ANIME & MANGA - Review
14:43 - 19th November 2015, by Andrew Osmond

Tokyo Ghoul

The titles for the horror series Tokyo Ghoul include an image of a boy falling through the sky while his double rises to meet him, its face hidden by a grinning, bestial mask. It’s an anti-Miyazaki image; instead of us rising into the heavens and becoming our best selves, we fall and devolve into sub-human monsters.

The boy’s Kaneki, a university fresher in Tokyo, on a first date with a gorgeously beautiful girl. She says she’s scared because of recent killings; people bloodily devoured by creatures called ghouls. Kaneki walks the lady home, into darker and darker places, sharing intimacies about his lonely life. In an alley, the girl leans into him, promising his loneliness is over… and then rips into his virgin flesh, for she’s a ghoul herself. She grows tendrils and pierces him – it’s like a gender-swapped Overfiend – but she’s crushed by a metal beam falling from above.

Kaneki doesn’t turn into a monster because he’s bitten. It’s worse than that; a doctor transplants the girl’s organs into him to save his life. (It’s hinted later that it’s a secret experiment.) Kaneki recovers, but finds that normal food makes him puke, while the people round him smell real good. Maddened, the boy runs back into the dark and, through violent encounters, discovers the hidden society of the ghouls.

Tokyo Ghoul is an exceptional anime, though sometimes confusing and annoying. Yes, this is the explicit, full-gore version of the anime, but not a complete story; it ends in mid-air, with the sequel series (Tokyo Ghoul √A) due for a future release. It’s very changeable; it moves from straight horror into Monty Python-ish farce, and elevates seemingly tangential characters into heroes and anti-heroes. It’s often hard to follow where the show’s going, raising suspicions that it’s going nowhere. But then the pieces start fitting together, and you realise it’s doing something special.

Many of the show’s characters are involved with Anteiku, a coffee-shop run by, and for, ghouls. The customers seem ordinary people except for their addiction to human flesh. But where do ghouls come from? Unlike zombies or vampires, they don’t convert humans into their kind, and they don’t have to eat live meals; the “Anteiku” crowd get by on human corpses. (If you think that’s gross, remember the alternative is starving – ever see Alive?) Pop quiz: try to work out where the ‘ethical’ ghouls source their food, and no, it’s not the morgue.

Unfortunately, Kaneki learns, most ghouls aren’t so high-minded, including the colourfully-named “binge eaters” and “gourmets.” Worse, a human police force is dedicated to eradicating all ghouls, with more and more of the story told from their viewpoint. In particular, there’s an odd cop couple, a dedicated young male officer – one of the show’s secondary heroes – and a mad-eyed old man, who somehow share a close rapport.

Ghoul is very much a show to discover for yourself. Our advice is to stay with it, especially when the interest level dips. The first episode, in particular, is so gripping as straight horror that it’s frustrating when Ghoul moves into other kinds of story. We’re soon in Monty Python territory, with a dandyish ghoul fixated on Kaneki and a mad gladiator contest with shades of Life of Brian. Later, Ghoul becomes a Shonen Jump-esque action show, then a shockingly cruel tragedy about a mother and daughter, and so on.

The characters are interesting and well-written, or barnstormingly broad, like the dandy ghoul who orgasms while inhaling a blood-scented cloth. At first Kaneki seems a cringing Shinji type, but he gains real dignity, even while he’s pulled by his animal “Ghoul” lusts to kill and eat. But again, Kaneki’s not the sole hero. The series has multiple viewpoints, with rhythmic cutting between characters who want to kill each other for very similar reasons. The moral may be too on-the-nose for some viewers, but it’s better than preachy dialogue.

Indeed, moral positions are presented powerfully from different sides. A bereaved character cries, but without anger for the murderers of her loved ones; a prisoner is trapped in hell by his own passivity; the mad policeman rejoices as he rips into the ghouls he deems monsters, using weapons made from their body parts. There are fights, sometimes spectacular and exciting, but usually short; this isn’t much of a fight show. The big battle episode is the penultimate one, climaxing with the promise of a really big action finale. But it’s a fake-out; the last episode is very different.

Indeed, this final episode should have warnings attached. It’s very gruelling, and some viewers may find it unwatchably nasty. It’s also, in its horrific way, an extraordinary, brilliant episode, switching between dreams of beauty and an unbearably hideous atrocity. There are shades of the TV ending of Evangelion, and of Takashii Miike’s notorious Audition, often linked with “torture porn” movies. But both Audition and Tokyo Ghoul mingle their horror with true beauty. Ghoul’s ending is terrible and terrifying, making you desperate to see the sequel.

A strong start, followed by a muddled-seeming middle that slowly makes more and more sense, culminating in a horrible – but stunning – finale.
SCORE: 4/5
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