Tokyo Ghoul is Better Than Parasyte, and You Should Be Watching It

Every year we get several anime that are beloved by the general otaku community, but send critics and bloggers turning up their noses. For most of these, that response is warranted, but there are always at least a few who don’t deserve it. This year that honor goes to Tokyo Ghoul, which even I dismissed during its first airing as a soulless gorefest. I have a bit of an aversion to ultraviolence, and without hearing much else to recommend it to me, I decided I’d skip it in my already-loaded summer itinerary. I revisited it last month, though, after my friend and fellow critic Hope Chapman talked it up so much in her episode reviews for ANN, and now I can see it’s fully deserving of not just fannish excitement, but critical analysis.

There's still plenty of blood, though.

There’s still plenty of blood, though.

Tokyo Ghoul probably gets dismissed because it’s the latest in this year’s trend of shounen anime, featuring a world where humanity is preyed upon by a monstrous Other and one boy is the “bridge” between the two groups. Because our protagonist has aspects of both, you see: he’s a titan-shifter, like Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan, or he’s got the man-eating alien hiding in his hand, like Shinichi from this year’s anime adaptation of Parasyte. The latter especially is probably why so many Serious Anime Fans decided to skip over Tokyo Ghoul, deciding to wait for this similar thing based on this old horror manga that so many senior anime fans remembered fondly. Yet, as it becomes clearer and clearer to younger viewers that we chose wrong—that Parasyte is little more than “Anime Spiderman”—it’s probably time to take a second look at Tokyo Ghoul. And in doing so, you’ll find that it’s a much richer, more “human” story.

Tokyo Ghoul is, like Parasyte, a protagonist-centered tale: it focuses on Kaneki, a human stricken with ghoul appetites and abilities when he gets a ghoul’s organs transplanted into his body. The first series follows him throughout his “metamorphosis” of sorts, as he comes to accepting the “ghoul” side of him as inevitably dominating over the “human” one, and his place in ghoul society. This isn’t like Parasyte, though, or like District 9, where the protagonist’s irreversible transformation happens over time. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, he wakes up completely transformed; Kaneki may retain his human eye, and a “human taste” as some unscrupulous ghouls later find out (but more on Shuu in a bit, ugh), but he’s all ghoul in the ways that matter. And it’s why he can never go back to the life he had before all this, even if he can hide it for a while from his human friends like Hide. While he does change physically at the end of the whirlwind that is Episode 12, it’s in largely cosmetic ways, and the real changes come psychologically. As Kaneki is tortured, he retreats into a void where he encounters the ghoul girl who gave him his organs, and Kaneki realizes he has to accept one side of himself over the other. Kaneki picks the only one that makes any sense: “I am a ghoul.”

One boy, many faces.

One boy, many faces.

So Tokyo Ghoul gets points over Parasyte for its much deeper and more original portrayal of a character gradually losing touch with his humanity, and coming to terms with changes in himself. Parasyte’s changes for Shinichi are largely the physical, in the form of Peter-Parker-like superpowers, though of course there are some cliché bits about how he’s becoming more beep-boop logical and losing empathy. Kaneki retains his human emotions, however, since ghouls are shown to have just as much emotional depth as the non-cannibalistic humans are; his journey is about acceptance and, in the last episode, about responding to trauma. Speaking of the ghouls’ emotional depth, though, that’s another place where Tokyo Ghoul is leagues above Parasyte: it gives all the characters emotional arcs and believability. Parasyte is almost Death Note-like in how much its two protagonists, Shinichi and Migi, tower above the walking plot tools who inhabit the rest of the story. Tokyo Ghoul has a larger story to tell; it centers on Kaneki but it’s not just about Kaneki.

Of course, that’s not to say that Tokyo Ghoul is that complicated. It’s still a shounen-manga, and outside of Kaneki and Touka, a female ghoul who is Kaneki’s closest friend among them and strongly drawn to him, most of the characters fall into familiar archetypes. Yet, they still have their own struggles and stories, in spite of their simplicity. There’s Hinami, a sweet little girl who lives her with her protective mother, with all the childlike naïveté you’d expect from a kid who doesn’t need to eat human flesh in order to survive. Her mother dies protecting her, and it’s a story as much about her own loss of innocence as it is about Kaneki’s. What’s more, the show also fleshes out the human characters, including the ones who kill ghouls we care about like Hinami’s parents. Amon, an investigator with the CCG (a police-like organization that hunts ghouls) is the next most-developed character in the series after Kaneki and Touka. The series spends a lot of time with him despairing over his colleagues dying and toying with his conscience.

