Aki Hayakawa: Motivations and Psychology (Chainsaw Man Season 1)
The first season of Chainsaw Man that aired last year was wildly popular. While it may not deserve the insane level of hype we saw raised online, the show is certainly well-made. My favorite aspect of the anime is the character psychology. I'll write about several characters eventually, but the one on my mind today is Aki Hayakawa. This post will be a discussion about his character psychology and motivations. Please keep in mind that I haven't read any of the Chainsaw Man manga, so my discussion only covers the anime.
When Aki was still a child, the Gun Devil destroyed his home and killed his entire family. It was dumb luck that he was outside at the time and didn't die in the blast. We don't know what Aki did for the next few years, but by the time he was sixteen, he had started working as a professional Devil Hunter. Aki never states that he is out for revenge, but he readily informs other Devil Hunters that his goal is to kill the Gun Devil. It's generally understood that his motivation is indeed vengeance. (Keep that in mind for later.) When he's not thinking about revenge, what is Aki's behavior like?
The anime gives us the idea that Aki is, at least compared to Denji, something of a stickler. He cares about doing things the proper way and he wants to maintain complete self-control. Despite pressure from Himeno to be a frequent smoker, Aki only smoked cigarettes when truly bothered by something. Unlike most of the cast, he's respectful, quiet, and responsible. He follows a morning routine involving black coffee and reading. Whenever he goes out, his hair is perfectly made up. Although Aki took part in the drinking contest in episode 7, he didn't look excited about it, nor did he lose his composure at any point that night. I bet he didn't drink a sip prior to his 18th birthday.
So, why is Aki so uptight? Part of it can be chalked up to his natural personality, which makes him take everything quite seriously. However, another part of the reason is that Aki needs to maintain the illusion of control in his life. The world is cruel, filled with Devils who prey on humans not out of need for sustenance but out of pure malevolence (or in some cases blind instincts). If that wasn't bad enough, Aki works as a Devil Hunter, and his teammates are constantly killed off and replaced. In such a world as this, it's only natural to feel desperate for some kind of control.
There are few things more infuriating than powerlessness. Yet Aki and other Devil Hunters live in this state every day. The Gun Devil randomly and indiscriminately took the lives of millions, causing many survivors to lose their sense of control in life. To cope with this lack of power, Devil Hunters use a variety of methods. Most, like Himeno, live almost hedonistically when they aren't on the job. But the wild life isn't the default coping mechanism for everyone. Aki is an example of someone who copes by doubling down and becoming even more serious and perfectionistic than before. That's why he doesn't let himself have much fun.
Aki is only normal or stable at first glance. He's actually quite a piece of work. Kishibe and Himeno are of the opinion that Devil Hunters need to have "a screw loose" to survive for very long. Himeno initially reported that Aki had no signs of insanity whatsoever, but that was before she really knew him. Aki is eccentric and irrational in several ways. It's not the same kind of madness exhibited by Denji and Power, but a much quieter kind of insanity. The most obvious example is how Aki tells everyone that he will be the one to kill the Gun Devil.
This aspiration is patently absurd. Anyone with a shred of sense can understand that. As Himeno explains in episode 6, the Gun Devil is the kind of being that can kill thousands or millions of people in one fell swoop. We don't know how this force can be defeated, but it certainly can't be accomplished by one man alone. Plus, Aki is not some famously strong hero. He's an above-average Devil Hunter with a three-year survival record, but nothing more than that. Even if one person could kill the Gun Devil, that would only mean competition. There are countless people who lost loved ones to the Gun Devil, and many of them seek revenge. Clearly, Aki's dream is ridiculous.
There's no question that Aki is capable of good reasoning. He's actually quite logical most of the time. So why does he chase this foolish dream? The answer is simple: he doesn't know what else to do with himself. He says in episode 11, "I know I'm not being realistic about what I can accomplish right now. But I also know I couldn't keep going on any other way." Outside of vengeance, Aki feels purposeless. This brings us to an interesting facet of Aki's psychology: in my opinion, he is motivated primarily by feelings of emptiness rather than true longing for revenge.
