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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Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 2

As the long-awaited follow-up to the first post, here are my top five favorite musical soundtracks of all the anime I saw in 2014.

5. Space Dandy

Composers: various

Space Dandy was a hard anime to place here, because it had such a huge team of people handling its music, to wildly varying results. The show was an anthology series in the truest sense, with the creative vision changing from piece to piece, and that included sonically. Some musical moments in Space Dandy are truly sublime, like those scored by the ever-reliable Yoko Kanno (who shows up again a little higher on this list), or any embracing the show’s love of all things funky. Others are…well, there was that weird “High School Musical” episode. Overall, though, I don’t remember many truly bad music choices in this series, and it always paid the close attention to musical placement that you’d expect from a Shinichiro Watanabe series. And it was fantastic enough times to earn its place on this list at number 5.

4. Tokyo Ghoul

Composer: Yutaka Yamada

Tokyo Ghoul’s composer seems like a newcomer to the anime-scoring biz, only 25 years old and with no other credits to his name in the ANN encyclopedia apart from this one and its sequel. What a debut it was! Tokyo Ghoul has a richly varied score, servicing the show’s many tones from the gentle slice-of-life scenes in the Anteiku café to, of course, its gory battles. It gets extra points from me for doing so much of the stuff I really, really love in horror scores: ominous chanting choirs (but not in the over-the-top way that Death Note ruined for all future anime), atonal piano and string flourishes, and punctuated low-string ostinatos. Consider how many different timbres, moods and harmonic progressions the above-linked track explores, and that’s just the battle music. Yamada’s score alone is enough to get me to watch his name on future shows, but the way the show uses the music adds even more to its greatness. The show knows just where to place each weird little cadence, and many of its best scenes wouldn’t be nearly as effective without his energetic music (up to and including Kaneki’s psychological torture sequence in episode 12).

3. Ping-Pong The Animation

Composer: kensuke ushio (various episodes of Space Dandy)

Ping-Pong itself left me a little cold, and I didn’t end up finishing it. But it was hard to deny how good its music was, and how well it fit with Yuasa’s unusual direction. Heck, most of the time I found I was watching more for the music than for anything else in the show. Sports anime can live and die by their soundtracks and how much they do or don’t match the energy of the action on-screen. That appears to result in more and more of them, from Free! to Haikyuu, embracing music that’s heavy on the electronic beats to match their high-intensity matches. Ping-Pong does this, too, for much of its soundtrack, but its much more ambient and minimalist than its brethren, with its tracks slowly building as gradual processes rather than rushing at you head-on. It’s like this even in its non-electronic tracks, like the one I linked above. I use the word “minimalist” to describe film scores a lot, but few go so far as to make you ask “are you sure Steve Reich didn’t write this?” Ping-Pong does, and in applying techniques like phasing to the click-clack of its plastic balls, it takes the trends of sports-anime scoring to their logical and transcendent extreme.

2. Terror in Resonance

Composer: Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex….need I really go on?)

It’s pretty much inevitable at this point that if Yoko Kanno composes the music to something, I’ll probably enjoy it on at least some level. Terror in Resonance was a muddled mess that I, nevertheless, still mostly enjoyed. It can’t just be excused as “not being what people wanted it to be about” like I saw its fans say; Terror in Resonance made it clear it wanted to say something about terrorism, and was way out of its depth in doing so. Yet, its smaller moments exploring the psychology of lost, abandoned children were powerfully resonant (hehe) in their grasp of the loneliness and ennui that comes from society leaving you behind. I don’t want to dismiss them because its larger aims failed.

Either way, though…those Watanabe production values! Especially the music!

Terror in Resonance is a little harder to categorize than most of Kanno’s scores. While she always traverses all over the stylistic map, there are certain trends that dominate one work or the other, from Cowboy Bebop’s jazziness to Wolf’s Rain’s orchestral heaviness. Terror in Resonance has its own distinct character for sure, but in a way that can’t be so easily summed up with a particular style. You’ll get the ballad linked above, in the style of Simon and Garfunkel or Pet-Sounds-era Beach Boys, or you’ll get gentle instrumental lullabies like this track. And then the steadily-creeping dread of this. And then…whatever this is. In general, it’s more atmospheric, less full of easily-hummable “tunes” than many of her other scores, but it sifts through a lot of different atmospheres. It shows the same great attention to detail, to episode, to moment that Kanno always does.

1. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders

Composer: Yuugo Kanno (Psycho-Pass, Birdy the Mighty Decode)

Hopefully this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, with how much I’ve gushed about how I adore the music for Stardust Crusaders on all my social media platforms. Maybe a surprise that I ranked it above a Yoko Kanno score. But now, you know…I really love the music in this show. Probably what I love about it is it’s just as weird, and wild, as the show itself. I talk about “variety” so much with music, but man, does Jojo’s score really show a lot of it, even though the series doesn’t vary much in tone from episode-to-episode. And it’s that variety that sells it so much for me. While none of the tracks alone are particularly bizarre or particularly “Jojo’s”—except for maybe the one I linked above—taken together, they’re a colorful rollercoaster of different instrumentations, moods and styles. It matches with the show’s own funhouse of Stands, environments and challenges as the characters make their way across Asia to confront Dio in Egypt. What’s more, the show has the bonus of bettering even the fantastic score and music direction of the 2012 series: not an easy feat!

Jojo’s is a music-obsessed series even in its silent manga form, so it deserves a killer soundtrack when transferred to film. From the unsettling dissonant strings of its tenser moments, to its characters’ distinctive leitmotifs, to the funky guitars of its sillier bits, Yuugo Kanno’s fun score more than delivers. It’s far from the most original music featured in anime, but it was the most entertaining and memorable for me. I was always aware of it when watching the show, but never in a way that pulled me out of the action on-screen. At the end of the day, there’s not much more I can ask for from an anime soundtrack, so I can’t help but give it no. 1.

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #9: Tokyo Needs More Gay

I don’t have many strong feelings regarding Tokyo Ghoul. I started watching it in October, but only recently finished it despite it being only 12 episodes. Chalk that up to there being a lot of other good shows I was watching and me not being invested in Tokyo Ghoul’s story. It’s rushed and does little to distinguish itself from other recent cannibal monster anime like Attack on Titan and Parasyte. I’ll probably check out the second season if only to see how they follow up the non-ending of season 1, but my expectations are low. So why am I talking about a show I mostly have middling feelings toward? Because of this guy.

shuu crazy

Shuu Tsukiyama is the first major villain in Tokyo Ghoul. His primary motivation is to eat Ken Kaneki, the main character, because he smells good. He’s more of a monster-of-the-week who does little to further the plot, but I couldn’t get him out of my head. Because I absolutely hate this character and everything he represents. His characterization harkens back to the gay-coding of Classic Hollywood. Characters couldn’t be explicitly homosexual under the Hays Code, so filmmakers had to be creative and find ways to imply a character was homosexual. However, this was problematic because these implied-to-be-gay characters were depicted as villainously perverse or inferior because of their homosexual and effeminate behavior. These films created and encouraged negative gay stereotypes despite never once explicitly talking about homosexuality. It may be 2014, but these stereotypes persist, even outside of the Hollywood system.

In the short amount of time he matters, Shuu exemplifies these old gay stereotypes to an uncomfortable level. He takes an uncomfortable interest with Kaneki the moment he meets him, prompting Touka to call him gross. In another scene, he snorts a handkerchief with Kaneki’s blood on it. Tokyo Ghoul goes out of its way to portray this as creepy villainous behavior, as if to say “this guy has the hots for another guy and that’s totally fucked up!” As a bisexual man, I can’t help but be appalled that this character was ever allowed to exist. Tokyo Ghoul, with its story about lost souls trying to live in a world that hates and fears them, could have been a great showcase for gay characters. The metaphor of fear and acceptance is right there, yet Tokyo Ghoul unironically and uncritically falls back on gay stereotypes to characterize a major villain. It’s a huge disappointment. Well, at least he’s the only horrible gay stereotype in this show, right?

Goddammit.

Goddammit.

Next post: something more positive.