Today it’s ghouls, goblins, and… well, actually just ghouls. What does this weekend otaku think about one man’s struggle to be both human and ghoul? What about one studio’s decision to adapt a manga with original content?
Title: Tokyo Ghoul / Tokyo Ghoul √A
Original airing: Jul 4, 2014 to Sep 19, 2014 / Jan 9, 2015 to Mar 27, 2015 (√A)
Studio: Studio Peirrot
Episodes: 12 + 12 (√A)
Duration: 24 min/ep (√A)
Genres: Seinen, Action, Drama, Supernatural
Source: Tokyo Ghoul manga by Sui Ishida
Where I watched: Funimation.com (English subtitles)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions:
Tokyo has become a cruel and merciless city—a place where vicious creatures called “ghouls” exist alongside humans. The citizens of this once great metropolis live in constant fear of these bloodthirsty savages and their thirst for human flesh. However, the greatest threat these ghouls pose is their dangerous ability to masquerade as humans and blend in with society.
This was another one of those animes you saw every time you turned your head, largely drawing from the popularity of the manga by the same name. At the Anime Fan Fest, earlier this year, I saw tons of art and banners related to Tokyo Ghoul. I knew very little about this title back then, but even from what little I saw I felt the urge to watch it. You have the admit, the image of a one eyed ghoul with a toothy mask is instantly intriguing for anyone who might like darker themed animes.
Framed much like a modern day vampire drama, the premise describes ghouls that hide among normal people while hunting them for food. Could the person sitting in the cafe booth next to yours be a ghoul? Are you safe walking around at night? It’s a compelling setup that could go in a variety of directions. After all the hype, I had to find out if there was a great anime beneath it all.
The initial run of Tokyo Ghoul, which aired July-Sept 2014, covers one half of the series I’m reviewing today, with the other half releasing under a new title: Tokyo Ghoul √A. The two series are thematically different, from the standpoint of the character focus as well as the direction of the storytelling. Just as I did with Sword Art Online, I’ll have to discuss these somewhat separately but I’ll try not to split it up as much this time around.
Humans have good reason to fear ghouls. Different from the zombie like creatures in Hellsing or the mindless beasts in other fantasy media, the ghouls of this series are extremely formidable. On top of their high level of strength, speed, and agility, ghouls are impervious to conventional weapons (bullets, blades, etc…), are able to rapidly heal injuries, and have the ability to transform part of their body into a durable and deadly weapon known as a kagune.
Strangely, the start of the story doesn’t show a huge concern among the humans of Tokyo’s 20th ward over the innate threat that ghouls pose. Going about his life normally, like everyone else, Kaneki Ken meets his friend and high school classmate, Hide, at a coffee shop. After discussing his interest in a girl that also frequents the shop, he eventually works up the nerve to ask her on a date. To the library.
Luckily for him, they share a favorite author in common, and this beautiful young woman agrees to his date. Just as the premise hints, she isn’t the innocent flower she appears to be. Luring him into a dark alley during their walk home (because she says she’s afraid of a ghoul attack, no less), she reveals herself as a ghoul and attacks Kankei. Fatally wounded, he is miraculously saved by some falling girders off a construction site that end up crashing down on him and the ghoul. Upon waking up in a hospital bed, he realizes that the ghoul had perished while he received an emergency organ transplant from a convenient donor found at the sight of the accident. Side effects may include a desire to consume human flesh.
It’s a cool way to set up the story. Consider the case of a similar creature: the zombie. So many of those stories involve a bite or other transmission of body fluid to infect a victim. Here, the tired ‘virus’ method is eschewed for a fresh concept. Even if it’s still against his will, his introduction into the life of a ghoul seems almost accidental. The story uses this particular method (housing another ghoul’s organs) as a plot device that gives a face to the new desires he feels as a ghoul. The rest of Tokyo Ghoul thus deals with Kaneki’s struggle to maintain his humanity while battling the urge to succumb to ghoulhood (ghoul-ity? ghouliness? I don’t know).
Thankfully taking a more ‘realistic’ route, Kaneki doesn’t stop himself from becoming a monster by sheer force of will. Traumatized by his circumstance, desperate for food, and completely clueless as to what he should do, he is taken in by a group of more experienced ghouls. This group coincidentally runs the Anteiku coffee shop in which we initially found Kaneki. They are also unofficially responsible for self-policing the ghouls of Tokyo’s 20th ward and keeping attacks to a minimum. As such, it is part of their mission to show Kaneki a path where he can avoid becoming the predator that society fears. Pointing out his status as a half ghoul, the wise old leader of this group encourages Kaneki by claiming that he is uniquely equipped to create an understanding between humans and ghouls, as he retains the best parts of both.
