Tokyo Ghoul √A
by Jacob Chapman,
This is it. This is the way Tokyo Ghoul had to end.
But was this the right way for Tokyo Ghoul to end?
I'm not so sure about that one. Once the show made it clear that Kaneki had passed a “point of no return” in its first season finale, the “right” way for anything to happen flew straight out the window and never looked back. Part of this season's excitement came from its unpredictability. I had never seen a milquetoast anime protagonist fall from grace with such harsh condemnation from the narrative before, and I had no idea what was going to happen to Kaneki because of it. The only comparison that seemed close was Shinji's character journey in Evangelion, and that ended both very well and very poorly for him depending on your choice of EVA ending. I didn't know what to expect.
At the same time, I guess I expected something a little brighter and kinder than this.
Amon is dead. Since there's nothing left of him but a giant bloodsmear, it's possible that he's only missing, but it doesn't matter. Akira is seen kneeling by his remains, devastated. She's already lost him, along with whatever they could have had together.
Shinohara is dead. Technically, he's in critical condition, so I guess he could pull through, but it doesn't matter. Suzuya is devastated, having been confronted with the pain of loss for the first time in his life, but with no one left behind to help him digest it.
Finally, Hide is dead, and in his death we find Tokyo Ghoul's final statement on its entire complicated journey. I said at the beginning of this season that Hide had become the new Kaneki, and that turns out to be true on a deeper level than I had yet realized. Mortally wounded, Hide rambles while he fixes Kaneki a few cups of foul-tasting coffee, calling to mind Yoshimura's speech about how even good beans can taste bad with the wrong care. "I'm sorry," Hide says, at first apologizing for the coffee, and then apologizing for something more: "I always knew." Hide explains that he never confronted Kaneki about his transformation because he could see how happy he had become among the other ghouls. Realizing he could never be a part of that, Hide began to feel truly alone, (and probably began to understand the abandonment Kaneki felt after his mother's death.) After Kaneki joined Aogiri, Hide wanted to save him, and bring that happiness back to Kaneki's life. Even though he was alone, he thought he could try to help in his own way. "But there wasn't anything I could do on my own after all, huh?" Kaneki's fear of causing Hide's death was what prompted his transformation from person to monster, but strangely, the reality of Hide's death is what brings him back. In shots mirroring the first season finale, Kaneki's eyes turn human, his hair turns black again, and his tears change from blood back to water as he promises Hide that they can finally go home together.
So why is this? Strictly speaking, Kaneki's worst fear did come true. His best friend is dead because of his actions, even though they were violent rather than pacifistic. The only difference is that Hide dies with acceptance, thanking Kaneki for being his friend rather than blaming him for his mistakes. (They both made a lot of mistakes.) It all comes back to something very important that Yoshimura said three episodes ago. "For us to live, we have to take things from others, every day of our lives. To take things from others is evil. To live itself is evil."
This creates an interesting situation, because if Tokyo Ghoul has succeeded in anything above all else, it's the firm-handed depiction of a world where no one is really evil. Even minor players on the fringes of the story, like Ayato or Nishio, are given a moment to reveal the cruelty that pushed them too far. Even characters like Mado and Suzuya, once introduced as violence-driven monsters, are emotionally redeemed long after they've committed one unredeemable act after another. With Kaneki, we saw this transformation from gentle soul to violence-driven monster happen firsthand, and it's probably not a coincidence that all three characters have white hair. (Arima also has white hair, which in turn tells us a lot more about his character than the show itself ever does.)
This paints Tokyo Ghoul's worldview much more clearly. “To live itself is evil” not because people are evil, but because the world is unfair. The process of living itself embitters people, as they eat away at the sacrifices of others. It seems at first like the only way to escape this cycle is to sacrifice, to "be eaten," to live your life entirely for someone else's sake. The problem with this solution is that it creates even more loneliness and hunger, because people are isolated by those sacrifices. Kaneki's mom, Touka's dad, and Eto's parents all abandoned their children to save them, only for those children to become embittered by life, and the wheel keeps churning on. When Yoshimura said that only the isolated can save the isolated, he wasn't foreshadowing a meeting between Kaneki and Eto, (even if that's what he was hoping for.) No, Kaneki was the one in need of salvation, and when he got it from Hide, he also got it from himself, because the kinder version of Kaneki had lived on in Hide and inspired his sacrifice. Connecting with others means accepting and forgiving their weakness, whether they are consumers or being consumed. It's a damned if you do and damned if you don't world, so you might as well not be damned alone.
