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Review: “Tokyo Ghoul” Is Mind-Draining Drool

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Tokyo GhoulHave you ever had a bad date? There have been obvious date-killers, such as making an inappropriate joke, bringing up politics (and finding out you’re on the opposite end), or having the person hit your one worst personal pet peeve. Ken Kaneki has been the victim of the ultimate “catfishing:” he had a crush on this shy, bookish girl, but had no idea the secret she held within. Rize Kamishiro is a “Ghoul,” one of a new race of people slowly afflicting the world. Forced to consume human flesh to survive, Ghoul society is one that Kaneki quickly finds himself a part of. Will his new hunger drive the rest of his life, or can he suppress the urges with a stack of new books?

Tokyo Ghoul has been a surprisingly popular franchise in recent years, with a multi-pronged assault on anime culture in cosplayers, shirts, and multiple media. Based on a manga, this release is the first of multiple animated seasons, alongside light novels, video games, and probably pogs at a 1990’s-era Hot Topic. You’ve got all the trappings for a “darker” series that sells to people who like black clothing, vampires, and suffering. The types who would spew Faygo at the Twilight crowd. It’s a best-seller, but watching the actual series may lead the viewer to wonder “why?”

Tokyo GhoulThe greatest concern regarding Tokyo Ghoul is its incredibly passive lead character. Kaneki doesn’t actively make any moves until the very end of the season and has minimal impact on the proceedings. Much of the show revolves around things being done to him or related to his existence, without involving him directly. This makes partial sense, as he’s quickly thrown into a world that’s not his own. Like starting a new job, you’re going to spend the first bit learning from your peers and watching how they handle things. In fact, Kaneki’s biggest “character development” before the end of the series is his slow adjustment to the fact that the food that he used to eat will no longer sustain him, or even be palatable. It’s not that a weak or passive lead can’t be an interesting one, especially since their very nature sets up a satisfying denouement when a passive character finally develops backbone and stands up at the end. However, Tokyo Ghoul follows more of the Shinji Ikari (of Neon Genesis Evangelion) route. Both characters are defined by weakness and lack of interest in being involved in the plot. However, while Shinji at least had a series-opening fight (and a landmark of animation at that), Kaneki takes a whole season to get there. Other characters are active and interesting, and are a bit more acclimated to their world, but Kaneki stays on the sidelines. At one point, he’s even the “princess in another castle,” relegated to being kidnapped and tortured. This leads to his awakening as a stronger, more active character, but it comes way too late in the game.

As with most reviews, a slight refresher on Wikipedia is in order to confirm names, plot order, or the dozen other facts that make their way into these things. Looking at the episode guide, here’s the verbs related to Kaneki:

  • “(Kaneki) is saved”
  • “Kaneki struggles”
  • “Kaneki struggles”
  • “Kaneki is taken in”
  • “… is preparing a mortal trap for (Kaneki)”
  • “… is defeated with by Touka with Kaneki and Nishio’s help”
  • “Kaneki… wants to fight”
  • “Kaneki confronts”
  • “Kaneki is kidnapped”
  • “Kaneki is tortured”
  • “Kaneki comes to accept… and fight back”

Tokyo GhoulThose are the shortest summations of eleven of the twelve episodes. Seven of the eleven feature actions being done to him, with four feature him taking action on a notable scale. This is a rough by-numbers appraisal, but it shows how much of the show is about things happening to Kaneki, rather than things happening at his hand.

Appreciably, the show takes pains to point out that the spreading of the Ghouls is both a known quantity and appropriately handled by the government. The world hasn’t gone to hell like in The Walking Dead, nor has the government response been inadequate or ineffectual like in The Strain. The “epidemic” is managed realistically, in the fact that it’s covered on the news, most people go about their day like everything’s normal, and official agencies try to contain and handle the situation. It’s a bit of world-building that stands out in a genre of inhuman monsters in modern society that’s slowly taking over the industry.

The rest of the characters are entertaining, but largely forgettable in the grand scheme of the Japanese animation industry, and even Kaneki would be generic and bland if it wasn’t for the iconic (and marketable) Ghoul mask he gets halfway through the series. The Ghouls do have both unique eye(s) and “monstrous tentacle energy/blood attacks,” which seem designed for both more adult animation and cosplay challenges, but everything else visually falls comfortably into the milieu of the medium.

Tokyo GhoulThe release from FUNimation is surprisingly (and appreciably) dense; both DVD and Blu-ray releases each come in their own case with reversible slipcovers and a chipboard box hold it all together. English-crew commentaries feature on two of the episodes. The US trailer, alongside Japanese commercials and promotional videos, fill out the Japanese-promo material. A “Kaneki in Black and White” mini-feature goes in-depth on the American crew’s thoughts on the show and lead, and a collection of all the previews, the opening, and the four ending songs combine to fill out the expected errata. It’s a good amount of extras — as decent as you can expect from most Japanese animation releases nowadays — and the box pulls it all together in a decent bit of shelf-pride.

Tokyo Ghoul is a show that must have an audience, but that audience has to have a fair amount of tolerance for characters that are dragged along behind the truck of a story, instead of sitting in the driver’s seat and deciding where to go. It may be a fun ride for some, but most will want to chose the path over flailing around on rocks.

(As a note, our review copy came with a promotional t-shirt, which does not affect our opinion of the show.)