Ken Kaneki is an ordinary college student living in Tokyo with an innocent crush on a girl he meets at his local café, Rize Kamishiro. After plucking up the courage to ask her out, he finds the date ends unexpectedly gruesomely with Rize trying to devour his flesh. She is a ghoul, one of a race of monsters that look human but have red and black eyes, humongous strength and eat the flesh of humans. During Rize’s attack she is accidently killed and Kaneki is rushed to hospital where he wakes up to find that he has now turned into the very creature that attacked him. Fighting against his ghoul-ish nature and hiding from humans, he’s taken in by Yoshimura, a fellow ghoul who runs a café and helps other ghouls blend in with human society. Can Kaneki learn to live in this new world he’s been thrust into, or will his blood thirst consume him?
If we just looked at the bare bones of the story and the ghoul mythology it would be easy to dismiss it as another ‘humans vs mythological creature of choice’ series. It takes a few of the same emotional cues from said genre such as struggling with one’s identity, the cycle of hatred on both sides, learning to co-exist and understand what is different from you and so on. Even what makes a ghoul, fascinating as it is, mixes a lot of elements from vampires, werewolves, even diclonius from Elfen Lied, with which it also shares similar levels of blood and violence. But just because something isn’t fully unique doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly engaging and enjoyable to watch, which is what Tokyo Ghoul is, if you have the stomach for it, that is.
Tokyo Ghoul has one big point in its favour: the direction. It’s a very dark, involving, and often gruesome anime that takes what it means to be human or not and really bites into the flesh of it (pun intended), most notably at first in the visual style. Animation-wise, its closest cousin would be Ufotable’s Garden of Sinners; lots of bleak colours, the sharp shade of red blood popping through, and not afraid to go from seemingly normal atmospheric tones and artwork to jagged, demonic textures. It’s also a relief that the special powers used on this show aren’t animated in 3D, they’re kept in 2D, which helps the fight scenes to flow better and avoids awkward clashing of styles.
The darkness doesn’t just come from the art, but also the story and themes. When a series of this type tries to make the ‘non-humans’ have a human-race threatening diet but still be sympathetic, they normally either create a ‘safe’ alternative to humans that is more acceptable (e.g. in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires can drink pig’s blood), or attempt to romanticise what the creatures are, such as having the camera conveniently pan away from the demon’s taking a bite of out a human to make it less offensive. Tokyo Ghoul on the other hand, does none of those things. It wants you to observe what ghouls are capable of; to see exactly what it means to be one. When they feast on human flesh, the camera zooms in close so we see each tooth digging into the flesh, every bit of fluid from the blood to saliva in full glory, and all the noises they make when doing so. It’s incredibly shocking to watch but really hard to look away at the same time. This also goes for Kaneki’s transformation in the first episode; as he struggles to try and eat human food and gagging on it, we watch the whole emotional crash and experience it with him. Even when settling in alongside humans, ghouls have no other food to fall back on; there are sugar cubes they stir in their coffee but it’s made perfectly clear that it’s not just sugar in those cubes. We should be disgusted, but as the ghouls say, they have nothing else they can survive on, which is something that the humans in this show evidently struggle to come to ferms with but Tokyo Ghoul does a great job of balancing the shades of grey on both sides. Yes, the ghouls eat our flesh but it’s just their nature, how they’re made, and the humans aren’t entirely innocent themselves. The agents of Dove that come to destroy the lives of the protagonists are presented at first as the worst of human beings, using the very nature of the ghouls against them and ripping families apart. But as the series progresses, we see how their view of the ghouls has been warped by the worst of the opposition, and that not everything is as black and white as one side likes to believe it is. It can be argued that there are other shows that deal with the same themes but it’s hard to find such a series that demonstrates it with such unfiltered brutality and emotion. We don’t get the full picture in terms of how either species wishes to deal with the other long term, but the main characters we follow all have different opinions on their lifestyle and the opposition, all which are peeled back slowly to create sympathetic, or at least complex, characters, so even if we don’t entirely agree with their diet, it’s hard not to identity with their struggles in day-to-day life.
Going hand-in-hand with the art and story is the tone, which most of the time the anime has just right: horror in the finest sense. But it is a tightrope walk between horror and unintentional humour, which once or twice Tokyo Ghoul accidently steps over. This happens mostly around the character of Shu Tsukiyama; who’s voiced marvellously by both Japanese and US actors (but J.Michael Tatum does sound like he’s having a blast with it) however the character is so over the top at times to the point of hilarity, especially in one scene where he stands in a shower of blood after killing a ghoul and the audience sees the blood make his white suit somehow morph into a more fabulous outfit than before. It’s a huge laugh-outloud moment that works against the horror it’s trying to invoke. Also a few of the ending animations have amusing pastel-coloured illustrations of the cast; some would probably consider them a welcome breather between the angst but they really dilute the shock of some of the episode endings.
What makes a ghoul is something that the show doesn’t feel the need to completely dump on the viewer from the start. We get the basics to understand Kaneki’s struggle, but a lot of it is intentionally left unsaid. Bits are revealed later for dramatic purposes, upping the stakes in chosen battles, and it’s refreshing to have a show trust its audience to stay tuned and learn along with the characters, instead of dumping every bit of exposition from the start. Towards the finale, however, more information would have been nice to have, especially when bigger players start to come into the fray. We’re left in the dark about the conditions of what makes the various wards in the show, how the ghouls came into the world, how far back the conflict between ghouls and humans goes in history, and the logistics behind why someone put Kaneki through surgery to gain his powers, which is a little frustrating. Then there’s the ghouls’ special power called a ‘kagune’ that manifests from the host in various forms from crystallised blood wings to squid like additional arms. Each ghoul has a unique kagune, and they’re all equal parts fascinating and terrifying, and because they all range in styles, each fight scene has different stakes at hand and we don’t know who will come out on top. However there are apparently also different names for the various types of kagune as well as strengths and weaknesses of wielding each, something that may have been explained in greater detail in the manga but not so much in the anime, so you look at certain character’s attack and wonder why one isn’t as effective as the other. Hopefully more information will be shared in the next season but for now, they’re a wonder to behold but head scratching to understand fully.
The Blu-ray editions comes with lots of delicious extras; commentary on Episodes 4 and 12, textless opening and closings, US trailer, promo videos and the documentary ‘Kaneki in Black and White’ which has the dub cast discuss their characters and the themes of the show at length, all the way up to the ending so it’s best enjoyed after watching the last episode. There are also trailers for other anime but be warned; some of them are for shows the UK has not licensed or released yet despite the ad saying otherwise. (It seems that they’re copied and pasted from the US release.)
Tokyo Ghoul is equal parts intense, gruesome, shocking, incredibly engaging and gripping throughout. All 12 episodes will leave you hungrier for more, especially after the last episode where all the stakes at the beginning are drastically changed and the characters evolved into different creatures than they were before. Waiting for Season 2 will be difficult but don’t hesitate to pick up this series, especially the gorgeous Blu-ray release – if you are not the squeamish type.