Name of Anime: Tokyo Ghoul
Streaming Site Used: Funimation
Episodes Previously Seen: All of them (both seasons) twice. And I’ve read all of the manga.
I’m taking a break from old trash this week. (A blizzard, among other factors, has left me on a different coast than the box of mystery DVDs I’m using for this project.) So I figured I’d blog about an anime that is the most firmly dependent on a single episode of any show in recent memory. This single episode, the last of the first season, is why the entire first season of this show works, which in turn is why it still has t-shirts and merch available in your local Hot Topic. (I was just in one; I bought a shirt.)
As a brief warning, it is impossible to write about this without spoiling both the first season and the first episode of the second season of Tokyo Ghoul. (There will not be any manga spoilers.)
This piece will also be something a defense, as the rest of the anime viewing world did not agree with this assessment on first viewing . This chart, which tracks user ratings on My Anime List over time, demonstrates that many fans were disappointed by the episode.
It’s important to note, however, that at the time of this writing the show has returned to a 8.11 score.
The first 11 episodes of Tokyo Ghoul seem like a mature show for 12-14 year olds in the paranormal action/romance genre. It’s a standard, good guys punch bad guys, bad guys become slightly more likable, fans secretly root for them, etc, with a little more violence than there would be in a western version of this story. It also has some of the standard “monsters as sexuality”, and “puberty is sexuality is being a monster” motifs.
There is the cute ghoul girl, who’s a little bit more tsundere and tomboyish than in our hypothetical western version of this. The main character clearly likes her.
And then there’s the possibly homosexual older man who is literally obsessed with the main character. He wants to devour him because he loves how the main character smells, and I cannot emphasize enough how sexualized this desire is.
And everyone punches everyone else while they try to survive the anti-ghoul police, who are both authority figures representing social order, and dicks who take sadistic pleasure in hurting ghouls, the way far too many authority figures seem to relish asserting their control over pre-adults .
And a violent “fan favorite” character–the dangerous, attractive psychopath type for whom it’s much easier to root in fiction than reality. (Side note: this character is one of the biggest problems in both seasons of the anime, because his arc’s resolution only happens in the currently unadapted manga.)
That’s the first 11 episodes. And if the first season of this show were only 11 episodes long, I would be trying to discover for you whether or not Tokyo Ghoul is trash.
But that’s not what Tokyo Ghoul is about, and the show is not trash. I know this because of episode 12.
The 12th episode of the first season takes place entirely in one room, in one extended torture sequence, with only “three” characters, and explains (and actualizes) the main character’s arc. All of the secondary characters are dropped, especially all of the new, fun characters introduced in the past few episodes. The giant “everyone fights everyone” sequence promised in episode 11 does not happen in the first season of the show. Instead, Tokyo Ghoul decided to retroactively refocus the show on the main character’s arc. That’s why the show works.
We don’t even need to speculate on whether this was the right decision. Tokyo Ghoul got a second season, so we have the privilege of knowing how all of those fights resolve when finally animated, and the director of Tokyo Ghoul is right: those fights don’t really mean anything compared to Kaneki’s arc.
At this point in the story, Kaneki, the protagonist who was born human but became a ghoul in an “accident” in the first episode, has been captured by ghoul gangsters, and is restrained by a sadistic ghoul named Jason. Kaneki has spent the season up until now trying to survive as a ghoul, a creature who is only able to subsist on human flesh.
The episode starts with a strange vision of white flowers turning red, which we see (briefly) in the opening of every episode.
This use of color is symbolically linked to Kaneki’s impending character shift. The opening of the show for the last 11 episodes has included an image of a white haired character, who we learned at the end of episode 11 is Kaneki after all of this torture. This single shot has been = priming us to understand what this episode is.
Next we see Kaneki’s damaged feet, and the MacGuffin from earlier in the show is finally explained:
Moreover, this device is the only posthumous defense the anime makes of Mado (as some manga flashbacks are cut out). The fact that Mado and Amon spend the first half of the series searching for this device and trying to understand its purpose means that Mado, for all his flaws, did not deliberately torture ghouls; he’s merely battle crazy, and only got sadistic pleasure from their deaths in combat.
We also learn (entirely through screams and suggestion) what’s been happening to Kaneki since his capture: prolonged, sustained torture.
This sets up one of the first big deconstructions of shonen action tropes in the series: for all intents and purposes, the good guys lose. They don’t get to Kaneki in time, not really. Kaneki, the dark haired boy who they tried to save, dies. The Kaneki they get back is, in many respects, a different character. To see how, let’s continue to delve into the torture, as well as more spoilery territory (but as the saying goes, “Fear of spoilers is the death of criticism”).
Besides removing fingers and toes, there is torture involving inserting a strange centipede into Kaneki’s ear:
The first function of the centipede is as a visual reference to Kagunes (the tentacle-like appendages the ghouls use to fight)–and specifically to both the Kagune of Himani’s father, seen earlier in the show, and to the Kakuja (a ghoul whose Kagune has transformed) which Kaneki becomes in Season 2.
But besides the visual reference, this form of torture serves as a deliberate twist on the primary symbolism of the series. The ghouls are obsessed with “Consumption” of flesh (or of other ghouls), and Kaneki is what he is because he has “inside of him” both ghoul and human parts.
At this point in the torture, Kaneki retreats into his mind, and we see not only his past (and why he was living alone at 18 years old in the beginning of the show), but his history with his mother, and how she worked herself to death because she wasn’t willing to make a choice between her sister and her son.
Jason then recreates the famous Trolley problem by telling Kaneki, “Look at these two people.”
“Which one gets to live?”
Kaneki refuses to choose, and both are killed.
At this point. the show becomes one metaphor, one choice.
Kaneki has been unhappy for months because his survival is now based on the deaths of humans. Even if he subsists entirely on suicides, the doves (the anti-ghoul police) are going to hunt and kill both him and his friends. It’s only a matter of time until the doves kill someone he has grown to love (either like a sister, or romantically), or he has to kill a dove in order to protect them. Kaneki has been refusing to make this choice, because he doesn’t like either option.
The episode ends with a depicition of him mounting
and then devouring Rize, the ghoul whose organs he has inside him.
And the field of flowers turns from white to red.
And Kaneki has his realization: “I am a ghoul.”
In this context, a ghoul is a unified thematic idea. A ghoul consumes other creatures to live, and this is the source of their strength. A ghoul accepts that his happiness is based on the suffering of his enemies.
As a ghoul, Kaneki breaks his handcuffs and starts fighting with Jason. Awakened, Kaneki is much stronger than Jason, and there’s less of a battle than a reversal of torture.
The new ghoul Kaneki starts cracking his knuckles like Jason, and then instructs Jason to do the same thing Kaneki had been doing (counting down from 1000 by sevens).
Not only is Kaneki devouring Jason’s physical form, but he has internalized Jason’s methods of torture, his ruthlessness and strength.
And ultimately that’s why the ending works, which makes the episode work, which makes the season work.
We have a specific, coherent, unified arc for the main character, and in retrospect, enough of the show is related to this arc that that we see the growth and progression. Everything that came before is made meaningful.
And then Season 2 happens.
But that’s another post….