Episodes 1 – 4
“It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.” H.P. Lovecraft Describing a Ghoul in his tale “Pickman’s Model”
Tokyo Ghoul takes place in the familiar setting of contemporary Tokyo but the city is made alien by strange occurrences. There are “Ghouls” who roam the streets of Tokyo and they are devouring the flesh of dead humans. Some of these people were very much alive and well before winding up a bloody mess in some back alley for the police discover.
The news reports about this and the government are investigating but our main protagonist, Ken Kaneki is oblivious to all of this and this oblviousness will plunge him into a world of darkness.
Ken is a bookish sort of student with his head usually stuck in a novel by his favourite novelist, Sen Takatsuki, and her stories about serial-killers.We first meet him relaxing at his favourite coffee shop named Anteiku with his best friend Hide. The reason he likes the place? There’s a beautiful girl who has the same book as Ken and always smiles at him when their eyes meet. Whenever he can he sneaks quick looks at her and dreams about winning a date with her. He is too shy to act but when Hide departs for work it seems that Ken’s luck takes a change for the better as the girl accidentally bumps into him. The two talk for the first time and Ken discovers that her name is Rize and she has noticed him. They enjoy a lively conversation about literature and agree to go on a date the next night.
After their second date ends, things seem to be running smoothly but Rize begins to get upset and tells Ken that she lives near an area where ghouls have been active and she’s nervous about going home alone. Ken does the gentlemanly thing and offers to walk her to her front door of her apartment. Perhaps he is hoping to impress her with his bravery and make her his girlfriend…
As they near her place she confesses a secret to Ken. She loves the taste of human meat. Turns out she’s more of a ghoulfriend and she begins to tear Ken apart in an empty construction site until somebody intervenes by dropping steel beams on Rize. She perishes from the massive trauma but Ken is in bad shape, his insides torn up, and the doctors decide that the only way to save his life is by performing a transplant operation using Rize’s organs.
When Ken wakes up he discovers that he is half ghoul. He cannot eat normal food, which now tastes terrible and makes him physically sick, and when he gets hungry he suffers excruciating pain, half of his body visibly transforms into a ghoul and he craves human flesh.Ken’s world is falling apart and he struggles to cling onto his humanity and not give in to his painful desire to eat people. His struggle to control his ghoulish desires will lead him into a shadow world he had no idea existed and he will experience terror as he seeks to understand just where he fits into the world of ghouls.
When news broke that mangaka Sui Ishida’s title Tokyo Ghoul was due for an adaptation, people were excited because it is a notable title that is very popular in multiple countries and a best-seller in Japan. The director was a major factor of interest not least because Shuhei Morita has a small but carefully crafted body of work that speaks of passion. He is also an Oscar nominee and his last film Possessions (which was part of the compilation film Short Peace) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 2013 Academy Awards. So, a talented director at the helm and it seems to have paid off because Tokyo Ghoul had one of the best opening episodes of the season and has maintained a high standard in animation and, thanks to the manga, writing.
So far the anime has remained faithful to the manga by presenting a fast-paced and brutal story full of mystery and intrigue. The story has been changed in some major ways I would go as far as to say that it improved on the source by dropping some of the literary references to Kafka and so forth, and tightenening the plot and narrative to place cut out extraneous details and adding different elements to prevent it becoming too grim (this is an adaptation, so it doesn’t need to be the same).
The storyline is textbook stuff as we follow a protagonist who enters a hidden world of creatures who co-exist and blend in with humanity by adopting similar lifestyles and yet have their own politics and divisions. It is a narrative common to vampire fiction like Twilight, only Tokyo Ghoul is much more blood-thirsty and terrifying.
We are placed in the mundane world. Tokyo is all bright lights, cafes and clubs, bars and apartments and cosmopolitan living, but those lights serve as a contrast to the darkness of litter-strewn alleys and dusty underpasses where violence occurs as ghouls hunt their pray in the forgotten corners of the city. As much as characters should be afraid of what is hidden in the dark, ironically, the ghouls hide in open society. They run bars, cafes and tattoo parlours, places where they can meet their own kind and socialise, organise their community and help each other. These are places that are gradually discovered by Ken who is introduced to them by friendly ghouls or, just as often, stumbles into them through natural ignorance about the ghoul world which he slowly learns is a complicated place.
There is a lot of politics involved with being ghoul such as how feeding grounds are split up and who polices them and, more importantly, how to maintain a safe place within normal human society but there are no contrived moments for info-dumping that force the audience out of the drama. One of the delights is that the world-building feels perfectly natural. There are no clunky scenes of exposition informing the character and viewer about the obvious, things emerge naturally thanks to Ken’s journey. As he learns more about ghoul culture through normal conversations and natural questions so does the audience.
Ken is the ideal protagonist for a story of this nature. He is a shy, intellectually inquisitive and kind character, guileless and naïve in certain aspects of life (certainly more naive than in the manga). When he works up the courage he finds that these qualities allow him to empathise and connect with others including ghouls and so he finds out what it mean to be a ghoul and discovers they are not simply vicious killers. He meets a cast of varied characters each with their own motivations and ideals such as the stylish aesthete and fellow Takatsuki fan Shuu Tsukiyama, a snakelike character with depraved ideals, and the highschool ghoul… sorry, highschool girl, Touka Kirishima, a character who does not suffer fools gladly. These aren’t simply the slathering monsters the news media (and H.P. Lovecraft) portray them as, they are beautiful, ugly and complicated just like humans.
Talking about beautiful, one must highlight Kazuhiro Miwa’s excellent character designs which arguably give more life and maturity to the characters than the average manga page does, making them stylish and beautiful while also bringing out the monstrousness in violent conflicts. The voice actors also aid in this endeavour by making the characters come to life in exciting ways. Kana Hanazawa as Rize Kamishiro and Mamoru Miyano as Shuu Tsukiyama both camp up their roles, switching from normal to sexy and or ingratiating to gloriously ghoulish as they alternately purr, cackle and scream with glee at some gruesome moments and it is always a joy to listen to them.
Naturally, there is a lot of emphasis on horror and violence and that is to show Ken’s gradual awakening to his new world and the changes in his character which see him morph from an innocent into someone harder, capable of changing his whole life to accommodate desires that he once regarded as perverse, such as eating human flesh and making himself an agent of change in a wider story of complicated politics. This transformation is made palpable through the blood and guts on display.
The over-the-top nature of the opening is not necessarily the norm as episodes switch between conversations and fighting in admirable scene-setting and action set-pieces that capture and hold a viewer’s interest. When the fights do come, they are frantic and exciting affairs made better by the artistic decisions taken by the director, Shuhei Morita, who favours bold and inventive use of colour for style. This also, I suspect, helps to circumvent censorship as episode two’s bloodbath was rendered wholly watchable by changing the colour of the environment and the geysers of blood spraying about, so there was little censorship involved.
It is a joy to hear TK from Ling Toshite Sigure flex his talent with OP “Unravel” but the real delight is the ED “Seijatachi” from People in the Box, which is probably in the running for one of the best end credit themes this season.
In a summer season packed with excellent titles, Tokyo Ghoul manages to stand out from other shows and not just because it is a visceral and vicious ride into a dark and violent tale but because it is also a complete package of excellent visuals combined with the sharp story building details that all grow to create a heady cocktail of gruesome delight.