Reviewby Gabriella Ekens,
BD+DVD - Complete Season
Ken Kaneki can't catch a break. He's finally seemed to form a connection with a cute, book-loving young woman, and she turns out to be a serial-killing cannibalistic monster who's just fishing for his flesh. After being lured into a back alley like a dope, it looks like Kaneki's a goner – until a sudden accident kills her mid-attack! Still, he's critically injured, so the doctors implant her organs into his body in a desperate attempt to save him. It works, but he comes back wrong. Now, normal food is disgusting to him, and he finds himself tantalized by human flesh. Gradually, Kaneki realizes that he's been transformed into one of those creatures from the news – a Ghoul. Identical to humans in appearance, Ghouls have integrated themselves into society in order to feed. He'd always thought of them as a freakish other, but now as a human-turned-Ghoul, Kaneki is about to get an exhaustive education on the differences between the two species.
The action-horror series Tokyo Ghoul is quickly turning into one of the few anime you might have heard of even if you don't regularly follow new Japanese releases. The manga keeps topping the New York Times bestseller list, while merchandise has already crept its way into Hot Topic. It's not quite at Attack on Titan levels of saturation, but it's getting up there, especially for something that hasn't appeared on US television yet. So does it hold up?
The short answer is a resounding yes. With a few caveats, Tokyo Ghoul stands out as a distinct, effective thriller with moments of genuine artistry. First of all, Ghouls are a great idea for a horror monster. Combining a vampire's tragic romanticism with a zombie's potential for gory nastiness, they represent a best (and worst) of both worlds from today's most popular horror beasties. As an added bonus, they've got kagune - tentacle-like battle organs that extend from their torsos. Used for hunting prey or combating their own kind, they can take forms as diverse as wings, blades, and tails. Fights play out unlike anything else recently seen in action anime, with visceral swirls of color and guts. With this premise alone, Tokyo Ghoul could have easily just been a solid action anime.
However, what really makes the show special is the writing's ability to live up to the premise's dramatic potential. Not every piece of entertainment has something to say. Sometimes anime isn't trying to do anything thematically, not everything has an artistic message, and that's fine – there's absolutely nothing wrong with just plain entertainment. Still, Tokyo Ghoul is not one of those shows, which also makes it complicated to talk about. The show's formal narrative is very flawed. It has breakneck pacing, a non-conclusive ending, and some weaker storylines, but overall, it's successful in terms of raw entertainment that really says something.
First, some background information. Based on a hit manga, Tokyo Ghoul was adapted into an anime in 2014. This series covers roughly the first sixty chapters of the manga, when Kaneki is first learning to live as a Ghoul. That's a ton of ground to cover in 12 episodes, and the show doesn't excise all that much. Instead, it's just very fast paced, covering entire volumes in about two episodes each. This seems like it shouldn't work, but fortunately, the direction is fantastic, and Tokyo Ghoul manages to convey most of its story without too much trouble. This material covers Kaneki's acceptance into a group of pacifist Ghouls, his run-ins with less savory members of the species, and eventual encounters with government-sponsored Ghoul hunters. Besides Kaneki, major characters include Touka, Hinami, Tsukiyama, Amon, and Mado. Touka is the female lead, a Ghoul who struggles to integrate into human society. She's tasked with teaching Kaneki how to survive in his new body. Hinami is an innocent young Ghoul whose experiences show Kaneki the extent to which people can be dragged down by society. Tsukiyama is a Ghoul whose experiences with oppression turn him into the monster that human society believes him to be. Amon is the second protagonist, a Ghoul hunter, and Kaneki's human foil. He wants to protect people, but struggles with the sadistic nature of his job. By contrast, Mado is a Ghoul hunter who embraced that sadism.
So Tokyo Ghoul has a cast of dozens and these are only a fraction of the most popular characters. Others include Rize, Hide, Yoshimura, Nishiki, Irimi, Koma, Yomo, Uta, Ayato, Yamori, Juuzou, Takezawa, etc. All of these characters have stories to tell. It's pretty much impossible to cover all of this in 12 episodes (or 24, since the show got a second season), but the abbreviated attempt has the strange effect of making (almost) everyone a little sympathetic. The morality behind it all is as thoroughly grey as mainstream anime ever gets. Ultimately, there's nobody to root for, portraying cyclical hate along identity lines as an enormous, smothering problem with no easy solutions. “Superpowered people as oppressed minorities” has been done before, but Tokyo Ghoul stands out as an exceptionally evocative example of the genre.
