Chainsaw Man: Problematic Denji is Anime’s Best Worst Hero

Chainsaw Man Problematic Denji Best Worst Anime Hero

Chainsaw Man Problematic Denji Best Worst Anime Hero

Anime is a medium that can appear to have no boundaries. However, one of its great weaknesses, particularly for the flagship shounen demographic, is its protagonists. At a time when the industry is desperate for international growth, Chainsaw Man’s Denji could be their perfect hero, purely because he isn’t.

Chainsaw Man is set to take over the stacked Fall 2022 anime season with a bright, young production led by a new generation of storytellers. However, one of the most crucial steps has likely already been taken by the equally youthful mangaka that created its flawed lead.

Unmasking the Shounen Hero

Unmasking the Shounen Hero Midoriya My Hero Academia
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Imagine for a moment an anime hero. He – because it often is a he – is an ordinary person without any notable skills or popularity, but a burning desire to do something good. He comes across an unlikely mentor, who gives him the platform to achieve his dream through physical hard work, mental determination, a lucky gift and the (eventual) support of allies that share his goals.

That rough description could fit the protagonist of almost every other big anime series airing during the Fall 2022 season. My Hero Academia’s Izuku, Bleach’s Ichigo, Mob Psycho’s Mob, and at a stretch even Spy x Family’s Loid all fit the mould.

There’s a reason so many successful anime and manga series use this style of protagonist. There’s an immediate connection between the audience who can understand and root for the character’s motivation, and there is clear room for the story to grow and develop as they transform from an ordinary person to a true superhero.

These protagonists are a great fit for the traditional anime audience. However, they have limitations when it comes to wider demographics because, simply, people are not as clean-cut. The real world isn’t pulled by good and bad forces at two ends of a spectrum.

That’s what makes Denji such an interesting proposition.

Denji: More Than an Antihero

For anyone that has not read or seen Chainsaw Man, Denji is the protagonist who becomes the titular human-devil hybrid.

Beyond his mainly unwanted responsibilities as Chainsaw Man, however, is a young person who has learned to live in a world where he is constantly exploited.

Denji grows up an impoverished kid, working for the yakuza to pay off his deceased father’s debts. He’s given nothing and lives essentially homeless. Even when his life changes for the better, housed by the Public Safety Division, he remains in an exploitative world.

However, for Denji, this is just life. Despite his situation, all he cares for is food and women; that’s the type of thing you would hear in a bar at 2 am when people tend to let their desires overtake their conscious restraints.

Ironically, this background, beyond being down-to-earth, makes Denji a much more approachable and believable person than many of the stereotypical shounen protagonists listed above.

Almost everyone is familiar with some form of exploitation, whether it’s an unwanted job or something more personal. When we see the cold world of Chainsaw Man through our own experiences, Denji greets it with warmth and a childish excitement that you can’t help but support.

Denji achieves the same thing as any Izuku or Ichigo, but in a much more realistic way.

We’ve seen antiheroes in anime before – Attack on Titan’s Eren transforms from anime’s stereotypical protagonist into a classic antihero. However, no series with as much hype and anticipation as Chainsaw Man has delivered a main character so brilliantly ordinary.

A New Future for the Anime Lead

A New Anime Hero Denji Chainsaw Man
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The idea of the classic shounen protagonist will never leave – it is too successful for anybody to ignore, and has much more youthful appeal. But it’s clear that if anime wants to expand in the way its producers claim it must for issues such as fair pay to be resolved, then it needs a broader audience.

Many creatives, inspired by those that came before, are redesigning the stereotype for a contemporary age.

Some of the biggest shounen manga right now are led by simple and at times questionable characters. Jujutsu Kaisen’s Yuji Itadori shares many similarities to Denji, being thrust into a world that doesn’t want him there. Hell’s Paradise, created by one of Fujimoto’s assistants and also set to be adapted by studio MAPPA, stars an emotionless convict and his executioner.

Perhaps, and this is a big hope, Chainsaw Man’s success can inspire more storytellers and producers to break the mould when it comes to their leads.

Chainsaw Man is a big anime in many ways. The funding model, with a lot of investment by MAPPA, is unprecedented. The production is also being led by many young stars in the industry, making the series a flagship for what anime could look like going forward.

We’re long beyond heroes needing capes and uniforms, maybe now we’ll be able to surpass protagonists being wholly moral and get to experience much more rounded stories, the type of tales that resonate beyond anime’s core audience.

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