Humanity is a fickle thing, especially when seen through the lenses of media, both factual and fictitious alike. Mired in a sense of arrogance for having broken the hold of nature, humankind is often shown as a force bent on betterment, no matter the cost. But then you get series like this, series that decide to mix up the tentative balance of the world as it stands and posit a rather complex question; What would happen if humanity fell a link in the food chain?
As so many anime do, Tokyo Ghoul begins with the average daily exploits of a high school boy, who in this instance is named Kaneki. Unlike most anime however, we open with our protagonist actively making plans to ask out the girl of his youthful dreams. Now, whilst this doesn’t sound too major in text, anime fans will realise that this mindset is but a sign that romance will be the last thing this series will focus on, lest it wishes to be ten minutes long. Lo and behold, not ten minutes later, Kaneki and the twisted miss for which his affections bloom are left bloodied and dying in a mass of fallen steel and punctured organs. Grim stuff. Skip ahead a little and we find Kaneki alive and not well, made whole by the organs of his dead companion…kinda. Remember that whole “human as prey” thing I was rattling on about before? Well the predators in question are known as ghouls, and poor Kaneki is now half of one.
Okay, storytime is over, let’s get into the dissection. Tokyo Ghoul is messed up. Not in execution, but content. The overall vibe from the early episodes of the series can be succinctly defined as horrifying, the shot of Kaneki post surgery alone is not easy to forget. After all it’s not often you witness a protagonist so goddamn broken before their journey begins. The terror of his realisation also houses some of the series strongest elements, really driving home the fear that comes with an irreversible decision you didn’t even make, let alone one that literally alters you as a being. That being said, this quagmire of self destruction and turmoil is really the last time the series is all about Kaneki, with time and plot diverting to include the expanded, though still relatively small, cast. Thus, despite still focusing on these select few, the series takes a couple of steps back and shows us the picture of two societies at war, neither right, nor totally wrong, just at war.
It is in this ceaseless conflict that Tokyo Ghoul finds its second wind thematically speaking, shifting focus from the monstrous ghouls onto the monstrous humans, creating a parallel that runs through to the final episode. Though ghouls possess the inherent streak of classic villainy that is eating humans, the series leans pretty strongly into the atrocities committed by the so called paragons of justice that lie in the police force. This is most obviously presented through Inspector Mado, who murders ghouls and strips them of their additional ghoul organs/weapons, known as Kagune, with great relish. If anything, he is the most physically monstrous character trope wise, with his manic smile and left eye that is always open far more than his right. However, as with most things, a little trickery is also used in the series to bolster this “both sides are monsters” theme. Rather than pitting the biggest and baddest of both sides against each other, the series throws Mado at a poor innocent mother and his ghoul corollary Jason at poor innocent Kaneki. Thus instead of witnessing the simultaneous best and worst of each side go head to head, we witness the tyranny one of power can inflict on the helpless masses that comprise the majority of both human and ghoul alike. It’s almost propaganda. It is for this conscious strike on the subconscious that I give Tokyo Ghoul sincere credit, adding this element amidst the more flagged moments of “ghoul doesn’t equal monster” dialogue, or the Romeo and Juliet relationship of Nishiki and Kimi. Not that these are flawed arguments, just well trodden. Of course, I can’t say that this extra level was added on purpose by the creators, but regardless, the series at least allows for some additional thought.
Visually speaking, Tokyo Ghoul tends to revel in the darkness. Owing to the clandestine nature of the main cast, action sequences most often take place in the later hours of the day, contrasting the cheerful days spent at the Anteiku cafe. This shadowed backdrop however provides an excellent stage for the Kagune to shine. Well varied in design, from a corkscrew appendage to billowing wings, these ghoulish assets are striking. The designs themselves are varied to the point that they don’t seem to follow any form of biological rules, other than growing out of a ghoul’s back at will. Plotwise this can be hit or miss, depending on how much you appreciate adherence to rules. Form aside, what grabbed my attention the most were the colours that some of these weaponised limbs displayed, namely Touka’s wing. Fading from yellow to red in a billowing fashion, it contrasts any background it stands against and, quite frankly, just looks cool. Sure that last point seems a tad reductive on the reason front, but sometimes you don’t need anything more than that.
To be honest, this review was a bit of a weird experience for me. Having seen the series before, I already possessed rather average expectations coming into it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the series the first time around, it just wasn’t one that left too lasting of an impact, apart from the first and final episodes, which I still believe are the unequivocal high points of the series. However, I realised during this second watch through that Tokyo Ghoul is a much stronger series when viewed in one binge-tastic bundle, or similarly tight grouping of time (depending on how busy you are with life or whatever). Though the original weekly format allows you to appreciate the overall story, seeing each episode so close to the last allows you to grasp the parallels the series presents. Sure the vibe is there, but there’s no way that I remembered certain dialogue choices were shared between characters at separate developmental points. To cut a redundantly long story short, Tokyo Ghoul is thematically more impactful if seen in rapid succession, otherwise, I feel it gets lost to a sea of series that are more coherent after the regularly scheduled seven day respite.
A Madman lies on either side of this war. Which do you trust?