Very sexily, I might add.

Very sexily, I might add.

It’s comparing and contrasting Tokyo Ghoul’s approaches to the human and ghoul characters that make it so rich for analysis. Unlike a lot of sci-fi and fantasy analogues for understanding real-world prejudice and conflicts, Tokyo Ghoul presents both sides as equally sympathetic and rational in their causes. Ghouls are pretty disgusting and present a real threat to humanity, but they didn’t choose to be that way and some of them take pains to limit how much they harm humans (as with the ghouls at the Anteiku café where Kaneki and Touka work, who only consume the corpses of suicide victims—which raises its own question about why those suicides are so regular in the first place). Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? Who deserves our sympathy? It’s not for the show to say—it’s up to the audience.

Which is where it gets hard to recommend this show as a “sci-fi metaphor for prejudice and the cycle of hatred,” as Hope puts it in the first of her episode reviews. Real-life prejudice, at least within a society (rather than between two warrings ones), is normally a lot less complicated than that. Members of privileged majorities rarely have any rational reason to feel threatened by oppressed minorities. Their irrational feelings are understandable, but usually the result of ignorance of the larger causes that leave them searching for a scapegoat. The human society of Tokyo Ghoul’s world does seem to have some bigger problems, sure (like…whatever’s causing all those suicides), but the ghouls present an actual threat. Most ghouls aren’t Anteiku, and actively feed on humans. There are other ghoul gangs, like Aoigiri, that actively fight against both humans and human-sympathetic ghouls, and if they’re supposed to be analogues to minorities who choose more violent and aggressive means for standing up against their oppressors…well, that’s more than a little suspect in a way we see too often in anime like this. That’s not to mention that Tokyo Ghoul isn’t so great when it portrays real-life oppressed minorities among their characters, as Eric detailed in his post about the show’s queer-coded villain, Shuu.

tokyo ghoul shuu

This is about what you can expect

I’m giving it some legroom before I write it off there, though, because it’s an incomplete story that may end up completely surprising me. This could be especially true of Tokyo Ghoul √A as it spends more time among the Aogiri, with post-breakdown Kaneki joining their ranks. Plus, this show has so much else to recommend it: its portrayal of Kaneki’s psychology and, most of all, the interesting lens it turns on us, on humanity, especially in response to similar shows. Attack on Titan and Parasyte both indulge some amount of lifting up humanity as a whole, celebrating its “specialness” in response to the monstrous titans and cold parasites. Both Shinichi and various titan shifters fret over losing their humanity to their inhuman other sides. Yet Tokyo Ghoul, in how it prioritizes the everyday lives and emotional development of the ghouls, frames humans as the other. Even Amon doesn’t get as much time on-screen as do the slice-of-life moments in Anteiku, and that’s on purpose: to put the viewers on the outside with the ghouls, looking in on humanity. Looking in on ourselves. Are humans really all that special after all, or could our “special” qualities be managed just as well—if not better—transferred into other bodies? Is “humanity” really worth protecting?

For an ultraviolent shounen, Tokyo Ghoul poses many thought-provoking questions. Add in its fantastic production values (from its vibrant color scheme to its varied and energetic musical score, it’s a pleasure to see and hear, even when it’s gross), and it’s a show with a lot to recommend itself to all kinds of anime fans. Even squeamish babies like me.

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6 thoughts on “Tokyo Ghoul is Better Than Parasyte, and You Should Be Watching It

  1. I agree. For an anime that’s supposed to be horror, it’s a pretty good job in toning down the violence and gore and turning up the everything else. Does anyone feel afraid watching Parasyte? I sort of gave up when the main character’s hand became a bloody blob of flesh. That hand reminds me of the Pokemon Ditto. Which is comical, by the way.

