It may sound odd to say it, but this series (mostly) about non-humans is really the most compelling human story of the season. That’s not unheard of by any means (Uchouten Kazoku certainly leaps to mind) – shedding light on the human condition through fantasy is a frequently successful narrative device. But Tokyo Ghoul seems like such an odd fit for the designation in a season with the likes of a Watanabe Shinichirou original drama and Barakamon (which probably should have been the head that wore the crown, in an ideal world where manga like that get the adaptations they deserve).
Nevertheless, for me that’s how things have worked out in this season’s first month. Tokyo Ghoul isn’t just a horror story about ghouls – it’s also brash, often absurd, and frequently irreverent. Yet it soars because it builds the story around the characters, and not the other way around. And it peoples that story with characters who have some real depth and subtlety to them – we certainly have some who are mostly stock villains so far, but apart from them it’s notable how many seemingly minor characters get treated as if they really matter. And when bad things happen to them, that makes an enormous difference in the emotional impact.
Last week’s episode seemed a bit of a misstep. Miyano Mamoru’s performance was certainly memorable, but the tone of the episode was off – if was too absurd and too much of what happened wasn’t sufficiently set up for it to have much impact beyond shock value and humor. This ep was right back on-form though, maybe the best episode of the series so far. There was a lot happening but things never felt rushed, and the narrative didn’t put the cart before the horse – we were given good reason to care about what was going on before the shit hit the fan (last week was pretty much all post-fecal impact) and it doesn’t hurt that Ken started to show some formidability to go along with his innate decency.
For me pretty much everything worked this time, starting with the calm before the storm scenes at (and above) Anteiku. Touka remains a bit of a mystery (not least the fact that she has a remarkable habit of showing up just when Ken is about to get jacked) but I like the scenes that “humanize” her. Seeing her eat a piece of karaage in front her friend from school Yoriko is one thing – there are obvious practical reasons for that – but this was quite different. She is in fact still ill from having ingested that toriniku, but when Yoriko drops off a pot of stew as a get-well gift (misinterpreting Ken’s presence in Touka’s room in the process) Touka insists on eating some of it even after Yoriko has left just on the principle that it was a heartfelt gesture. Touka is obviously an idealistic person, and she’s doing perhaps more than anyone to fit in with human society – anything that sheds more light on that process and focuses less on her stock tsundere and badass persona is a positive in my book.
Among the most critical elements of this episode is that it sheds by far the most light on the growth and development of young ghouls and does so in a rather heartbreaking way – and through Nishio, of all characters. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he’s been cast in an extremely negative light so far, but we certainly see another side of him here. Ken stumbles upon him being “cannibalized” by three ghoul thugs, and intervenes – showing that his training with Yomo is paying dividends. He carries the weak and injured Nishio back to his apartment, where the human girl Kimi (Kobori Yurie) awaits him. She’s human and knows what Nishio is but stands by him anyway, which is a bit of a revelation for Ken (and foreshadowing that Hide indeed knows the truth) though for the moment, we aren’t told just why she feels that way.
Here’s where Tsukiyama re-enters the narrative, and he’s far, far more effective this week – a real menacing presence and not a cartoon. And Miyano’s performance is somehow that much better – just as manic, but more directed and far more sinister (and he adds Italian to his list of languages). Miyano is really, really good, a powerful actor – but it takes the right material to show that off, and these last two episodes are the proof of how much it matters. He’s still determined to dine on Ken, and his warped mind has decided that what he really needs to take him over the top is to do it while Ken is feasting on a human at the same time – and having seen Ken and Kimi talking in the park after leaving Nishio’s apartment, decided kidnapping her as the bait and the supplementary meal is the perfect course of action.
The scene at the church (just because) where the Gourmet plans to stage his bacchanal is a real work of art – bloody and scary and intense, and bisected by a superb flashback of Nishio’s childhood as a young ghoul. Ken isn’t playing along voluntarily, of course, and Nishio has dragged himself along despite his weakened condition – and Touka shows up just in the nick of time, as it her fashion. But Tsukiyama is more than a match even for her – he reflects on how “long ago” she was a rival for him, when she was fourteen and he eighteen, but how a ghoul is only as formidable as the “fuel” they consume (and Touka confirms this). It’s really Nishio who steals this scene, though, both for his valiant but futile attempts to defend Kimi and for the aforementioned flashback to the time where he was a kind-hearted child who hated the idea of killing and eating humans and depended on his big sister for everything. But someone turned her in to the Doves, and her death was clearly the event that sent him on the dark path leading to the present moment.
This is what Tokyo Ghoul is all about, really – big and brash set pieces full of blood, and setting up a mythology where the world of ghouls is every bit as layered and complex as our own. I loved the tension built in this scene as the Gourmet systematically brutalizes the trio fighting him, and the fact that it’s Ken who comes up with the plan that can stop him – offering himself as the fuel Touka needs to match Tsukiyama’s strength (just as Kimi offered herself to Nishio after discovering the truth and finding him near death from weakness, a nice reminder of how similar humans and ghouls can be in terms of motivation and self-sacrifice). It’s a terrific capper to a terrific episode, and admirably does the job of raising anticipation for the next.