Why would there need to be an understanding? Couldn’t ghouls simply take over as the world’s dominant species? Well, where there are powerful supernatural beings, there are humans that willing to combat them. In this story they take the form of the Ghoul Countermeasure Bureau (CCG), which employs specially trained operatives who wield equally specialized weapons known as quinque. These weapons are modified forms of kagune, harvested from ghouls that the CCG kill, and are among the only tools humanity has at its disposal for fighting them. This concept of ‘fighting fire with fire’ certainly isn’t new. Neon Genesis Evangelion immediately springs to mind as a well known example where humans adopt an otherwise unbeatable enemy’s power in order to combat them. The way it’s used in Tokyo Ghoul, however, is quite interesting; especially when you consider that ‘innocent’ ghouls are the easiest to target when a CCG operative feels the need to find a new quinque. Putting this spin on the predator/prey relationship is done very well in this series, and sets up for some compelling drama.
The CCG presents a difficult obstacle for Kaneki in his quest, but the situation is further exacerbated when a group of rogue ghouls begin to encroach upon the 20th ward, in search of a certain female ghoul that our protagonist is very familiar with (you could say that they’re inseparable! :D). Violent and destructive, this group of ghouls known as Aogiri Tree create a tense situation which forever alters the relative peace that Kaneki and his new friends have been pursuing.
Having stayed pretty close to the manga thus far, the Tokyo Ghoul anime ends somewhere in volume 8 of the manga (roughly 60 chapters in 12 episodes) before moving on to the √A series. At this point, just like I mentioned in my Black Butler review, the anime story diverges.The reasons behind this, however, don’t appear to be the same. All of the manga’s 14 volumes had been released before the first airing of the √A anime. Why then did the studio decide to stray from the the source material? It seems that they were intent on providing an original story for the benefit of the manga readers. This way they would get more of the story they enjoyed so much
It’s a novel (lol) idea and it might have been good if it had worked out that way. The second season ultimately does not deliver a truly original story, but rather features snippets of side stories from the manga before arriving at the same ending. The issue here is that it is devoid of the gravity and development that the manga spent 60 chapters on. To say that the story feels contrived is something of an understatement. Hardly any of the character’s actions feel natural. Plot direction seems completely arbitrary with no lasting impact. Characters appear and disappear without reasoning or consequence. The final act then becomes a gigantic mess of characters that no one really cares about engaging in a battle that no one understands the reason for.
As if unsure of exactly what it wished to do, √A is something of a jumble.The focus of the narrative is shifted heavily toward the police force of the CCG. Showing some of their history against the ghouls through flashbacks, it attempts to put a more ‘human’ face on the faction that had been opposing the ghouls through season 1. The ghoul side of things tells a similar story as well. We get glimpses of the Anteiku ghouls and the new group of ghouls Kaneki allies himself with. This would be fine if not for the haphazard way in which the narrative jumps between all these new characters, allowing little time or material for viewer investment.
Though the series shifts its focus from one season to the next, the story’s protagonist is still Kaneki Ken. Tragic in both how he enters and leaves the story, his struggles to adapt to life as a ghoul and deal with the terrible things that occur around him are some of the most compelling aspects of this anime. While a series full of Kaneki exploring his new ghoul abilities and proving himself stronger than everyone might be fine story for some, Tokyo Ghoul avoids this cliche for a more organic approach. The world of the ghouls is so foreign and violent to Kaneki that he doesn’t seem at first able to cope with it. A gentle person by nature, he can’t bring himself to hurt others even when they pose a danger to him or his friends. At least not until season 2.
To balance his timid nature, the more jaded and experienced Touka Kirishima serves as his guide at Anteiku. Firm in her beliefs and unapologetic in her actions, she often has to get Kaneki out of whatever trouble he lands in. With a thinly explored backstory of her own, Touka’s aggression and fierce resolve are shown to be a result of the broken family ties she has suffered. While she is brooding but independent initially, the events of season 1 weigh heavily on her. We see her spend most of season two retracing aspects of Kaneki’s life in what seems like an effort to understand him. It’s a bit angsty, but for a teenager like her it’s not terribly out of place.
Of the CCG operatives (aka: Doves) , Koutarou Amon receives the most focus. As one of the first Doves to meet Kaneki, Amon serves largely as the human counterpart to his story. He has a strong sense of duty, as expected of a policeman, but his meeting with Kaneku makes him begin to wonder about whether or not ghouls are all as monstrous as they are made out to be. While this would have been a great angle to explore, and well in keeping with the theme that the show initially presents, it’s unfortunately very lightly touched upon. His loyalty to his work and his comrades leads him down a predictable path, but his inclusion is really the only constant the viewer can latch onto among the stream of CCG characters and storylines that are presented.