  2. The Tokyo Ghoul anime was disgusting. A terrible pacing, with a major lack of explanations. It has a beautiful concept, yes, but that is just a leftover piece from the fantastically written manga, the way it was presented in the anime felt extremely rushed. They tried to make it more horror than the original content was to begin with, and they messed up by making it seem too “Shounen”, if that’s one way of saying it. Wacky battle scenes was included.
    Also, the way Parasyte is being put down is highly subjective.

  3. Great point about how Tokyo Ghoul stands apart because the ghoul transition happens in a flash and the rest of his journey is psychological. It’s impossible for Parasyte to have the same kind of resonance—Shinichi’s transformation in response to gradual physical modifications can never match up to Kaneki’s transformation in response to psychological trauma that we experience (or at least witness) along with him. Though my recollection was that Kaneki actually transformed very little over the course of the season, and then went through *massive* changes over the course of the final episode—so I recall it feeling less like Kaneki went through a journey of acceptance, and more that he had a bunch of experiences which were then used as fuel during the final episode’s massive transformation.

    My main complaint with the first season was how 99% of the focus on ghouls was given to the Anteiku characters who were not representative of ghouls as a whole. Like, we keep hearing that ghouls are soulless, evil monsters, and the only people we actually follow around are actually super nice and innocent and go out of their way to not hurt people. It just felt like the show was beating the audience over the head with “ghouls aren’t actually all evil, guys, DO YOU GET IT????” And from what I heard of the manga, a lot of what was cut out from the season 1 material was *even more* of that. It would be one thing if the *point* was that ghouls as a whole are actually not as evil or soulless as the CCG believe (and that was definitely true to some degree), but it really felt like Anteiku was a little island of peaceful ghouls in a sea of ghouls ranging from morally ambiguous to monstrously evil.

    I always thought it would be a lot more interesting if there actually was a seed of truth to what the CCG believed about the characters we were following, instead of them just being 100% unable to see how these ghouls were different. That does start to come true later in the season as vengeance draws Touka into questionable moral territory. And this does seem to be the direction the second season is headed towards with more focus on Aogiri, so I’m excited (I’m significantly behind, have only seen first 2 episodes).

    Parasyte’s strengths over Tokyo Ghoul in terms of story, for me, come down to how its journey isn’t just from the human side to the “other” side. Shinichi and Migi (and, to a lesser degree, Tamiya/Tamuya) are like binary stars orbiting around each other, but slowly collapsing in on each other. In many instances the show is as much about Shinichi’s decreasing connection to humanity as it is about Migi’s increasingly human characteristics and understanding. Its implementation of this is certainly not without its flaws—I feel like Shinichi’s human-like traits get reset constantly, and he’s never once even considered compromising his commitment to not hurting people. And it’s not the first time a story has focused on two characters and their dance—Death Note, as you mentioned, immediately comes to mind, but I don’t recall ever getting a sense of Light becoming more L-like or vice-versa (I’m sure I’m blanking on lots of others). Does focusing on a dual transition compensate for not developing interesting stories about the rest of the cast…? Not really.

    (Side note in case you didn’t know—apologies if you did! The manga seems to be consistently categorized as seinen https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/spa/ap8gsihgg04qds2/k636b6bc.png, though I agree the show definitely *feels* like a shounen)

  4. I believe Parasyte is the better anime. I watched Tokyo Ghoul before I discovered Parasyte. Before Tokyo Ghoul I watched Attack on Titan. Tokyo Ghoul and Attack on Titan were animes that I felt were rushed. Parasyte has been a slow train that’s been rather enjoyable. To be real Eren isn’t facing the same conflict that Shinichi and Kaneki are so I’m going to leave him out of this. One of the main reasons I like Parasyte over Tokyo Ghoul is because Tokyo Ghoul’s storyline is to “all over the place” they have so many characters that they focus on that it brings my attention away from the one character I want to be watching, I understand that they are trying to have strong character structure but if you try constructing a whole bunch of characters it’s hard to construct your main character if you know what I mean. Parasyte however has you seeing out of only one persons eyes, Shinichi. The only other character that they give a big story would be Migi and it’s attached to the main character. I believe Parasyte is going to be a far better anime. I would also just like to say while I have the chance I know this is completely unrelated but Bleach is one of the worst amines ever! noahnine01@yahoo.com if you ever want to talk about it hit me up! Or about any other anime you may watch. Just one more time, Bleach suuuuuucks! Believe it!

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