaw Man anime is part of the subculture’s broader success story of the past decade: a resurgence of big-budget action anime (after a drought that began in the last 2000s and ran through the early 2010s) and an explosion in international manga readership. In the U.S., it’s still secondary to comic book culture, but it’s now commonplace in bookstores, at box offices, and on streaming services. These days, there’s no shortage of buzzy battle shonen series—Demon Slayer, My Hero Academia, Jujutsu Kaisen, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure—with massive crossover interest in both the anime adaptation and the original manga. Chainsaw Man is the culmination of a long effort to popularize anime and manga in the U.S. In fact, the series seems poised to be the biggest breakthrough in mainstream American anime viewership since Attack on Titan.

The first episode of Chainsaw Man, as in the first chapter of the manga, follows a scruffy young man named Denji as he wanders the countryside with his strange puppy, Pochita, a “dog” that’s really a devil with a chain saw protruding from his forehead, and a pull cord for a tail. Denji is missing his right eye. He’s also starving. When his father died, Denji inherited a crippling debt to the yakuza. Now, Denji and Pochita live together in a darkened shack, subsisting on scraps of white bread; Denji dreams of the day they’ll afford to eat bread with jam. In the meantime, Denji and Pochita chop trees, hunt other devils—who have migrated to Earth using the power of human fears—and sell Denji’s expendable organs to make a living. “Sold one of my nuts,” Denji says, for a little less than $700.

The situation gets worse. The yakuza forge a new partnership with a devil and leave Denji for dead in a dumpster at the scene of a massive ambush. This should be the end for Denji. But then, shockingly, Pochita speaks. He offers to revive Denji. “I’ll give you my heart,” Pochita says. “In exchange, show me your dreams.” Gratefully, Denji merges with Pochita and thus becomes something of a devil himself. He’s reborn in the dumpster with a pull cord dangling from his chest and chain saws attached to his arms and forehead. Denji slaughters the ambusher and his minions. He’s regained his lost organs, and now the devil dog is his beating heart. Pochita was the Chainsaw Devil. Denji is the Chainsaw Man.

The series premiere is a panel-for-panel adaptation of the first chapter of the manga. It’s only a glimpse of the show’s potential—the series premiere is the only episode of the first season screened for critics in advance—but MAPPA’s art and animation are as gorgeous as fans could have hoped. The subsequent chapters of Chainsaw Man introduce the Public Safety Devil Hunters, a government agency, and establish the central conflict between devils and humans. Some setups in battle shonen manga are more esoteric and lore-heavy than others; Chainsaw Man benefits from the stark, sentimental pitch in its opening chapter. Denji is a starving boy who can only hope he’ll live to one day hug a girl. Pochita rescues Denji from death, and Public Safety rescues Denji from poverty. This is all before the author, Fujimoto, even begins to explain the underlying mythology of Chainsaw Man. It’s about as accessible as these things get, while also being relatively mature in its characterizations and storytelling—not to mention its hyperviolence.

The acquisition of the Chainsaw Man anime is a coup for MAPPA and Crunchyroll. Last year, Sony purchased Crunchyroll for $1.18 billion from AT&T’s WarnerMedia in a bid for greater control of the global anime market. Crunchyroll competes with Netflix even though the two services are building very different libraries. Netflix streams a wide variety of content that just happens to include a decent selection of anime, while Crunchyroll streams anime exclusively. Netflix licenses and produces a lot of popular anime, and its high-profile launches in recent years led many fans to assume Chainsaw Man would premiere on Netflix in the U.S. But Netflix doesn’t do simulcasts, and so Crunchyroll still holds the competitive edge on blockbuster series premieres.

Nine years ago, Crunchyroll and Hulu premiered Attack on Titan in the U.S., and that turned out to be the biggest anime series of the past decade. Chainsaw Man is yet another competitive milestone for Crunchyroll, though Hulu will also stream the first season on a delay, and the series may well end up on Netflix at a later date. Crunchyroll is a service with 120 million registered users, but only 5 million paid subscribers who receive unlimited access to its titles. Netflix has more than 220 million paying subscribers globally. Crunchyroll is, ultimately, a streaming service for a subculture, and Chainsaw Man will show us how big that subculture can get.

The anime adaptation of Chainsaw Man arrives not long after the manga series returned from hiatus and began its second story arc. There’s a great deal of momentum behind Denji. Regardless of where his story is distributed, the anime seems prepared to take him over the top.