In my first “What’s in a Scene?” post I look at the final scene from season 1 of Tokyo Ghoul. If you’re a fan of the series or enjoy picking apart anime scenes to to explore all the small details, then you might enjoy some of the things I’ve found in this one.
Tokyo Ghoul, written and illustrated by Sui Ishida, saw widespread success for its fresh take on a familiar concept. Starting publication in 2011, Ishida surely sought to capitalize on the growing popularity of supernatural themed stories that found renewed appeal among younger readers. Rather than rely on superficially appealing material like the seductive allure of vampires or the primal charm of werewolves, Ishida’s subject of choice was the almost universally repulsive and unsympathetic ghoul.
Still, the manga likely wasn’t popular because of the (still trendy) zombie-like theme, though that might account for some of the initial draw. After all, there was plenty of other similar material on the market at the time. Instead, Ishida’s true success was in the portrayal of his main character, Ken Kaneki, and his journey through the symbolically rich story that he crafted.
Kaneki’s story is about a life of fear and self loathing, thrust upon him through circumstances beyond his control. New desires, unfathomable to his former self, threaten to erase what’s left of his humanity yet he constantly fights against the urges that would label him a monster in the eyes of others; as well as himself. This struggle comes to a head in chapter 60 of Ishida’s original manga, and at the end of the first season of the anime adaptation in an episode entitled “Ghoul.”
For all the criticism this anime receives, stemming from any number of issues I pointed out in my review, the transformation that takes place in episode 12 is one of the highlights of the series. With plenty of the symbolism that the manga is known for, it illustrates Kaneki’s mental struggle in a visually impressive and thematically intriguing way. Bear in mind that to adequately discuss a scene I’ll need to go into all kinds of spoilerly detail. As such, I’ll assume you have seen the series, or at least the scene in question, or otherwise don’t mind me ruining it for you. If you don’t want spoilers, but the series interests you, you might want to read my earlier review.
The scene I’ll be discussing consists of the various moments viewers witness Kaneki’s inner thoughts as he undergoes Yamori’s torture. These subconscious thoughts are interspersed among moments of brutal conscious reality; with an indeterminable amount of time passing between. In general, I’ll be mostly discussing the set of scenes that take place in Kaneki’s mind.
I chose this scene not only for its visual appeal, but for what it represents for the Tokyo Ghoul series as a whole. Kaneki’s transformation represents his choice to stop being a victim of his fate, brought on by realizing the futility of attempting to live in two worlds.
The scene opens on a carnation, one among a field of many, with crimson liquid dripping onto its stark white petals. The liquid, which is quickly realized to be blood, is a result of the torture inflicted on Kaneki by the insane Yamori, crushing his fingers and toes with a set of pliers. Bound to a chair, he is alone among these flowers.
There is quite a bit to take in with these initial moments. Ishida uses flowers repeatedly throughout Tokyo Ghoul, sometimes as a backdrop but more often than not to convey a message. In this scene, the color and type of flowers used echo the emotions being displayed onscreen. White carnations, the color of purity and safety, are meant to signify innocence and remembrance in Western floriography.
In the absence of Yamori, Kaneki retreats to this safe haven in his mind, though even these “pure” flowers are tainted with his blood. Kaneki’s solitude is interrupted as he feels a comforting presence approach which he calls out to, believing it to be his mother. In her place he sees Rize, the ghoul “within” him, once again. As a more sinister substitute for the comfort he craves, the carnations at her feet twist into red spider lilies.
Red, the color of desire and power, fits Kaneki’s perception of Rize perfectly, but the contrast with the white carnations is the real thing to watch for here. Spider lilies, often used in funerals, are synonymous with death in Japan and Hanakotoba (Japanese floriography) equates them with loss and abandonment. Indeed, with each happy memory marked with a carnation that Kaneki relives in these scenes (eg: his mother cutting flowers at home to make extra money), we see a few of them twist into spider lilies upon reaching the sour note (working herself to death).
