What’s in a Scene? Kaneki’s Transformation

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.


Background

Image of the cover of the mangaTokyo 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.”


Intro

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

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.

Flowers

animated image of red blood spilling onto a white carnation

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.

Image of the blood soaked carnation twisting and transforming into a red spider lily

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.

Image of a spider lily in a vase with carnations

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).

More carnations beside the first turning into spider lilies

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.

Binary Choice

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.

Image of Yamori standing behind Kaneki and holding his head up

“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.

Image of Kaneki's mother holding out money envelope

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.

Kaneki crying with Rize's face up against his

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.

Consummation

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.

animated image of Kaneki on top of Rize with spider lilies blooming around them

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.

Overhead shot of the spider lilies spreading

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.

Image of Rize's face as Kaneki eats her

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.

Animated image of Kaneki's hair turning white

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.

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24 thoughts on “What’s in a Scene? Kaneki’s Transformation

Add yours

  1. Already like this series – you attention to detail is so interesting to read! I was never sold on watching this anime but after reading your analysis of this scene it’s now fascinated me haha. Can’t wait to see you dissect more scenes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Crystal! Well, as I said in the post this was kind of the highlight of the series for me. The first season of this show isn’t too bad, and this scene sort of makes it worthwhile despite the downsides.

      I’ll try to fascinate you just as much with my next one!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I will get back to this post (I have written it down for future reference), when I finished the series itself. Don’t want to spoil things for now, but already gave the post a like because I know I am going to like it anyway 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s definitely something in your consummation point. Whenever Rize turns up in Kaneki’s life it felt as if she was always trying to seduce him. I suppose the one point that sort of goes against it is after this in root A, we see very little of Rize rather than seeing more of her as we might expect. It’s almost as if Kaneki didn’t just consummate his relationship with her, but absorbed her to the point of destroying it – but that could be a stretch too far?

    Anyhow, really interesting read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sam!

      I took “consummation” from a broad perspective. What Kaneki did is more like “consume-ation.” She asks him right before it happens if he’s saying he’ll accept her. His reply is “No, I’m not saying that. I can always surpass you.”

      He didn’t want to join Rize, but rather take her power in a selfish expression of his desire. The consummation isn’t so much a finalization of agreement to a union, but the carnal/carnivorous act of claiming her to satisfy a desire of his.

      Thanks again for reading and the interesting point.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was fantastic to read and really highlighted how much detail was packed into this one scene. I kind of wish this attention to character had been the focus of the whole series rather than just the occasional moments into between actions sequences given this scene and a few others in the series are really well done. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Tokyo Ghoul was at its best when it really focused on the characters and expressed their struggles in a meaningful way. It got too caught up in being an action series at times that it sort of lost its way, but scenes like this one made it a really interesting watch sometimes.

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you liked it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. First things first, this is an amazing analysis. The level of details you’ve unraveled here is really impressive.

    I liked Tokyo Ghoul but this scene was the one that made it go from an okay series to something special. I had no idea about the meanings behind the flowers (apart from the obvious red and white symbols). The way you approach Rize’s role is interesting too.

    Also, since it’s unlikely that the Rize in his mind is anything but his own construct, what we’re really seeing is Kaneki’s own mind violently rebelling against the notions he’s held onto all this time while forcing him to grow up in a very brutal way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, D! Considering some of the great analysis posts you do, I’m flattered.

      I had to do a little research on the flowers, but once I got some basic info I could easily see how closely Ishida tied them to the story. It was also easy to tell that they were important because Ishida uses flowers all over Tokyo Ghoul.

      Things like this often are mental constructs (Think Kousei and his mom). I didn’t point it out explicitly but you’re absolutely right that Kaneki was really at war with himself as his understanding of the world was challenged again and again. The combination of the torture and his desire to save the people he cares about steadily wore down the innocent youth that he was.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great analysis. I don’t know if you kept up with the sequel manga series to Tokyo Ghoul but her mother isn’t quite the patron saint she appears in this series. Still, she’s probably better than Rize as a whole and she’s the one being represented by white carnations, not Rize.

    Thank you for this lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Remy!

