Title: Tokyo Ghoul (Tōkyō Gūru)
Format: TV anime
Genre: horror, supernatural, angst
Series Creator: Sui Ishida
Series Director: Shuhei Morita
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 3 – September 18, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs
Ken Kaneki is a shy college student who meets a woman named Rize Kamishiro at Anteiku, a coffee shop. They share an interest in literature and plan a date. While walking Rize home, Ken is attacked by her. Rize reveals that she is a ghoul, a human-like creature that hunts and devours human flesh. As she is about to finish him off, she is crushed by a falling platform. Kaneki is taken to the hospital in critical condition. The doctor decides to transplant Rize’s organs into Ken. He then must deal with life as a half-human/half-ghoul, including interacting with ghoul society and its conflicting factions, while striving to keep his identity secret from other humans.
Let me begin with an aside: Pop Culture is always confused as to what zombies are. Properly, a zombie is a mindless automaton of formerly living flesh. Yet Pop Culture sees zombies as mindless devourers of brains & human flesh who spread infection through their bites; which, in truth, is semi-based on what a ghoul is supposed to be. I blame George A. Romero for spreading this misconception & infecting Pop Cultural like the proverbial zombie. This is all illustrated because the titular ghouls in Tokyo Ghoul aren’t like their folkloric counterparts, being near-mindless monsters haunting burial places. The ghouls within this series are more akin to the traditional views of vampire in the Slavic Balkan tradition, who eat flesh & organs to sustain themselves but maintain some semblance of intelligence.
This is merely said because I can be a tad pedantic in terms of folklore & mythology as well as terminology & the origins of things. It’s something to keep in mind, especially for later articles.
Anyway, let us continue:
Coming to this series only knowing the general outline of the original manga (which recently finished its run at 14 volumes, which will soon be released in the West), I had nothing in the way of expectations for this series. So I was nicely surprised at how much I really got into it & enjoyed it. That is to say, right up until the end but will speak about that later.
On the surface, Tokyo Ghoul seems like a story that we’ve seen more than a few times before: a normal boy comes into possession of a dark supernatural power that removes him from humanity & threatened to overwhelm/destroy his everyday life. Yet where Tokyo Ghoul differs from many other narratives is its intense focus on the personal, moral & social struggles of enduring trans-humanism & finding yourself being neither one thing nor another but being forced to consist via means that you once found utterly abhorrent.
This is the situation that Kaneki Ken finds himself in after miraculously surviving an attack by the powerful ghoul Riza, also known as The Glutton because of her insatiate appetite, but fatally wounded. He has Riza’s organs transplanted into his body, with the surgeons thinking that they were both in an accident together, which begins Ken’s downward spiral into re-examining the morality of what it means to not just live but also survive.
In the universe of Tokyo Ghoul, ghouls can only survive by eating human flesh (although they can eat other ghouls but find the taste abhorrent). All human food is tasteless to them as well as builds up as a poison in their system. Human flesh also doubles as a fuel source for ghouls’ kagune, which are strange growths that come out of their back & can be used in battle in various fashions. The flesh that they consume can either be alive or dead but has to be human in origin (so no substituting it with animal flesh). If a ghoul doesn’t eat for a certain period of time, they lose their minds, turning feral & attacking the closest humans that they can find so they can feed.
After Ken is turned into a Half-Ghoul, he finds that he loses the ability to eat any human food & is almost driven insane by his need to survive. This brings him into contact & conflict with the hidden ghoul population of the city, many of whom compete over kills or dead bodies in order just to get by. This also brings in territories, based upon the Ward system in Tokyo, each of which has a strong hierarchy that can be enforced or disrupted by high level ghouls such as Rize. Ken’s strong moral bent of never doing any harm means that he cannot bring himself to eat human flesh because he believes that it will strip him of all that makes him human. Yet without the flesh, he’ll die, so vicious teenaged ghoul Kirishima Tōka (also spelt Touka) forces him to eat flesh after saving him from an attack by Nishio Nishiki, who is looking to fill the power vacuum left by Rize’s disappearance (the ghouls don’t know that she died attacking Ken). She then takes him to the café Anteiku (where he used to go with Rize), which is actually a front for ghouls who refuse to kill but need to be provided with flesh to survive. In exchange for flesh, he must work at the café, learning what it means to be a ghoul in the face of brutal reality.
