The new chapter of Chainsaw Man dropped yesterday, after a two-year break. I've read it three times already. It's not at all what I was expecting – whatever that was – and exacrly what I hoped for. It's a confident, triumphant return for probably the best manga I've ever read.
But in the run-up to the new chapter, I went back to mangaka Tatsuki Fujimoto's previous work, Fire Punch.
It's, uh… it's a lot.
But despite sharing obvious DNA with its successor, Fire Punch clarified, for me, what makes Chainsaw Man work, despite its violent and often juvenile tendencies. It's a deceptively simple change: empathy, both for, and from, its characters.
Fire Punch is unrelentingly bleak. Few of its characters could be described as good people; they're all capable of horrific, detached brutality. In its frozen wasteland apocalypse, people are enslaved, abused and tortured with a disturbing lack of malice. That dispassionate approach and the art's lack of prurient interest in the specifics save the manga from descending into outright pornography, but it also leaves a deep nihilistic streak running through every one of its characters.
By comparison, the characters in Chainsaw Man are distressingly human in their desires and actions. Denji's dream life is shallow and cheap, but that clear, simple goal, however selfish and juvenile, drives every action he takes; his naivete stands in stark contrast to most of the other characters. Aki's dreams are just as selfish as Denji's, even if he dresses them up in lofty terms, but at least Denji is willing to admit what he's really chasing after.
(It's also worth pointing out that while the other characters are driven mostly by fear or hatred, Denji is coming from a place where he had nothing and is chasing hope for something more from life.)
So while it might share its predecessor's penchant for horrific, bloody violence, the existence of humans (ish) with fantastical superpowers, and a single-minded protagonist drawn accidentally into a conflict larger than he realises, because their motives are easy to understand, even the worst devils in Chainsaw Man feel more human than anyone in Fire Punch, and it's much easier to root for their success, lament their failures, and mourn their passing.