√A also spends a good deal of time exploring characters like CCG’s Juuzou Suzuya, attempting to flesh out one of the series’ more colorful characters. It provides some insight into why he appears to be so eccentric, and paints him as a truly complex character beneath his insanity. Honestly this feels like it might be better featured in a spinoff. Without adding a great deal to the overall story, Juuzou’s entire character arc seems like a distraction. Unfortunately he’s not the only character that eats up time in this way.
The lost time could have been better spent on Kaneki, who we see precious little development of in the second season. Without giving too much away, his transformation in appearance and attitude could have used a lot more exploration. His evolution as a ghoul stands in stark contrast to his initial nature, but without more insight into his thoughts and motivations, it comes off as unnatural. It’s a real shame that he doesn’t get enough focus again until the very end, where we see some of the development he sorely needed. His return to his ‘old self’ at that point, however, lacks the emotional impact it was meant to have. This is because we understand so little as to what drove him down that path in the first place.
For the most part, Tokyo Ghoul features some really high quality animation. Utilizing a variety of environments and lighting effects, Pierrot certainly had their work cut out for them in bringing the manga to life in a way that the static pages never could. Subtlety and artistic style are often lost or at least compromised in a manga adaptation, but that was thankfully not the case here. Facial expressions, ranging from contemplative passiveness to agony or mania, are well preserved from Sui Ishida’s manga’s style and help greatly to enhance the mood of a scene.
One segment in particular near the end of the first season, where Kaneki is struggling to hold onto his sanity, is done with remarkable artistry. The scene takes place mostly within his mind, exploring the reasons he thinks the way he does and how his view of the world is severely challenged by the things that are happening to him. It’s a fantastic look at a person’s psyche as they near the breaking point, and the climax is all the more satisfying because of the beautiful way in which it was presented.
The often violent nature of ghouls is depicted well through fast paced action, showcased through fluid movement and effects. The various kagune powers present something of a challenge with their bright colors and erratic movements. This is made a little easier by the fact that some of the cannon fodder characters throughout the anime have rather generic looking ones. Still, the main characters are made to feel all the more distinct because of their unique kagune/quinque designs.
I say the animation is great with a couple very important exceptions. The first is the absolutely awful censorship in the streamed versions of this show. Blocking out macabre scenes or serious injuries completely, the viewer is immediately pulled out of a scene to wonder just what is happening behind the screen engulfing black bar. Other times, an especially bloody fight is switched to a negative color palette, obscuring the copious amounts of red with a water like blue. Much of the censorship is allegedly absent in the DVD/bluray release, but I can’t say for sure as I haven’t seen it.
The other major shortcoming in the animation comes near the end of the second season. With so many characters and so much happening in the final battle, it’s understandable that some of the animation might suffer, but when it’s reduced to a bunch of still shots or heavily devoid of detail it becomes incredibly distracting. Especially when considering how well the rest of the series was done, it feels like a disappointment that it suffered so much at this point.
Complementing the animation, this series shows a lot of musical excellence as well. Although openings and endings don’t always represent the overall series in the best way, they do really help accent the various themes of this one. Munou is a thoughtfully somber song, featuring a soft piano and sweet voice, though it is a little awkwardly placed as the opening of √A, considering how full of mayhem it is. Both Seijitachi and Kitsestu wa have melancholy tones despite their moderate drum backing and are fitting as ending themes, though the latter is more emotional. The real star of this set, however, is the very first song. Unravel is an amazing song, though TK’s voice is a little awkward in the quiet moments. Accented by flowing instrumentals and a modern rock beat, it feels at times like it tells the story better than the anime itself does. A translation of some of the lyrics may help you see what I mean.
In this twisted world I’m gradually growing transparent and vanishing
Don’t look for me, don’t look at me.
I don’t want to hurt you
In a world of someone else’s imagining.
Remember who I am.
Voice acting in this series was very well done. Kanaki was brought to life by Natsuki Hanae who has also voiced Inaho Kaizuka from Aldnoah.Zero and would go on to play Takumi Aldini from Food Wars!. He does well in playing a timid teenager, but was able to bring a lot of emotion to Kaneki’s more desperate outbursts as well. Tokua’s cold demeanor was portrayed by Sora Amamiya whose short list includes Akame from Akame ga Kill.
While I watched the series as a sub, the English version has noteworthy voice actors as well. Kanaki is portrayed by Austin Tindle, who has also lent his voice for various roles including: Obi in Snow White with the Red Hair and Shuu Ouma in Guilty Crown. His portrayal as Kaneki does, however, receive some criticism for the somewhat flat performance. Touka is voiced by the talented Brina Palencia, who some might recognize as Shirayuki from Snow White with the Red Hair, Jun Samukawa from Guily Crown and a little known anime called Black Butler, where she played Ciel Phantomhive.
