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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.