Tokyo Ghoul
Episodes 1-8

by Jacob Chapman,

Ghouls are disgusting creatures. They roam the streets of Tokyo disguised as human beings, but just under their skin lies a crackling, uncontrollable demonic force that lusts for blood-soaked meat. They can only survive by eating the flesh of freshly killed humans, making them a species of murderers by necessity. Clearly, ghouls are irredeemable monsters that don't deserve to exist.

But...who are you to judge? Yes, you with your triple-patty cheeseburger. You don't have to eat that to survive. Why do you? You hate ghouls? You're worse than a ghoul, aren't you?

Yes, Tokyo Ghoul is yet another sci-fi metaphor for prejudice and the cycle of hatred. Usually these stories make it ridiculously easy to side with the oppressed (usually inhuman) faction over the "normals." That isn't the case with Tokyo Ghoul, where even a cursory glance at a ghoul's eating habits sends the audience straight to the bandwagon for their extinction. Many of them don't bother to make sure their prey is completely dead before chowing down, and they hunt using their own engorged and en-toothened internal organs like some kind of vampiric sea cucumber. This is compounded by the show's hearty embrace of its subject matter; the amount of chunky splatter on screen that needs to be censored for air is incredible, and it's anyone's guess as to just how gross the uncut product will be on home release. Ghouls are a "misunderstood being" that's genuinely hard to root for, both human in all the ways we hate and monster in ways we'd rarely even considered. Our recently-turned hero Ken Kaneki feels the same way and certainly would have killed himself rather than become a ghoul if it wasn't for the pesky immortality perk that came with his transformation. (Only a ghoul's kagune, or predatory organ, can kill another ghoul, and Ken's a half-breed to begin with, so it's anybody's guess as to how his system works.)

All the same, the show succeeds in making its monsters sympathetic, giving us the very best ghouls and humans alongside the very worst, and even showing how that cycle of hatred can push characters quickly from one side to the other, taking our allegiances with them. This is as much or more due to Shuhei Morita's excellent direction as it is in the writing. He clearly has a strong voice as a director, and while there's not much he can do with the necessary coffeehouse worldbuilding chunks of episodes, he has excellent instincts for staging a dynamic action scene or lobbing viewers a deep and sudden gut-punch with plot twists, character deaths, and even some subtle moments of resonance in what is normally a series rank with melodrama and entrails.

This is illustrated perfectly by the shocking conclusion of episode 8. The irredeemable (human) villain we were sure would be the greatest foe of the series has been destroyed, and we feel not hatred for him, but pity. The show assumes you've been paying attention to the little things like how his colleagues view him and the language he uses before killing innocent ghouls. It trusts you to have these details in the back of your head when his (ghoul) killer bellows hatred at his corpse and rips off his gloves for the horrifying punchline. Her rage at his refusal to even reach out and touch a ghoul before condemning them all is interrupted by the surprise underneath the glove. The implications it has for both his character and the ghoul child he orphaned earlier in the series hit hard, and all without needless padding of dialogue or backstory. Tokyo Ghoul is a surprisingly cinematic anime, and not just in the well-animated fight scenes. Its terrific sense of style breathes new life into the reluctant vampire narrative we've all seen so many times before.

It's a rare show that feels held back by its writing when the writing isn't even poor, but that's how Tokyo Ghoul plays out. Most of the beats here are standard shonen fare, from the light coffeehouse comedy bits to the short-arc villains meant to build up the world at a manga's pace, which can translate as sluggish in anime. In fact, the show was nearly sunk by its first villain, the atrocious "gourmet" Shu Tsukiyama, a foppish gay-panic joke injected with a disturbing level of threat that read more "tryhard" than frightening. The protagonists were ultimately developed through his arc, but it was a huge pain getting through his revolting brand of evil that seemed better reserved for more tasteless shows, from his secret arena of upper-class cannibals to his sexualized hunger for Ken's delicious insides. (He even snorts Ken's blood off a handkerchief to keep himself going day-to-day.)

The plot of Tokyo Ghoul may be boilerplate, but the characters stand out just enough to call it a gorefest in good taste. The cast is wonderfully vulnerable and sympathetic (apart from the thankfully-extinct Shu,) and this gives them a humanity that runs just a little deeper than most of its competition. Ken's love of literature and patient yearning to see the world from new perspectives sets his character apart from the floods of whiny-but-bold shonen protagonists that flood his genre. In fact, everything Ken does has an air of patience to it, from teaching a young ghoul how to read an entire book full of difficult kanji to using his flesh-eating instincts for the protection of his enemies instead of their demise. Good ghouls like waitress Touka Kirishima and mentor Yoshimura introduce us to the humanity in the monsters, and bad ghouls becoming good like Nishiki Nishio and good humans becoming bad like Kotaro Amon fill out the rest of the cast.

Even with its short run of too-gross-to-defend episodes in Shuu's arc, Tokyo Ghoul has been an enthralling ride for fans of the macabre, filled with great action scenes and nuanced characters. The show is only getting better as Ken fully adopts his role as the bridge between worlds. It's anybody's guess as to who will remain his friend or foe, or even if he can trust himself, as the cycle of hatred churns blindly in the same backwards direction.

Rating: B+

Tokyo Ghoul 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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