Of course, this is a tragedy, so it illustrates its message through failure instead of success, spotlighting all its "damned alone" characters. Amon and Akira had a connection, but Amon's bitterness won out, leaving Akira Isōlated. Shinohara and Suzuya had a connection, but Shinohara sacrifices himself for Suzuya, leaving Suzuya isolated. Kaneki has been on both sides of the spectrum, at first weak in his sacrifice and then weak in his bitterness, but always alone, until he and Hide finally connect, right before his death. The episode's climax, an unbroken two-minute shot of Kaneki walking into the enemy's camp with Hide's body in his arms, slowly brings Kaneki back to his true self. He was always meant to sacrifice himself for other people, but he was never meant to do it alone. He's come to terms with his answer too late to change anything, but he still smiles as he puts himself at the mercy of his enemies, seemingly at peace. Then the screen cuts to black.
Tokyo Ghoul's ending was one of the bleakest and saddest of any anime I've ever seen, and yet without a drop of the spite or bitterness that usually accompanies finales this close to the brink of nihilism. Our heroes live in a world of eat or be eaten, with each character making their own choice, unable to fully connect with others around them who might have been able to make up the difference. For Kaneki, his answer was ultimately to “be eaten,” and while it's left purposely ambiguous if he survived his final decision or not, the show seems to support self-sacrifice over self-preservation in the end. The ten-ton antiviolence message hammers that support home too, as does the happier fate of Kaneki's other true friend: Touka.
Touka is the only survivor of this whole mess, as a passive witness to the final battle. "All we can do is endure loss," Yomo tells her, as he holds her back from either acting in revenge or sacrificing herself for her friends. If honesty and human connection is the true solution to happiness in an unfair world, Touka is the only character who achieves that resolution. Others have died so that she can live, and she has to accept that. Injustice will continue to be committed against her with no just way to fight it, and she has to accept that too. For as stubborn and self-reliant as she started out, Touka ultimately emerges as the strongest survivor of this story because she chose to accept the wishes, feelings, and sacrifices of others, from the Anteiku ghouls to her friend Yoriko. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the woefully unexplored Arima, who is only known to the audience as the CCG's strongest member, a silent and friendless figure defined by violence. The episode ends contrasting the isolated dead-end survival of Arima with Touka's warm and promising future. (Both of these final images offer contrasting possibilities for Kaneki's fate as well. The closeup of a lone Arima's white hair implies Kaneki's death, while the wide shot of Touka looking down the street implies his survival, and in both cases the same gentle breeze is blowing.) This contrast would have played a lot better if we had gotten to know Arima as a character more, but I got what they were going for, and I can respect that.
Honestly, "respect" more than "like" was my ultimate takeaway from this final episode. On the one hand, I don't think this finale could have been more perfectly executed. The production values for Tokyo Ghoul have been slippery since the beginning, but this final episode was spotless, with every shot and line paced and framed perfectly, trumping even the memorable first season finale through its breathtaking execution. On the other hand, much like its spiritual cousin Evangelion, my worldview doesn't quite align with the themes of the series, and that makes it difficult to respond to this ending without some inner conflict. Depression changes the way a person sees the world, and I would not be at all surprised if Tokyo Ghoul's author or director is telling this story from a pit not so far from the one Hideaki Anno was living in during EVA's production. Tokyo Ghoul's universe seemed inordinately sculpted to make communication and catharsis impossible for its cast members, which makes its fatalistic ultimatum of "eat or be eaten" ring a little hollow. I guess that's what I mean by being unsure that this was the "right" way for Tokyo Ghoul to end. While I understand and respect the cohesion of its themes, I'm not sure how well they hold up without the harsh enforcement of the story's tragic set of circumstances. It's a dark view of the world to be sure, but I don't have to agree with the story's worldview to respect it, and it's hard to dispute the powerful impression this final episode leaves. ("Final" if you ignore the gentle hints at a potential sequel. I certainly don't need one, but we'll see what happens.)
As for Tokyo Ghoul on the whole, it was a weird little series from start to finish, both determined to stand on its own two feet and curiously reliant on a source manga too lengthy and ambitious to properly adapt. The show's tight pacing and cinematic execution elevated it beyond expectations consistently, but the number of stray characters and extraneous plot threads it retained in the interest of source faithfulness gave it no breathing room to become the best version of the story it could be. I enjoyed its concept, characterization, music and direction immensely, but its animation and plotting threatened to sink the show on more than one occasion.
So here at the end, I'm not sure who this anime was made for or who it really speaks to, but it worked for me. It's too condensed and liberal to really grab fans of the original comics, but too complicated and overstuffed to pull in new fans in the way that it could have. Personally, loving characterization and great music are enough to make me forgive an ocean of problems in many anime, so Tokyo Ghoul took up a spot next to Trigun and Angel Beats! in my heart very quickly on those merits. I'm sure its other fans have their own reasons for attaching to this weird little adaptation, whether they were manga fans or newbies. It's a deeply flawed, but wholly unique experience, and if nothing else, it went out as strong as it possibly could.
Hope has been an anime fan since childhood, and likes to chat about cartoons, pop culture, and visual novel dev on Twitter.
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