In any conversation about the best series of Summer 2014, Tokyo Ghoul has to be right there – so far, at least. Two episodes in and this is very strong stuff – a first-rate thriller that’s got me genuinely bought into both the scenario and the characters. It’s also the best-looking series Pierrot has produced in quite a while (not that the competition is especially fierce). Indeed, about the only thing I’m less than thrilled with is the censorship, but that seems to be the toll that must be paid with violent anime these days.
When you’re dealing with what’s basically a stock horror premise like we are here, the success of a series really boils down to execution and the amount of imagination and detail that’s gone into the world-building side of the ledger. So far Tokyo Ghoul scores high marks on both fronts, and this episode really did a lot to fill in the background details. There’s an art to teasing out those details while still maintaining a sense of mystery, and we see a good balance being kept so far. The world of ghouls has clearly existed for a long time, and seems to be no more homogeneous than the human world which seems oddly comfortable with its disturbing presence.
Essentially, as with so many horror scenarios, Tokyo Ghoul is a story about the struggle of the main character to maintain his humanity rather than give in to the monster inside him. And in any such story there are going to be allies, those who’ve walked the path he’s walking – though in Ken’s case there really isn’t anyone who’s walked the precise path he finds himself on. Touka is hardly sympathetic – about the kindest thing that could be said is that there’s a sliver of pity mixed in with her disgust – but her employer Yoshimura (Sugou Takayuki) is seemingly more kindly inclined. Indeed his cafe is also called Anteiku, and acts as the gathering place for the “good” ghouls – and he seems to see it as his role to guide them towards a path of co-existence with humans.
In Ken’s case he’s got a substantially bigger challenge, because Yoshimura has to get Ken to co-exist with himself. He’s aware of what’s happened to Ken (it was on the news) if not exactly what that means. Touka’s scornful response to Ken’s self-pity suggests that she was a born a ghoul – which of course suggests, in turn, that at least some ghouls are born rather than made. Adding to Ken’s problems is the not-unexpected fact that Rize seems to be an uninvited presence in his mind – how real she is it’s hard to say, but Ken is certainly seeing her and is certainly aware of her urging him onwards towards satisfying his hunger, starting with Hide (whether he’s also aware of her sizing up his junk I’m not sure). And as the kindly Yoshimura reminds Ken, there’s only one way a ghoul can satisfy his hunger. It’s nice that they can also enjoy coffee – being forced to consume human flesh is tough, but not being able to drink coffee would truly be hell – but coffee can only be savored for its taste, not for its sustenance.
Another very strong element of the series so far is the relationship between Ken and Hide. Hide is definitely a bro – one of those anime best friends you wish you’d had in real life. He simply refuses to let Ken wallow in his misery peacefully – despite being roundly ignored (let me state that I totally get where Ken is coming from here) Hide continues to badger Ken with emails trying to shame him into coming back into the world. That’s why it hits pretty hard when Hide is put into danger by the return of Nishio Nishiki (Asanuma Shintaro), the ghoul who was in the process of brutalizing in the premiere before Touka interfered. He’s a sempai at the college Hide and Ken attend, interestingly enough – and he’s just as surprised when Hide introduces Ken to him as Ken is.
The scene that follows is a great one – tense, savage, scary. Nishio invites Hide back to his house to pick up some papers (I note that he’s a pharmacology student – possible foreshadowing?) , the implied threat being rather obvious. Ken invites himself along ostensibly to protect his friend, but he’s not much help when Nishio makes his move. The first striking moment is when Nishio wolfs down a taiyaki seemingly with no ill effects, much to Ken’s shock. That’s just the appetizer, though – once Nishio knocks Hide unconscious beneath an overpass he turns his fury on Ken, who he derides as smelling “like a female ghoul”. Ken does his best and try to defend Hide but frankly it’s a rather pathetic sight, and it’s clear the psychotic Nishio is toying with him. He talks of unleashing his Kagune, which appears to be a physical manifestation of a ghoul’s powers, and when he does so with the intention of finishing off Hide – on whom he vomits up the taikyaki (he can pretend not to loathe human food but not keep it down, it seems) – Ken finally unleashes his own as a reflex. Nishio is rather stunned to see that it’s Rize’s Kagune that emerges from Ken’s body, and Ken appears to kill him – though until I know what it really takes to kill a ghoul, I’m certainly not assuming that.
That Tokyo Ghoul can so seamlessly flow from that scene to what follows is evidence of how well-written and directed it is. We’ve just witnessed pure adrenaline-inducing horror, and then we get a much quieter epilogue which cuts to the heart of what the series is. Ken gives in to Rize and is about to consume Hide when Touka again shows up in the nick of time and stops him, knocking him unconscious and returning him to Yoshimura’s care at Anteiku. This is of course the lowest ebb for Ken – he remembers every detail of the moment when he wanted to devour Hide, and it’s only by feeding him human flesh as he slept that Yoshimura has allowed Ken to suppress his hunger.
There’s not much reason for Ken to want to live at this point – he can’t trust himself to be near the friend he’s cherished since their childhood, and he’s an outcast from both the human and ghoul worlds. But Yoshimura frames it in a different way – Ken is actually the only one who’s a part of both worlds, and that makes him lucky. You can see Ken wrestling with himself here – he wants to give in to his despair and he distrusts the old man’s words, but he’s also desperate to latch on to any kindness the suddenly cruel world shows him. Yoshimura promises to show Ken how to make a delicious cup of coffee, and to show him that there’s more to the world of ghouls than the mindless savages Ken envisions. Ken acquiesces, for the moment – and was Hide awake, and listening in on that conversation?
I’m not sure I trust Yoshimura – he could certainly have selfish ulterior motives here – but Ken is in a beggars can’t be choosers kind of situation, and there’s no denying his situation would be a whole lot worse if it weren’t for the old man and Touka. There are hints of even deeper levels of the ghoul world here – talk of a “CCG”, which seems to be some sort of anti-ghoul vigilante group. We see what appear to be two members of this group, an old man named Mado Kureo (the great Ookawa Tohru) and a younger partner named Amon Koutarou (Konishi Katsuyuki), and they speak of a “Jason” – I’m going to guess that’s the guy we saw fighting with Rize in the pre-open of the premiere. There’s a lot of fascinating potential in this mythology, but what sets Tokyo Ghoul apart from most others of its genre is that this is clearly a character-driven story – a good thriller with horror elements, but the foundation of its success is the way it draws its characters and the way they interact. It reminds me of Shiki in that way, and if this series turns out to be as excellent as that one, it will be a very fine series indeed.
ED: “Seijatachi” (Saints) by People in the Box