Amidst astronomical and probably unfair expectations week in and week out, the anime adaptation of Chainsaw Man has mostly been a delight to look at, from its macabre opening to its ball-busting finale. The series’ action scenes impress, and under Ryu Nakamura’s direction the show has taken a strikingly glitzy, as well as realist visual approach for most of its first season, full of starkly cold lighting and patient attention to quiet scenes of detailed character acting — which initially came as something of a surprise considering the comic’s reputation for fast-paced, rough-edged mayhem.
As it dutifully follows along with the source material’s propulsive story the artists have been padding episodes with moments of subdued naturalism while its fast-paced action set pieces aim more for visceral bloodshed and uncanny horror. Such sequences expand on Fujimoto’s elliptical page layouts, like where Aki first summons the Fox devil: the show approaches things more cinematically, for lack of a better word, the camera enacting a dolly zoom on Aki’s hand sign, lengthening it from the short moment of shock from flipping through to the next page and the mirroring image suddenly appearing.
But (with the notable exception of its symbolic, cinephilic opening directed by Shingo Yamashita) nothing captures the grungy and erratic energy of Chainsaw Man more than the ending sequences, which the anime delightfully varies every time. Every new episode brings with it a new animated end credits sequence from a new director, each taking on their own interpretation and individualistic manner. Chainsaw Man’s spiritual sibling and fellow MAPPA production, the similarly macabre and goofy adaptation of Dorohedoro, had a few extra ending sequences of various styles up its sleeve, but not quite to this extent. And the scale of the project has extended not just to the sheer number of different endings in one season (12!) but also the popular artists pulled into the show’s orbit — such as Eve, Vaundy and Queen Bee (whose lead vocalist Avu-chan played the eponymous lead of Inu-Oh).
Opening and ending sequences are normally a chance to inject some extra imagination into a show, within this space many shows play with new palettes or even alternate universe takes on their characters. But what’s atypical here is simply the sheer amount that we’re getting in one season, not to mention the huge bands coming with them, a benefit of how luxuriant this particular adaptation is. Each week brings with it a striking new take as the directors strongly inflect their style on the material, changes which in themselves feel in conversation with the sudden tonal shifts and formal experiments that Fujimoto’s work quickly became renowned for.
After getting used to how the rest of the show is presented there’s a thrilling novelty in seeing Chainsaw Man interpreted in a new way every week alongside the rather strict consistency of the main episodes. After the simple recap of the first, each subsequent director gets to craft something incredibly memorable, each contributing to the sense that each episode release is a kind of event unto itself, all part of the strategy of “Chainsaw Man Tuesdays,” where new issues of Part 2 of the manga have been landing at roughly the same time as the episodes (all while showing some symmetry in their narrative trajectory, but that’s another matter). Even with that obvious sense of it playing into the marketing, it’s an exciting project — if there’s any one issue it’s that the show’s sometimes ropey subtitling extends into these moments, leaving out any and all thematically relevant lyrics.
An early standout comes from director Yuki Kamiya with the third ED, scored to a manic song “Hawatari Nikon Centi” by Maximum the Hormone (which by this point has become something of an insert song and motif for Denji when he busts out the chainsaws), an aggressive, expressive sensory barrage of screaming and grinding sound and luminescent tones. It’s also just stylish as all hell, a psychedelic explosion of scratchy breakbeat drum sounds and overlapping images as it clashes what seems to be Denji’s subjective perspective with the world as is, echoes of Fujimoto’s scratchy draftsmanship viewable in its wild character drawings. Along with that drawing style and breathless pacing, the color direction might be the most out of all of the endings that harkens back to the covers of the comic, an expressive emulsion of contrasting acidic tones.
The screaming stops, the singer takes on a higher but softer note and Makima descends from the heavens, the sledgehammer subtle representation of Denji’s deification of his apparent savior only becoming more and more loaded with ominous meaning as the show goes on. Kamiya returned later in the season for the eighth ending, which takes on a far more emo, somber tone as it further unpacks the tragic relationship between Aki and Himeno, with similarly aggressive alternative metal, by TK from Ling tosite sigure, scoring scenery bathed in deep hues of orange and blue, with a brief invasion of the more neon tints of his ending for episode 3. What makes this feel like a special project is how these vividly colored, heavily stylised endings sit in close proximity with something like the more dour, dingy 10th ending. Director and multimedia artist Yuma Hirai applies their practice to the show’s symbolism and thematic positioning of Denji, using live-action photography along with expressive but scratchy draftsmanship that recalls Fujimoto’s comics — all colored in an oppressive brown palette. It’s a fairly blunt evocation of Denji’s social positioning within Division 4, the likening of him to a dog no different to anything that Makima says but rendered more brutally than ever, in an entirely different approach to Chainsaw Man (the show)’s visual realism.
