The Grim, Disgusting Magic of Tokyo Ghoul

by Gabriella Ekens,

If you've been to an anime con lately, you might've seen flocks of people walking around in white wigs and black leather S&M masks. Don't worry, it's not the latest gimmick in salacious teen sex, but cosplay for one of Japan's most recent megahit franchises, Tokyo Ghoul. While the anime's second season finished airing last winter, the manga (whose combined volume sales have topped four million this year so far) has just started coming out in English. Since it's centered around gang wars between superhuman cannibals on the streets of Tokyo, it's easy to see why it's become so popular – it's edgy and cool in that Hot Topic sort of way, and also piggybacks on pop culture's recent fascination with both vampires and zombies at once.

However, beyond these surface elements, Tokyo Ghoul's meat is delivered with some serious storytelling chops. On a base level, the premise is constructed from well-worn tropes: it's X-Men crossed with a reluctant vampire narrative. From Seraph of the End to Blue Exorcist to Parasyte, plenty of stuff comes and goes that sounds similar to Tokyo Ghoul, but few titles are anywhere near as successful. So what makes this one special? I think Tokyo Ghoul provides something familiar yet surprising for its genre, by turning into a nuanced rumination on moral ambiguity. In the world of Tokyo Ghoul, no one can ever be entirely good or evil. This world also provides new horror imagery in a climate oversaturated with by-the-book zombies and vampires. It's also just plain stylish, whether it's being brought to life by Ishida's vivid manga artwork or the anime's haunting sound design. Tokyo Ghoul is everything it needs to be: cool, scary, and as an added bonus, even thoughtful.

Why It's Cool

Although Ghouls may seem like a cross between vampires and zombies, they're hard to sum up that simply. Ishida has invented a new creature that combines a zombie's brutality with a vampire's sexy and tortured allure. Like zombies, Ghouls eat human flesh, but like vampires, they have to hide within human society. Combined, these two traits make Ghouls uniquely brutal and tragic. Unlike vampires, Ghouls don't have the option to leave their prey alive, and unlike zombies, they're self-aware and intelligent. They must make a moral decision to either take a life or starve to death. There's no winning as a Ghoul, but at least they can express their angst by posing in black outfits.

Physically, Ghouls are distinguished from humans by theirkagune - hardened battle organs that they extrude from their torsos to hunt prey. Based on the individual Ghoul, these organs take on a number of different forms, from slippery tails to spiked limbs to glittering wings.

While the manga often renders these as black blurs, the anime makes the kagune swirl with color, and both interpretations can be engrossing in their own way.

Each Ghoul fights in a different way. Main character Kaneki uses his four abdominal flesh-blades to lift himself and pierce foes. Touka, whose kagune resembles a single angelic wing, launches projectile attacks and performs quick aerial strikes. Ghouls with tail-like kagune wield massive, bludgeoning whips, while those with smaller appendages close to their arms can employ sword-and-shield tactics against opponents. Each combination of ghouls results in a new and interesting form of combat.

There's even a Pokemon-like system of strengths and weaknesses. Only instead of water-beats-fire and grass-beats-water, it's wing-kagune-beats-arm-kagune-beats-blade-kagune. Ghoul Investigators (human enforcement agents sent in to exterminate unruly Ghouls) even try and “catch them all” to create the strongest kagune-based weaponry. There's no way a normal human can beat a ghoul on their own, so of course they just rig up ghoul corpse remains to fight for them.

The art is fantastic. Ishida is a skilled illustrator who excels at drawing pathos-filled human figures and chaotic action. His character designs are sleek, distinctive, and greatly influenced by street fashion. That's why you see so many people cosplaying Shuu, Touka, Juuzou, or Uta. They're simple, cool, and not too tough to replicate – at least when the character doesn't have two hundred pounds of writhing muscle crawling out of their back.

While Tokyo Ghoul's visual strengths originate from the manga, the anime features some incredible sound and score work. Its two opening songs are some of the most memorable to come out of anime in recent years. TK's soft scream in “Unravel” is used to great effect in the final episodes of both anime seasons, but my personal favorite is österreich's sweet and lilting “Munou,” which serves as the second season's opening.

Why It's Scary

So who is that masked fellow anyway? That's the protagonist Ken Kaneki, an ordinary teen who becomes a monster after a disastrous date with a covert people-eater. When his Ghoul assailant is killed in a freak accident mid-assault, the doctors save Kaneki's life by transplanting her organs into him. Of course, he comes back from the brink all wrong. Post-surgery, regular food tastes rancid to him, and he's plagued by an insatiable, maddening hunger. Human flesh is suddenly tantalizing, which means walking through a city crowd leaves him drooling like he's at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Kaneki has heard about Ghouls all his life, but he never thought that they'd be so near to him, and so human-like. After he realizes what he's become, his subsequent journey forces him to learn what it really means to be a monster…

There's a reason why I described Ghoul anatomy as “cool” instead of “scary.” The series' true horror comes from the moral implications of ghoul infestation in its world. We quickly learn that, apart from their super-strength and unique dietary needs, Ghouls are psychologically human. Since they must eat people to survive, they're extremely oppressed in society. They're allowed to live only in the most discreet capacity. The government has a kill-on-sight policy for any publicly witnessed ghoul activity, so the only way for ghouls to survive is to hide their true nature and blend in as thoroughly as possible. It's difficult, but not impossible. Ghouls can live off dead human flesh just fine, meaning they technically don't have to commit murder to survive, and many simply scavenge off human suicides and discovered corpses. (The idea of using this loophole to enable more peaceful coexistence between human and ghoul is quickly dismissed by those in power due to human fear and discomfort.)