At the same time, this is a narrative torn between two aspects of itself. The first aspect is a story about oppression and isolation that's absolutely dripping with the pathos of human suffering. The second aspect is a high camp gorefest populated with sexy, murderous clowns. Most characters can be positioned on a gradient between these two extremes. Hinami is all pathos, while Tsukiyama is entirely camp. Mado is a blend of the two approaches. While some viewers can appreciate a balance, Tokyo Ghoul is better when it's trying to make the audience feel, not laugh. Wacky Tokyo Ghoul tends to dehumanize characters in a show that's otherwise all about humanization. Shuu, for example, never grows into more than a camp gay stereotype for the sake of tired comedy. This is a disappointing thematic oversight in a show that's otherwise all about empathizing with the oppressed and demonized. These strengths and weaknesses are both magnified in the second season, but it's a rocky experience right from the start.
More than anything, Tokyo Ghoul works as a story about a young man spiraling into despair in a way reminiscent of that seasoned classic Neon Genesis Evangelion. Like EVA, Tokyo Ghoul works less as an argument for an objective worldview and more as an articulation of a certain type of adolescent, all-consuming ennui. Kaneki comes to see the world as a cruel and unfair place and chooses to change himself as a response. Being a Ghoul means killing other people to survive. Through his experiences as a Ghoul, Kaneki also realizes that he's afraid of intimacy. He becomes convinced that everyone around him will eventually abandon him, willingly or unwillingly. In the end, he decides to fear the pain of abandonment more than value being with the people he loves. It's a tragic story about a young man succumbing to his emotional demons. Each viewer will have a different stance on the ultimate validity of how Kaneki (and thus Tokyo Ghoul) perceives humanity. Some people will relate, and thus value the show highly, while others will be left cold. Like Evangelion, this is a story about a depressed person getting worse, and part of depression is having a skewed vision of the world.
Either way, it's hard to deny the mastery this story culminates in. The otherwise slick if conventional action show with good character beats suddenly turns into a surreal, direct interrogation of Kaneki's pathology as he sits locked in a room for an entire episode. Of course, it's a direct riff on Evangelion, but it contains all of that ending's power alongside some striking artistry. Story-wise, there's absolutely no closure, but at least the second season is already out. For fans of artistic and thematic ambition in anime, this conclusion may justify the entire show.
In terms of technical merits, this is clearly a limited production. After the slick first episode, the animation takes a downswing. Some of the middle episodes feature animation that seems to consist entirely of in-betweens. However, Tokyo Ghoul still manages to maintain attention by virtue of its slick direction. The show's director, Shuhei Morita, is a rising star. He had a hand in storyboarding every episode, and he succeeds in keeping the show intelligible even at such a fast pace. The sound design is also excellent – you're treated to every crunch of bone and gnaw on mangled flesh. The opening song, Unravel, is great and used to fantastic effect in-series. The score takes on the brunt of the burden to depict Kaneki's mental disintegration. Note that this is the uncensored version of the show, so you can finally see stuff like a close-up on a dude's leg twisting 360° in its natural glory.
This review covers the regular edition and not the Collector's edition. It doesn't look like the discs are any different, although extras are sparse to begin with. There are some episode commentaries and a feature called "Kaneki in Black and White": analysis of Kaneki's character by the dub team. Overall, the dub is a very good English adaptation of Tokyo Ghoul, but there are some issues. Liberal scripting messes up the tone sometimes. For example, while I'd buy Mado making a “wascally wabbit” reference, his confrontation with Touka – a tense, climactic moment that has longstanding consequences for the rest of the show – wasn't the best time for the gag. Generally, the dub is entertaining when the scene calls for lightheartedness but distracting during serious, straightforward conversations. Otherwise, the performances are very strong. Austin Tindle as Kaneki is the real standout. He's an inspired choice, both distinct from the average anime protagonist and different from the Japanese voice. While male voices in Japanese can be quite high (many male anime characters are even voiced by women), you can't pull off the same illusion in English. Tindle's voice is surprisingly deep and guttural, and it sounds like Kaneki is half-whimpering most of his lines, which fits great with the show's visceral nastiness. Most importantly, this ties together the two versions of Kaneki's character – the reticent wallflower we see throughout this season and his transformation in season two. Brina Palencia makes for a tough and expressive Touka, while J. Michael Tatum hams his best to catch up to Mamoru Miyano's Shuu. Other standouts include Monica Rial as Rize and Christopher Sabat as Yamori. Their performances feature heavily in the conclusion and contribute greatly to the maddening atmosphere. Overall, Tokyo Ghoul is very much worth watching in English.
While an evaluation of its overall success is complicated, the enthusiasm the show inspires in its fans is not. If you're into horror, action, or weird little attempts at art in a mainstream product, check out Tokyo Ghoul. It may develop some mysterious cravings in you...
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Cool monsters with an interesting dilemma, effective character work, fantastic use of sound, color, and cinematography, ends like a punch to the teeth
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