The fourth episode brought something a lot more lighthearted with an adorable tribute to Denji and Aki’s roommate and bloodthirsty fiend Power, the animation bathed in a bright shade of red as the fiend is portrayed dancing in a series of different outfits, various cutaways playfully showing the endearing and abrasive parts of her personality (a rapid fire cut of her hurling vegetables for starters). Storyboarded, directed and solo key animated by coalowl, it paints everyone’s favorite fiend with the artist’s indie flair, using a simple, risograph-like palette of mostly red and yellow block colors, crossed with lifelike dance choreography and splashy typography — common elements of the artist’s past music video work.
These scenes are more than just a fun kiss-off for the episode. Episode 4’s sequence recasts Power as the star of the show, in a playful merging of both the audience’s esteem for her, and her own vast self-esteem as a future Nobel prize winner. The track itself, “Tablet” by TOOBOE, with its bouncy beat and quirky synths, is effectively a love song in the same sense, the lyrics coming across in context as a loving ode to Power’s wild impulsiveness. While the third ending directed by Kamiya captured the story so far in delirious microcosm, the fourth expands on the personality of a character that the anime audience hadn’t had so much time with yet, compared to people importing their love for her from the manga. It’s a choice that speaks to the grander function of Chainsaw Man’s endings as extensions of the storytelling and characterization, something that only gets stronger from there. For episode 9 Masanobu Hiraoka directs, storyboards and solo key animates a hallucinatory, constantly morphing visualization of Makima’s bad vibes, as already violently illustrated in the story that preceded.
Each densely packed frame in ED5 (directed by Hiromatsu Shuu) is fun to pick apart as the depiction of the various trapped devil hunters as four different horses act both as representations of the characters and their personalities and hints at the broader tapestry of the story (and even a potential reference to Muybridge’s Horse In Motion, continuing its post-Nope time in the spotlight). It explodes the episode’s conceit of an infinite hotel outwards into a kaleidoscopic clash of differing art movements (encompassing everything from anamorphic art to Michelangelo’s The Pieta, replacing Jesus and Mary with Denji and Makima), sinister motifs and various looping, Escherian structures of impossible stairs. Syudou’s similarly hypnotic track “In The Backroom” propels the journey through its multifaceted symbolism. It’s delightful to take in, from the speed-ramped animation of Kobeni anxiously creeping through the hotel and repeatedly looking over her shoulder, to the vivid, flowing and psychedelic imagery of Himeno calmly smoking the time away.
These endings have been so exciting that they threaten provoking ideas about what could have been, asking “why wasn’t it all done in this way?” While I share some empathy for that thought, this isn’t to say that there isn’t emotional value in the approach that the show has taken thus far, which I myself have greatly enjoyed for its interpretation of the series.
Even as the episodes themselves prioritize fidelity over stylization and new inventions, there’s still pleasures unique to them (Kensuke Ushio’s delightful, idiosyncratic score for starters) in the same way the comic has its unique appeal for example, how Fujimoto structures scenes with every formal element in mind with speech bubbles slyly acting as censor bars for decapitations or act as a visual signifier of the emotional distance between two characters, or how certain devils’ ominous powers break the boundary of the panel. There are moments where the show would maybe benefit from snappier timing in its direction but for the most part its flourishes are quite dazzling in their own way.
Even though it’s a shonen show about a horny immortal teenager whose head turns into a power tool, a lot of my favorite parts have come from its quiet and downtempo moments of verisimilitude — Aki making some coffee and doing laundry, Himeno stumbling around her apartment drunk, Makima neatening her uniform – these accumulate into a more complete picture of these people and their mannerisms, the little rituals they do to exert control over their lives in a world where things often go incredibly wrong incredibly fast. Not only that, but such segments of slice-of-life humanizes them further, simply existing in the same space for a more protracted time makes their future absences hit all the harder. The very last ending, scored to “Fight Song” by Eve, finally connects the dots between these two modes of Chainsaw Man, giving the surrogate family of Denji, Aki, and Power some normal stuff to do, shopping and making dinner together. Storyboarded by Nakamura, it makes sense that such an ending sequence would serve as a coda to the season, that focus tying it all together.
It’s all fun, and maybe the difference just means that this way we always get two Chainsaw Mans in one, the show effectively having its cake and eating it too by using the ending sequences as an opportunity to plug into the comic’s varied tone while maintaining its own moody approach. The show is good for different reasons than the manga is, which I feel is the way that adaptations should be, even if there might be a pang of disappointment that it doesn’t reach for similar formal experimentation. Which is where the ending sequences come in — little stories unto themselves that act like a kind of bridge between what is and what could have been, between the story across mediums, a bit of creatively distilled Chainsaw Man vibes week in, week out, regardless of how each episode goes.