In such a narrative world, one would think that ghouls, despite being in relatively low numbers, would be at the top of everything. The clever conceit of Tokyo Ghoul is that not only are ghouls petty & territorial -seldom able to work together because of their basic need to survive- but they are also hunted by humans with the skills to fight them on near equal levels. These are the Special Anti-Ghoul Investigators, also referred to as The Doves by ghouls, who fight with weapons called cinque, which are harvested from the kagune of the ghouls. With their cinque & intense training, Doves can stand against even higher tier ghouls. Their very presence in a ward constantly drives ghouls underground in fear because many of Doves are pure murderous sociopaths who don’t believe that ghouls have any form of morality or are capable of displaying any sort of human emotion &/or affection.
This juxtaposition of living & survival to illustrated in the merciless nature of the Doves against the Anteiku desire to live as a close approximation to normal human life as they can. The Doves believe that all ghouls are evil, because many of them are, whilst the Anteiku group simply want to live a life free of the fear of basic, animalistic survive. They don’t want to integrate into regular human society, merely not have to be terrified for their lives because of the Doves or more vicious ghouls like the utterly psychotic Jason (how they refer to him in the series, referencing the character Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13 II onwards) or the twisted Gourmet -who seeks flavour to enhance life rather than belittling himself with just subsuming ghoulish existence on human flesh. To add to this quality of “who is the real monster”, the primary Doves Mado & Amon are actually named after folkloric demons whilst they give many ghouls dehumanising nicknames to identify them if they hide behind masks or can only be known by their scenes of slaughter -such as Riza’s gluttonous behavour.
Through this new & treacherous world, Ken must navigate but, unfortunately, he’s a bit of a twat. Trusting, stubborn, self-conscious, piteous & oft times frustrating in his weakness. Usually these traits would have me so vexed by the way they are rendered within Ken make him a more grounded & relatable character. He is constantly trapped is human morality & his emerging ghoulish instincts. Yet his basic moral flaw doesn’t allow him to hurt others, even if it will do damage to him. The explanation for this trait is painful, pitiable & poignant that it brings almost everything that has come before into sharp relief. Unfortunately, having such a passive & weak belief leaves Ken vulnerable to the brutalities of the awakening world around him. He is also too trusting of people -again, to do with his inability to harm others- which often leads him into dangerous situations -ones that not only threaten his body but also his very sanity. His journey is to overcome these situations, strengthening his body & resolve but at, ultimately, what cost?
This series is very dark; in terms of its brutality but also in its visuals. Because it is filled with a high level of blood & gore, often a lot of the scenes have a dark filter places over them to censor out the offending material. This will later be remove for the home releases but it does somewhat mute the impact of what we are experiences -especially the savagery of Ken’s new situation. Apart from these patches of self-censorship, the rest of the series is exceptionally beautiful. The combat scenes are smooth & clear yet frenetic, hefting with the weight of each impact. The rendering of the kagune, which are often neon bright, is also exceptionally well done; contrasting well with the often darken backgrounds (since a lot of the action occurs in hidden locations or at night, away from prying human eyes).
The OP theme unravel by the artist Toru “TK” Kitajima from the post-rock group Ling Tosite Sigure has also garnered a lot of fan attention of late as well. This is because it is a layered affair, beginning with weak almost emotionally tortured vocals that then explodes into something so much more. As seen here:
My one great criticism of the series though is that it just ends.
Not that there will be no more of it. It simple ends without resolution & at a climatic part of the story-arc. This lack of settlement bothered me exceptionally, even with the realisation that there will be another series of it next year. It’s that annoying sudden kick of someone taking something away from you that you’ve been really enjoying & you know that you still have a hankering for -like an older sibling stealing your dessert to use a slightly tortured allegory.
In the end, this was an exceptionally deep series that speaks to so many different allegories for many different social issues. It speaks to racism -especially attitudes towards Half Japanese people- not to mention ideas of brutality & the basic need to survive vs. the desire to be part of a larger social group. There are many messages that you can get from it upon many viewings. I really hope that they bring out the 2nd series sooner than later but, in the meantime, I can still read the completed manga series & look at the recently release spin off sequel.