      I’ve only read a little of the manga. I’m sure Kaneki’s mother is a lot more nuanced there, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are some sordid secrets since she’s human after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dang…were you an English major? Because your identification of symbolism and meaning in this one episode was astounding. And it made sense, and made this whole episode even more impactful than it was (which was pretty impactful already).
    I never thought of these points before, but after reading this, it makes so much sense. I wish this whole series was like this episode; psychological, symbolic, and thought provoking.
    I look forward to more posts like this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I appreciate the flattery but I’m probably the furthest thing from an English major (I studied engineering). I don’t really know anything, but I do love symbolism so I’m always on the lookout for a deeper meaning behind what I see.

      The series as a whole, especially considering the wild mess that root A was, could have been amazing if it kept itself rooted in the psychological and symbolic. Scenes like this are a great example of what sort of potential Tokyo Ghoul had as a story.

      Though I mostly know this from secondhand accounts, the manga is supposed to do a lot better with this. Kaneki’s love of books I think reflects Ishida’s own appreciation for literature and philosophy. The very concept of the series itself is something of an homage to Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” after all.

      When it comes down to it, I think of Ishida as an artist and Pierrot as the studio that brought us Naruto. Not that I have any gripe with Peirrot really, just that the vision is probably different.

      Thank you for reading in any case. I hope my next one is just as interesting for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. …I mean to be an English major in the future, and you are way better at identifying symbolism than I ever will be, haha.
        I really wanted it to grapple more with symbolism and psychology, it would’ve been fascinating to watch! And not just with Kaneki, with everyone; Touka, Yoshimura, Hinami, heck, the humans at the CCG. I haven’t seen Root A yet, but I may have been putting it off…and I wish there was more psychology without torture involved.
        From what little I’ve read of the manga, it does better with symbolism and psychology.
        I didn’t know Pierrot did Naruto, haha. I wasn’t expecting such high quality animation from them…and Ishida definitely is an artist. From what I’ve read, it tackles everything better, and the art development….he redid the first chapter, and it looks AMAZING.
        And I bet next analysis will be!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow…WOW!!! This is an awesome blog post and I love how you describe your reasoning for the symbolism with such detail! I totally agree with you on the representations of the flowers!
    I knew that the red spider lilies represented a rebirth for Kaneki, but what I didn’t know was Rize’s part for that symbolism was just as effective and moving for the audience. This scene also made me think of Rize differently because she wanted to help Kaneki defeat Jason. When she first appeared in the series, I definitely hated her for using an innocent Kaneki as her host, but this scene definitely showed more to her character development.
    You did such an awesome job with your scene analysis! I really hope you make more! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks GeekyGirl, I’m glad you liked the post and that I helped you see something new in this scene!

      Rize has always been kind of interesting in that her motivation wasn’t the easiest thing to pin down. What exactly got her on Aogiri’s bad side? Why was Jason so obsessed with destroying her? She was definitely no angel considering the kinds of things she did, but what was her goal regarding Kaneki?

      Then the really fun question: Is that really her in his mind, or just the insatiably hungry voice within Kaneki that demands his ghoul “half” be fed?

      Either way, this episode did a lot to give some shape to that entity, and does it in a way that was very fun to to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I never really thought much of Tokyo Ghoul in its entirety, found it more baseless in its depiction of a Ghoulish world. Didn’t grab me much at all when I first watched it since the sensational aspects of it never allowed me to see more than an action horror kind of like Blade in some instances. This post though makes me want to rethink my stance on it and give the entire series another go as you analysed so well one of the most engaging sequences in the anime. The use of floriography to explain the use of white carnations and red spider lilies was great and this was just a joy to read about Kaneki becoming an “adult”. Great read and I look forward to seeing more of these types of posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tokyo Ghoul missed a lot of opportunities as its attempts to be extreme (while still being heavily censored) often overshadowed the more meaningful and interesting plot beats. Likening it to Blade isn’t an inaccurate comparison for a lot of the series.

      But things like scene show there is another side to Tokyo Ghoul that may have not translated properly from the manga. A side where Kaneki’s struggle carries a lot of weight and has all kinds of implied meanings in its depiction of a “half” person unable to live in either world (think about real world scenarios here).

      It might be worthwhile to try the series again. I might one day work up the patience to watch root A again myself to see if I might have been too hard on it, but it’s low on my priorities. In any case, I’m glad I have you something to think about, and I’ll do my best to make my next scene analysis enjoyable too.

      Liked by 1 person

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