Here there be spoilers for Chainsaw Man
Aki Hayakawa hails from a comic named Chainsaw Man, so you know he’s had a hard life. When he was a child, he lost his whole family to an attack by the Gun Devil. He swore then and there that he would join Public Safety as a devil hunter and dedicate his life to destroying the Gun Devil once and for all. You might know someone like him. There are plenty of characters comics published in Shounen Jump who have dedicated their lives to revenge.
Aki smokes because he knows that he is going to die someday. His secret weapon is a contract with the Curse Devil, an entity that kills anything and anyone poked with a sharp object four times. For each entity he condems to death, the Curse Devil retrieves an ounce of his life. Aki’s best friend, an older woman named Himeno, also smokes, because she knows she is going to die one day. She gave her right eye to the Ghost Devil in exchange for power.
One day, when Aki and Himeno are in mortal danger, Himeno offers her whole body to the Ghost Devil so that it may keep Aki safe. The Ghost Devil later retreats out of cowardice, leaving Aki alone. Himeno’s final sacrifice evaporates, leaving no mark of a life led in service to others. In the end, that service ate her.
One day two years ago, I noticed that it was becoming harder and harder to walk on my left foot. My coworkers suggested to me that it might be a bunion, the curse of retail workers and a real pain to deal with. I bought some Epsom salt at the store and did my best to contain the damage. But soon after, I noticed that my left toe was beginning to swell alarmingly. My parents frantically insisted over the phone that I must have a toe infection—something that nearly killed my father back in the day. With that in mind, I went straight to Urgent Care, who gave me some painkillers. I spent the next few days sitting on my computer chair with my foot propped up on a stool, as I suffered through excruciating pain.
It took months before I visited a podiatrist and discovered the truth. My toe was never infected. Instead, I had broken a small piece of cartilage in my left foot while doing physical labor at work. I could walk on that foot without difficulty, so long as I was careful. But the podiatrist told me that cartilage healed far more slowly than a broken bone. Unless I was careful, it might never heal at all. My left toe would bother me for a year or two afterward. The whole time, I wondered if I would ever run or hike again without feeling pain.
These days, my toe is much better. I’m hoping that the cartilage has mostly recovered, or that at least my body has become accustomed to the pain. But the incident helped me to realize something: I had always been lucky. Born to a well-off family, having attended school without needing to engage in serious physical labor, I had never been required to put my body at risk. Now, at my retail job, I began to think about how my work was slowly affecting my body. How it changed the bodies of others. The scratches on my knuckles from metal bolts on the shelves. The back strain suffered by my coworkers moving boxes downstairs. My supervisor’s constant lack of sleep. To live and to work meant to suffer a thousand cuts.
In Hell, Aki loses an arm. The set-up to the punchline that changes his life reads as a horrible joke. Aki’s coworker Denji (the Chainsaw Man of the title) attracts ferocious devils like a beacon. Public Safety uses him to draw threats to its authority into the open. Together they face off against countless devils. But one of them, the Doll Devil, manages to assassinate Denji using Aki’s own ace in the hole, the Curse Devil. In the process, Denji, Aki and their friends are pulled down, down, down.
In Hell they met the horrible Darkness Devil, whose power exceeds all other devils they have faced. The Darkness Devil cuts off their arms, as a joke. The Darkness Devil kills many of their coworkers before they can escape. As a half-demonic fiend, Denji recovers from his wounds. His friend Power, also a fiend, recovers as well. But Aki is a human, subject to human weakness. The doctors reattach an arm of his, but only one. Some of his coworkers aren’t so lucky. They have no arms at all.
Aki doesn’t complain, because he has other things on his mind. The Future Devil told him that Denji will murder him and their friend Power. That he only has two months to live. Desperate to protect his friends, he pledges his life to Makina, head of Public Safety. The Monster which the United States now seeks to destroy via its hold on the Gun Devil. Makina takes Aki’s life from his hands as if it were a coin.
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about how coronavirus complicates work. It’s difficult enough to work from home, finding ways to separate your living space from your working space. To co-habitate with your partner, if you have one. To find ways to distract your child or your pet. I have friends who’ve spent the past several months fielding call centers, navigating an endless flood of scared or upset or bereaved people who themselves are stuck at home. It’s a hard time for everyone right now. I know.
But. I think about what it means to come in to work in person. What it means right now to be an “essential worker.” To be a grocery worker is to die. To be a restaurant server is to die. To be a teacher, required in some parts of the United States by the government to return to school in August or September, is to die. To do your part in a nursing home to save elderly people from succumbing to Covid-19, only to be exposed yourself, is to die. To be an out of work actor, or an unemployed person frantically applying for aid, is to die by starvation. To live in a small town in Maine and to be infected by the wealthy escaping from their own cities. To be infected by people who refuse to wear masks. To be infected because your work requires navigating cramped spaces. Violence.
I’m still lucky. I work at a retail job, but one that requires customers to wear masks. Most have complied. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to all of my coworkers throughout the pandemic, because I’ve been coming in to work the whole time. I’ve never felt isolated. My parents are also still around, which grants me a safety net I acknowledge many others do not have.
Even so, I’m tired. Now more than ever I feel like a disposable instrument. A tool used until blunted by either exhaustion, mental illness or plague. At first, I resented it. Then I began to see: the world is full of people who have been taught to see themselves as disposable instruments. Taught to sacrifice themselves for the good of their workplace, or—more insidiously—their fellows. Or simply forced to work until they are no longer useful. This world existed long before 2020. Covid-19 just raised the stakes. Just as school shootings became normalized as yet another crisis for children to navigate in the United States, death by pandemic has become an occupational hazard.
Aki is seized by what remains of the Gun Devil after Makina is through with them. While he joined Public Safety to defeat the Gun Devil, Aki is ultimately compelled by the Gun Devil to murder hundreds of people. Denji confronts Aki in order to save his friend, but in the end all he can do is kill him. As far as Aki knows, he is having a snowball fight with his best friend. It is the only mercy he is given before he dies.
Aki’s life is one of many small losses: the loss of his family, the loss of his friends, the loss of his body, the loss of his dignity, and finally the loss of his life. Every one of his sacrifices is ultimately meaningless, leaving endless destruction as the mark of a life lead in service towards others. In the end, that service ate him.
The three themes of Shounen Jump comics are famously friendship, struggle and victory. Every comic in the magazine is rigorously market-tested to adhere to those values. The hero fights, struggles, trains and inevitably becomes the leader at his chosen hobby. Chainsaw Man isn’t much different. Denji finds a new family and faces implacable foes. Despite the challenges he faces, I can believe that something good lies waiting for him on the other side of the tunnel.
Aki, though. Having dedicated his life to friendship, struggle and victory, he struggled with his friend and lost. If Chainsaw Man deviates from its fellow series in Shounen Jump, it is in this respect: the work does not care about you. The work will not save you. The work does not care about your friends, and it will not empower you to protect them. Your ideals do not matter. Your flesh and bone is your only currency.
As a child I was given the luxury to avoid thinking about these things. Now I weigh my remaining bones in the palm of my hand. What I could use them for, what to build with others, if not Public Safety?