Tokyo Ghoul √A
by Jacob Chapman,
Wow. Well, I guess that explains everything! Damn.
I've had a sneaking suspicion for many episodes now that Yoshimura's past holds the secrets to blowing this whole story and its tripartite conflict wide open, but I never saw this coming. The One-Eyed Owl is actually two separate ghouls, in a tragic "sins of the father" situation brought on by Yoshimura's dark origin and ensuing love affair with a human. This shocking reveal plays out across seven minutes of a cold open before the theme song, as we jump back to Yoshimura's last meeting with Kaneki, where the old mentor bears it all in the hopes that Kaneki will not repeat his mistakes and maybe even right the wrongs he left behind. It doesn't sound like much, but the show makes the absolute most of those seven minutes.
In his youth, Yoshimura's name was Kuzen. Like most ghouls, he grew up in hiding without any decent education, forced to become a thug and feed off humans from the shadows. Unlike most ghouls, he held no allegiance to his own kind. In his own words, he hated humans, hated other ghouls, and hated himself most of all. He took the spoils he needed to survive and killed all witnesses, human or ghoul, until his heart was melted by a waitress in the coffee shop that would someday become Anteiku. She taught him to read, and after discovering that he was a murderous ghoul, accepted him immediately in a outburst of empathetic grief. (There's a distinct implication that, like Hide, she probably suspected the truth about her friend for a while. The episode also makes it clear that if she had not embraced and consoled him so quickly, Kuzen would have killed her too, more from instinct than anything else. Chilling.) With time and the healing influence of her love, Kuzen slowly became Yoshimura, and abandoned his violent way of life to live peacefully with his beloved.
Soon, his lover was pregnant, and while they wanted to keep the baby, ghoul-human hybrids are always stillborn, so Kuzen-Yoshimura didn't have much hope for a miracle. "The baby just needs nourishment, right?" his lover responds, "Don't worry. A miracle will happen." The solution turns out to be stomach-turningly simple, and the show opts for a tasteful way of communicating it solely through symbolism. We hear the sound of crunching flesh, and see a familiar white flower morph into a familiar red flower. Cannibalism, but it's not ghoul-on-ghoul this time. It was a great, tone-conscious way to imply the obvious without giving us the gory details to break up the love story. Yoshimura becomes the father of the first natural-born ghoul-human hybrid thanks to the sacrifice and understanding of his partner.
Of course, their peaceful life wouldn't last. Kuzen killed too many people in his past life, and in the end, it was his fellow ghouls, not the CCG, who decided to take revenge on his family. His beloved was killed, and in his effort to escape, he hid their baby, with the intention of coming back when the coast was clear. He was forced to kill even more of his own kind in the process, and in the end, it was all pointless. Someone had already taken the child before he could return for it. Yoshimura grew old and lived the rest of his life in solitude, creating a safe haven for ghouls and humans alike in the coffee shop where he first met his lover. Still, the genetics don't lie. He knows Aogiri's One-Eyed Owl must be his child, growing up alone and filled with hatred just like he did, and there's nothing he can do about it but share his story with Kaneki and hope that this one-eyed ghoul he did save might turn out to be a peacekeeper after all.
Told the wrong way, this story could have seemed rushed, treacly, or inconsequential apart from its (sort-of) reveal of the One-Eyed Owl's identity. It's the little details that keep the tone so uniformly focused on Yoshimura's emotions and transform it into a powerful story all its own. Choosing to focus on Yoshimura's lover's body as he's forced to leave her behind or his hesitance to let go of his baby's hand puts us firmly in his point of view, making the entire episode his story as we move into the present-day events of its second half.
Basically, Anteiku's little world must come to an end. The CCG get the runaround a lot, but they aren't stupid, and they've figured out that Yoshimura's distinctive kakuja has to belong to the Owl, with no way of knowing that there are two Owls. (No one who knows the truth would have any audience with the CCG either. Kaneki completely shot his potential rapport with Amon in the foot last time they met.) The peacekeepers will be punished for Aogiri's crimes, and while Kaneki might still have the power to stop it, he would have been able to help much more if he hadn't decided to try and make everything right by succumbing solo to a violent revolt.
The sun goes down. Snow begins to fall. The CCG organizes its initiative to take out Anteiku the following day. This is the final calm before the storm, and Tokyo Ghoul spends this time in its signature way: with quiet conversations between complex characters. Shinohara drops into the coffee shop just before it closes for a final chat with Yoshimura, who shows no inclination of trying to flee his fate. Instead, the old man shares his thoughts on coffee beans, delivering a nice and tidy summation of Tokyo Ghoul's views on human empathy. "Just because beans are expensive does not mean the coffee will turn out well. Nothing will if you brew it without care. But the opposite is also true. Even cheap beans can be flavorful if you brew them with care to bring out their unique qualities." Shinohara says that sounds very profound to him, but Yoshimura replies that he doesn't find it profound it all.
It's been established from the beginning that ghouls are "cheap beans." They are not superior evolutions of humanity, or "different in cool ways" mutants, as in most stories of fantasy prejudice. They're just humans with a tragic handicap, forced to empathize with their own food. They don't have a choice in how they're born, and have no magical vampiric immortality or longevity in the tradeoff. Their existence is a pain in the ass for "normal people," and none of the incredible effort needed to bridge the gap between human and ghoul is fair. Both groups harm each other just by coexisting, even through something as simple as expressing friendship through gifts of food, like in Touka's relationship with her best friend. That's why Anteiku is a coffee shop, because coffee is that rare thing that ghouls and humans enjoy in exactly the same way. Their right to live and seek understanding is equal, even if their circumstances are not. Tokyo Ghoul has successfully created a universe where flesh-eating monsters are a weak and persecuted class in need of protection, fairness or moral rationalization be damned, because we're all equally "human" in the ways that matter.
However, when Yoshimura talks about the coffee beans, he doesn't talk about them as a universal experience cultured all in the same way. It takes not only care and sacrifice from one perspective, but the desire to communicate and sympathize with the other perspective, to bring these groups together. That's why it's not food or even coffee that's been shown as the ultimate expression of love in this series: it's reading! Words and their (multiple) meanings are a huge part of Tokyo Ghoul. Ghouls know each other by name, but humans give ghouls inhuman names based on the masks they are forced to wear to protect themselves. Humans teaching ghouls to read as an expression of love is a fascinating through-line in this story. It puts both groups in a position to speak the same language, offering ghouls the education and understanding that's been denied to them since birth. If the CCG were less punitive and more reformative, the world could have become a place where ghouls are truly protected. (There's more than enough dead bodies to go around, right?) But just like its supposed "bridge between worlds" Kaneki, Tokyo Ghoul's universe isn't yet prepared for the lofty expectations we project onto it, and there are too many warring perspectives in the way for peace to emerge in the way we would have liked. Yoshimura is proof that it can happen, but there are still always past consequences holding back change: in this case, it's Yoshimura's own offspring, a creature born out of true love into unfair hatred. Whether the characters we love get a happy ending or not, Anteiku must fall. There's no safe haven anymore.
Depending on how this show ends, it might just obliterate my heart. I hope you're happy, Tokyo Ghoul!
Tokyo Ghoul √A is currently streaming on Funimation.
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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