It’s hard for me to say that this series was very enjoyable overall when both seasons are taken into account. The unfortunate thing is that the first season is left on an obvious cliffhanger to get people interested in √A, and therefore can’t be considered a good or complete anime on its own. It’s not that the second season was completely terrible, but for the reasons I stated in the Story section above, it can be very difficult for viewers to find the same enjoyment out of it as they might have from the first season.
From the one off characters to the complete lack of explanation for so much of the plot direction, Tokyo Ghoul √A is simply too unfocused at times to enjoy its strong points despite its weaknesses. Whether it’s Kaneki’s irrational behavior or the ridiculous way in which the final battle was setup, there was simply too much missing to provide a cohesive story. The big surprise reveal came far too late to be of any consequence, and the way the CCG’s strongest operative
Superman Kishou Arima (who we were told next to nothing about beforehand) strolled in and slapped around the strongest ghoul in the entire series without any sort of trouble made the humans’ entire struggle feel pointless. Leaving the ending ambiguous yet again certainly didn’t help things either.
To say something positive, I did really enjoy this portrayal of ghouls. Painting dangerous creatures in a sympathetic light is a tricky prospect, and even if Tokyo Ghoul wasn’t entirely successful at this, the psychological mess that Kaneki was put through was interesting enough to me. I already mentioned my fondness for the end of the first season in the Animation section above, but I feel the need to express again how brilliant it really was. Had it not been posed as a cliffhanger, the series could have just ended there in true horror fashion and I would probably have been satisfied with it.
Summary and Recommendations
Tokyo Ghoul is a mixed bag of enjoyment, with a lot of what most people tended to enjoy from the series taking place in the first season. The second season’s departure from the main story of the manga is seen as much of the reason for this since the series takes bits and pieces from the source to arrive at the same conclusion, minus the development needed to get there.
The main character Kaneki is an interesting character to watch, and is a great vehicle for the troubling premise of the series. His struggle to come to grips with being a ghoul and the fear he suffers over the thought of losing his humanity help drive the story along in a more interesting way than a straight up action series would have.
Great animation helps keep the viewer hooked through most of the show, but streaming the series can lead to some horribly distracting efforts to censor the violence. Be prepared for a lot of disappointment if you didn’t buy the dvd/blu ray.
If you did buy the series, however, be prepared to be disappointed for another reason. The first season offers a lot to enjoy but ends on a blatant cliffhanger. The second season drops a lot of the momentum that the first season builds, in favor of telling side stories, and ultimately comes off as a disappointment.
There are currently rumors for a season 3, which may help answer some questions and redeem the series, but for now my recommendations are below
Watch if you:
Love dark themed anime
Want a fresh take on ghouls
Like a little pathos in your action series
Don’t watch if you:
Are put off by cliffhangers/unresolved endings
Hate seeing good character work go to waste
Can’t stand contrived plots
While the art and sound are brilliant at times, the failure to deliver a compelling story or properly develop its characters hurts this anime a lot. I have to give it 3 out of 5 Kanekis.
So here we are for the second time in a row. A well animated series with a confusing or underdeveloped plot and poor character handling, especially with the side characters. The culprit appears to once again be a failure to properly adapt the source material. In Tokyo Ghoul‘s case especially, since the manga was so popular, it’s really easy to point the finger at the studio or director.
Mangas generally are able to tell more story than their animated counterparts, but are they always better stories? Being familiar with the manga often creates a viewer bias when they begin to look for differences, and creates an uphill battle for anime to satisfy the viewer in the same way. Still, what does it say when I hadn’t read Red Data Girl or Tokyo Ghoul but still found them to be lacking as anime? Veering off from the source can be just fine, great even (see 2003’s Fullmetal Alchemist), but the foremost goal should always be to create a solid story despite the episode count restraint.
With all that said, what is the takeaway from the story that Tokyo Ghoul did tell? Like most stories involving inter-species rivalry, there is a strong message about the barriers we create based on our differences. If you’re reading this, it’s more than likely that you’re a human, and as such it’s easy to understand the humans’ fears. Ghouls pose a danger to humans, but the series shows that it’s not wrong for Kaneki and the other ghouls of Anteiku to be alive. Peaceful coexistence is possible, even as the events of the series lead inexorably toward disaster. Hide’s relentless quest to reach his friend symbolizes this optimistic view.
I don’t want to get political in this review, but there are plenty of real world examples where we manufacture violence and hatred between different peoples. The CCG can’t see ghouls as ‘people.’ The ghouls of Aogiri don’t see humans as anything but ‘food.’ This series uses an extreme difference in biological nature to paint the divide between humans and ghouls, but people kill each other over far less. It’s an important reminder that we have a lot more in common than our conflicts suggest, so long as we’re willing to look at each other that way.
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