The visual effect here is telling. The carnations don’t wilt or lose their petals. They’re not being replaced by spider lilies, but rather becoming them. They twist and warp, with the ribbon-like red petals and long filaments of the lily blooming outward. Flower blooms are associated with rebirth, but the transformation of the flower is indicative of the kind of rebirth Kaneki is undergoing as purity and safety are being corrupted by the macabre nature of the spider lily. Where the carnations signified remembrance of his humanity, the spider lilies tell us that it’s not coming back.
In one of the tortures depicted during Kaneki’s conscious moments, he is presented with the husband and wife who tried to help him earlier. Yamori tells Kaneki to choose which one he should kill before he kills them both. Kaneki of course can’t choose, paralyzed by fear as he is, and the agonizing consequences of his inability are the basis for breaking down what remained of his sanity and his hold on humanity.
“All of the disadvantage in this world stems from a person’s lack of ability,” is Yamori’s prefacing lesson before this torture. It directly challenges Kaneki’s philosophy of “It is better to be hurt than to hurt others” – a lesson he inherited from his mother. Yamori points out that Kaneki’s failure was the reason both Hana and Shuu died. Rize takes it a step further, using this same concept to break down his identity by attacking the foundation of his personality – his memories of his mother.
The continuing recollections of his mother echo the truth in his tormentors’ words when he recalls how she had to work nonstop to support her sister as well as her own family. Not turning her back on her sister led her to die, and Kaneki to suffer her loss. Rize seems to drive the point home with her quote “But while it seems like you’re choosing both, you’re really forsaking both.”
Kaneki’s naive worldview, Rize explains, is the reason all of this is happening to him. It was his own foolishness that caused him to be tricked by her in the first place, and his own weakness that subjects him to torture now.
Her point is that Kaneki can choose to change the situation. By accepting Rize, he can stop Yamori, but he’s too afraid to hurt someone else to save himself. In essence, afraid of giving in to the very nature of a ghoul who must eat human flesh to live. In further visions, Rize shows him how far his suffering will reach if he clings to his humanity and the lessons his mother taught him. His mother couldn’t protect him before, and will offer him no comfort now; but Rize can.
The subtlety is light, but if the blooming flowers are taken as an indication of burgeoning sexuality, Rize’s suggestions are more Freudian than they initially appear. She wants to replace the concept of a mother in Kaneki’s mind. Throughout the season she offers herself as his possession (actually his very identity) where his mother could not be completely his because of her obligations to her sister. She’s not helping Kaneki grow up, but rather becoming the new source of dependence for him. She is the red spider lily to his mother’s white carnation.
Broken in both mind and body, Kaneki comes upon his ultimate realization. Rize’s questions finally yield the answers she wants, as he admits he wishes his mother would have chosen him over her sister, and in fact chosen him over everything. The Kaneki who would always choose to suffer himself instead of causing suffering in others makes the fundamental shift in character as he decides to place his desires before all else.
Kaneki was bound in the physical world by Yamori and bound in his mental space by his own self doubt. The physical lack of freedom and control are symbolic of the emotional and mental bindings that have kept him suffering at the hands of these two villains. Only by making a choice to act does he break free in both planes of existence.
He assumes a dominant position over Rize, pinning her down as more carnations turn into spider lilies around them. In this moment, Kaneki chooses himself over even Rize. He forsakes everything that forced him into the position of making this insane choice when he states “I’m not the one who’s wrong. The world is wrong,” and the entire field of carnations blooms into red spider lilies.
In his final moments of this scene Kaneki literally consumes Rize’s flesh and figuratively consummates their union. Rize’s efforts to corrupt Kaneki are finalized. Kaneki’s long struggle to stave off becoming a ghoul ends. Kaneki exerts his will by not giving in to Rize but rather claiming her flesh, taking for his own the mother figure that was denied him before in a more literal analogy of consummation.
Kaneki is thus reborn, with a different appearance to match the change in his mindset. Regardless of how his actions henceforth are perceived, from this moment onward he ceases to be a victim of the fear and uncertainty that led him to depend on others. In a sense, it’s the blossoming of a boy into adulthood.
That’s all for my first scene analysis piece. Now I want to read your thoughts in the comments! If you enjoyed what you read, feel free to check out my Reviews page and other featured content. As always, thank you for reading.