I believe revenge is fueled by hatred. Is Aki a hateful person? Well, he behaved aggressively with Denji early on. Plus, he believes friendship with Devils is impossible. But I don't think these things mean Aki is driven by hate. By bullying Denji the first day, he was trying to get the boy to quit a dangerous job- basically, he thought he was saving Denji. Although Aki isn't exactly "friends" with Power, he tolerates her enough to live with her. He's also not hateful toward devils he contracts with. I'm sure Aki was genuinely frustrated with Denji's carefree attitude, and he's seriously on guard when it comes to Fiends and Devils. However, he's not hateful in either case.
If hate isn't the driving force for Aki, then what is? My theory is that it's an existential sense of emptiness. What would you do if your home and family all vanished in one day? How could you pick up the pieces to rebuild when there is nothing left? The moment Aki slows down and allows himself to relax, he feels an urgent pull to get back to work and strive for his revenge. If he ignored that urge for very long, the emptiness would probably consume him. Thus, Aki's quest for vengeance keeps him afloat not because of hatred but rather to stave away the sense of having no purpose and no anchor in life.
It's a shame, because someone like Aki could easily find stability and personal meaning without being a Devil Hunter and dying young. The people who struggle with finding meaning in the emptiness are usually the ones who are apathetic or numb. But this doesn't describe Aki at all. He possesses a rich internal world of emotions, most of them much more healthy and appropriate than what we see in other characters. Himeno claimed to like Aki for his looks, but I think she also liked how he's such a genuine person. I certainly love that about him.
At several points, Chainsaw Man suggests that Aki is romantically interested in Makima. Aki also states that Makima saved his life, and that he believes she is a good person. Other than that, we don't know anything about it. The details about Aki's admiration for Makima are unknown, and we don't yet have the story of how Makima saved him. So we are going to skip over this part of Aki's character psychology. (I did at least want to mention it, though.) That leaves us with two final interrelated points to discuss: 1) the emotional resilience of Aki, and 2) the significance of cigarettes as this character's motif.
Though Aki might come across as cold at first, he possesses a healthy emotional nature. Compared to Denji and Power, he cares about the people around him. According to Himeno, she would usually catch Aki crying a little after the death of a teammate. Most devil hunters are so desensitized that they no longer cry - at least not usually, or in front of other devil hunters. The pressure to be strong and stoic is intense. We also see Aki crying and grieving after Himeno's death. He admired and trusted her immensely. I argue that Aki's emotional nature makes him strong because he has to struggle more than someone who feels nothing when a comrade dies. In other words, Aki is highly resilient.
Now, what about Aki and cigarettes? Himeno often tried to get Aki to smoke, but for the first few years, he always refused. His reason was that they were unhealthy. Plus, when he started working as a devil hunter, he wasn't yet eighteen. But at some point - exactly when is unknown - he must have finally given in. At the time of the series, Aki is nineteen years old and is seen smoking several times. He buys the same brand as Himeno, but seems to smoke less often than her, and doesn't always carry them around. It's clear that he associates cigarettes with Himeno.
After Aki wakes up in the hospital, he is unable to smoke because it reminds him of Himeno and makes him cry. During his fight with the Ghost Devil in episode 12, Aki is at rock bottom, physically and emotionally drained. Then the Ghost Devil, for some reason, gave him one of Himeno's cigarettes. (Perhaps it was Himeno's will working through the devil she once mastered.) This succeeded in reminding Aki about Himeno and how he needed to avenge her. He also remembered the Ghost Devil's weakness. Because of the cigarette, the young devil hunter stood up again and was able to keep fighting. He quickly dispatched the Ghost Devil and captured Akane, thus avenging Himeno.
The scene late in episode 12 where Aki smokes again is significant. It means he is going to be able to move on. He might still be grieving, but he can focus on his main goals again while remembering Himeno fondly. Life is short for devil hunters, and Aki doesn't have much longer to live due to his contract with the Curse Devil. So, he might as well sit down and enjoy a cigarette.
Thanks for reading~