Kaneki Ken is probably the single unluckiest character to be scripted in recent history (and there are a lot of unlucky anime characters). He’s a nice, shy guy who likes reading books and the girl he likes who also likes the same author has finally spoken to him. They go on a date, she tries to kill him, but he’s ‘saved’ when they are both crushed in an ‘accident’. Only, a pesky doctor decides he can save Kaneki by doing an organ transplant, from the killer date who it turns out was a ghoul. Thus begins Kaneki’s new and wondrous life as a half-ghoul thing who has no clue about how the world really works.
Straight out I am going to tell you that this review is limited to the first series. I’ll get to the mess that is season 2 at some other stage.
With that said, I finished season 1 in a single marathon sitting unintentionally because I just couldn’t stop. I really loved this. Not that it isn’t without its flaws (even season 1 has a number of glaring issues even if you don’t stop and think about them) but because this show was kind of built to appeal to the b-grade horror/action junkie hiding inside me that just wants to have a good time while watching something that’s just a bit dark but a lot of fun. Tokyo Ghoul is not the kind of trainwreck that Highschool of the Dead managed to be, but it certainly is going to appeal to a similar audience unless you were watching Highschool of the Dead for the physics defying breasts in which case you’ll probably be out of luck here.
So, we’ll just go with a straight plus/minus format because for everything I loved in this series, there’s definitely a few little bumps that need to be addressed.
Kaneki Ken is a great protagonist in season 1. Initially clueless and relatively powerless, thrust into a complicated world, gradually becoming aware and finding his limitations, and yet seeking to help before having any hopes that he might be helpful dashed utterly horribly. You really feel for Kaneki. He got dealt an incredibly unfair hand and yet after his initial absolute despair he starts to climb his way out of it. The road isn’t smooth and he doesn’t always make the right choices but he consistently learns from his mistakes and continues to push forward. What I really admire about Kaneki as a character is that even though he talks with others and tries to change their way of thinking when they are clearly prejudiced against certain ideas is that he never takes the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ approach that so many protagonists might. Part of this is to do with his much gentler personality than so many shonen protagonists and part of this is he’s a more logical thinker and one who has to process everything before he can act (though that is also a weakness of his). Plus, Kaneki is a bookworm and to be honest I’d like him as a character just for that trait.
While Tokyo Ghoul does have an excellent character journey laid out for Kaneki this season, the plot is a little… Okay, they had a good concept. Cool premise now where’s the story? We leap between threats and conflicts as Kaneki’s world view expands but there’s really no overall antagonist or conflict driving this forward. And even Kaneki doesn’t really have a goal other than learning to live with himself. Which could have been an admirable focus around which to build a character driven plot but Tokyo Ghoul is more of an action/horror and Kaneki’s personal journey is clearly a side-note. In the space of 12 episodes we have a fight between two ghouls that is upsetting the power balance in the city, Kaneki’s conflict with his friend Hide and the ghoul at his university, the gourmet crazy guy, the doves, and a group of ghouls who have decided to declare war who seem to come out of nowhere toward the end even though technically they are foreshadowed earlier in the story they don’t really have significance until suddenly they are there. All of this makes it kind of messy. Fast paced and with limited down time, but messy.
The fight sequences in this anime are great. Mostly this is because of the unique take on ghouls that this anime has other then just being flesh eaters. Ghouls have Kagune which take on different forms but essentially come out of their backs and work as an offensive or defensive weapon depending on the type and they allow for some pretty cool effects during the fights. Not to mention the ghouls’ skin can’t be cut by your standard knife so the government agents (doves) use weapons fashioned from these Kagune to hunt the ghouls. It’s a creepy plot point and makes the doves even more loathesome at times.
Early on, Tokyo Ghoul, would have you believe it is going to look seriously at the idea of discrimination by having Kaneki straddling the gap between human and ghouls. This plot point gets thrown out the window very early and other than the doves, there are almost no human characters of consequence. The one character who desperately needed more development and screen time, Hide – Kaneki’s apparently only human friend from before he became a ghoul, kind of vanishes for large chunks at a time and so any serious dialogue about similarities and differences kind of gets shuffled away as does Kaneki’s overall conflict at being a ghoul. By the end of the first half Kaneki is entirely caught up in various conflicts that the ghouls are facing and his own nature and the conflict that this had brought is almost entirely shelved. That doesn’t mean his character growth stops, it just goes in a very different direction compared to where it seemed to be going.
The character designs are really interesting. Each character is quite distinct to look at (the ghouls have unique Kagune but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to visually differentiating the cast). Their mannerism, clothing, speech, and everything about the characters makes them feel like distinct entities even if some of these are a little one dimensional. The colours and fashion choices are great and really enhance the viewing experience as well as they contrast sharply with the fairly dark tone most of this anime seems to be draped in.
Alright, I really loved this season, but it ends on an absolute cliff hanger and while it is an awesomely cool scene leaving the show hanging there was really cruel. I’m not going into the what happened but if you are squeamish about torture let’s just say Tokyo Ghoul is not the anime for you and leave it at that.
And to end on a positive note, the theme song is amazing. While it doesn’t have the uplifting warmth of History Maker from Yuri On Ice, given the nature of the show that would be absurd, what it does have is an absolute tone of despair and loss of identity. It perfectly plunges you into Kaneki’s mindset and prepares you for the sad tale you are watching. There is just enough hope in the opening to make you think things will get better and to not crush your soul but just the song itself is a moving experience.
While there are certainly elements of this show that could be improved, pretty much if you like dark anime, a bit of action or a bit of horror, you will love this viewing experience. It moves quickly, has great characters, some excellent fight sequences, and just enough moments of gore and pain to really hit home for the horror fans. It may not be for everyone but if you know you like that kind of thing and you haven’t checked it out, it is well worth your time, even with the non-ending that season 1 delivers.
If you’ve seen Tokyo Ghoul I’d love to know your thoughts.