As a result, Ghouls are usually poorly educated, frequently lose family to human enforcement, and are trained to assign little value to individual lives. Growing up Ghoul is basically a conga line of trauma, so Ghouls generally become monsters because of how human society has treated them. Tokyo Ghoul lets you see this transformation play out in many of its characters. Even the most monstrous people retain vestiges of their former innocence, so the horror comes from seeing the depths to which an ordinary person can fall, regardless of species.

On the Ghoul side, there's Aogiri Tree, a massive organization of Ghouls who seek to take control of Tokyo. Its leaders are sadists who practice the unthinkable, even amongst their kind: eating fellow Ghouls. They're opposed to Kaneki's group, an organization of pacifistic Ghouls known as Anteiku. In the first season, Aogiri's most prominent member is “Jason,” a hulking sadist whose predilections play a key role in Kaneki's story. Jason is tragic in his own way, but thanks to his influence, poor Kaneki “grows” from being a person who would never dare use violence to someone whose main mode of expression is violence. Anything more would be spoilers, but I can say that this transformation results in perhaps the most disturbingly beautiful sequence to ever take place inside a torture chamber.

On the human side, there's the CCG, a federal agency tasked with hunting down Ghouls. They employ Tokyo Ghoul's first major antagonist, Kureo Mado. He's a corpse-like man who relentlessly exterminates Ghoul families, and he's also our first indicator that the war between humans and Ghouls is one of mutual aggression. Also allied with the CCG is Juuzou, a boy raised as a Ghoul's “pet” and now used as a weapon against them. He's one of the most popular characters, and also one of the most brutal, known for casually committing acts of extreme violence in spite of his childlike personality.

Of course, if you like oceans of blood and horrifically contorted bodies, (and who doesn't?) Tokyo Ghoul is also for you. The series sells society's fear of Ghouls by not sugarcoating their violence. That means a lot more than red splotches everywhere – there are twisted off extremities, people shoving human meat into their mouths, and much worse. As someone who's seen enough animated carnage to no longer be satisfied by standard fare, Tokyo Ghoul sates my hunger. Plus, it plays into the show's message - Ghouls' lives are truly ugly, but that doesn't mean that they don't deserve to live.

Why It's Thoughtful

The amazing thing about Tokyo Ghoul is that it eventually makes you feel compassion for Jason, Mado, and Juuzou. It has some of the most layered shades of grey I've ever seen in mainstream genre entertainment. This creates a strange emotional effect during climactic battles, when you realize there's nobody to "root for" over another. You're just watching a bunch of people that you care about in very different ways try to kill each other. I know that Tokyo Ghoul is seinen, not shonen, and therefore aimed at a slightly older audience, but I'm still used to feeling happy when a protagonist triumphs over an antagonist in most stories. Tokyo Ghoul doesn't do things that way. It familiarizes the viewer with everyone's perspective just enough to make you see how one person's worldview is simultaneously justified and contrasted with another equally valid worldview. In pursuit of this, Tokyo Ghoul seeks to humanize nearly every character in its cast of dozens. At times, this can get downright ludicrous, making me feel for extras I'd never met before during a final battle. There were characters in the cast I felt indifferent towards or even loathed for many episodes until Tokyo Ghoul delivered just the scene to turn them into beloved darlings. It's impressive that the show works as well as it does, considering that it crams 14 volumes of manga into 24 episodes. Ishida is a master of pathos, capable of delivering critical hits to the heart repeatedly. He's successfully constructed a cycle of hatred where nobody really "wins," not even the viewer.

Tokyo Ghoul has also been compared to Neon Genesis Evangelion in its approach to humanity. Like Eva, Tokyo Ghoul feels like it was written from the POV of someone who has experienced intense depression. It characterizes human relationships as fundamentally predatory and hurtful. It's ultimately ambiguous as to whether the characters can overcome this. While this might be too much of a downer for some, these emotions can be cathartic to explore in the safe space of fiction. Many teens found solace in Shinji Ikari, and Kaneki is no different.

The anime is streaming on Funimation's website, while the manga's first two volumes have just been released by Viz. I'd say that both are equivalent experiences, but there are definitely some trade-offs. The anime is much faster-paced, at the cost of large swaths of backstory and worldbuilding. At the same time, it adds some character moments that weren't present in the original, and those work well. It also make a major storytelling deviation from the manga in its second half, but this doesn't ultimately make as much of a difference as you'd think. Both versions hit the same major story beats and only amount to subtly different endings. The manga is occasionally more tasteless in its portrayals of violence and sexuality, while the anime can't quite obscure its meager production values and occasional sloppy animation. Whichever way you go, both are worth it.

Tokyo Ghoul is one of my favorite anime properties of the past few years. I don't know that it'll become as big as Attack on Titan, but it taps into the same desire for a fresh, raw, and emotional story. If you've been hankering for Attack on Titan's second season (ETA 2016), Tokyo Ghoul may sate your hunger. Or maybe it will even stir up darker, stranger cravings inside you...

If you've seen Tokyo Ghoul, do you prefer the anime or the manga? Let us know in the comments!

Cosplay Photo: Abby and Gabby.

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