It isn’t that often that my anime season starts off with one of the very best hopes for an exceptional series (I did actually watch the Bakumatsu Rock premiere first, but didn’t even make it all the way to the end) but so it is this summer. I had big, big hopes for Tokyo Ghoul going in – it’s a genre I appreciate, with a highly-regarded source material and intriguing staff list. And based on the first episode, it appears that hopes have a good chance of being justified. This was an excellent premiere on all levels.
The talk of the fanbase of Tokyo Ghoul has been focused on series length, with a solid contingent believing one cour would be a disaster. There’s been no official announcement but mixed signals right up to the minute – scenes from later in the manga showing in the preview, the announcement of a “Soundtrack 1” release (typically one-cour series don’t get multiple OSTs) suggesting two cours, but a listing of four 3-episode Blu-ray releases suggesting one (and prompting unconfirmed web reports to that effect). We still don’t know – my reading of the tea leaves is that this is going to be a split cour, with an announcement before the end of the season, but that’s simply a guess. For now all we can do is judge what’s put before us.
And so far, that’s really good stuff. I think it’s safe to say that this is the only series this season (and one of the few ever) that’s directed by an Oscar nominee – Morita Shuhei, whose Possessions was a 2013 Academy nominee for Best Animated Short Film (he also directed the highly-regarded OVA Kakurenbo). Seeing Studio Pierrot’s name attached to Tokyo Ghoul alarmed some, but they’ve always been capable of delivering beautiful art and good animation – they just seem to have chosen to go on the cheap more often than not of late. It seemed from the beginning as if this series was a priority at Pierrot, and the first episode looks plenty good enough to reassure doubters. I also love Miwa Kazuhiro’s (a terrific animator with a long resume, mostly at BONES) character designs, which are faithful to mangaka Ishida Sui’s originals, but sport an interesting, almost gothic look.
Make no mistake, Tokyo Ghoul is a dark ride. It chronicles the suffering of a good person, and does so in pretty graphic terms. The hero of the piece is college student Kaneki Ken (an excellent Natsuki Hanae), who we meet in a seemingly normal and mundane situation – sitting in a cafe with his best friend Hide (Toyonaga Toshiyuki). Kaneki is mooning over a girl and discussing first date options as Hide affectionately mocks his innocence (Kaneki looks the part in that respect), under the watchful eye of waitress Kirishima Touka (Amamiya Sora, who could hardly have asked for a more dramatic contrast to Kaori in Isshuukan Friends).
But all is not as it appears in this world. As the boys talk the TV news is droning on about a series of ghoul attacks, and it’s clear that ghouls are an accepted hazard of life in Tokyo – like tissue hawkers and vomiting last-train drunks. We know these ghouls eat people – we’ve seen it in the pre-open – and that while they can apparently live for more than a month on one body, there are so called “binge-eaters”, ghouls who kill for the almost sexual thrill they derive from it. And when Kamishiro Rize (Hanazawa Kana, disguising herself more than usual) walks in we recognize her from that pre-open – and when Ken tells Hide that this is the girl he’s been dreaming about asking out, it’s no secret where things are headed.
In many ways, this could hardly be a more classic vampire setup. We have a class of effectively undead creatures who feast on human flesh to survive, and a division among them – some like Rize who thrill at the kill, and some who try and co-exist (among which Touka resides). That group is called Anteiku (which I think is also the name of the cafe, suggesting it’s more than a normal cafe), who seem to be trying to organize the ghoul populace and minimize conflict with humans. And soon enough we have the main character forced to confront the fact that he’s become a ghoul himself. Kaneki manages to ask Rize out – they share a love for the same author, who I’m sure is going to be revealed to have a connection to all this later. But we all know what’s going to happen, especially after Rize tearfully lures Ken into walking her home. Things are looking grim for Ken once the feasting begins, but someone intervenes by crushing Rize under a bundle of steel beams (construction sites are dangerous, you know) and the doctor who treats Ken (he may also have a deeper connection) saves his life by transplanting Rize’s organs into him.
This is really the last piece of the textbook formula – Ken wrestling with trying to maintain his humanity even as he realizes he’s become a monster. Ghouls can’t eat normal food (it tastes terrible to them, as if all human food were natto), and when Ken gets hungry he undergoes the physical transformation into a ghoul – but only halfway. This may not be groundbreaking stuff, but it’s a good formula – there’s a reason it’s so popular across mediums – and the execution is excellent. The characters are quite believable and Ken is a sympathetic presence at the heart of the story, and the depiction of his horror at what’s happening to him is viscerally painful. The show is certainly graphic – lots of blood, feasting on severed limbs and vomiting up burgers – but the sense is that it’s still a character-driven enterprise.
It seems as if all the pieces are in place here for a top-notch thriller – a stylish and talented director, a source material with a gift for dialogue and character, a tried-and-true premise. My only real concern is with the series length, though not having read the manga it’s hard to know just how much to be worried. For now all signs point to yes – while it didn’t flat-out blow me away Tokyo Ghoul checked all the boxes I was hoping it would in its premiere, and it’s still on-target to be one of the most interesting series of the season.
OP: “unravel” by TK