Ghoul attacks in Tokyo have increased in frequency of late, but these flesh-eaters remain a mere urban rumour to student Ken Kaneki – or at least until his promising date Rize proves to be one. After she has almost killed Kaneki, falling beams crush Rize; her organs are transplanted into Kaneki to save his life, turning him into a ghoul (a half-ghoul, specifically). Thus starts Tokyo Ghoul, which in its original manga form began in 2011, but which has found increased success since then due to a recent anime. The second season aired last year, with a possible third season this year sometime. It’s obvious that the titular ghouls – an humanoid species essentially, but one whose diet is nonetheless in the human blood and/or meat line – owe a non-inconsiderable amount to the vampire genre. But this is no criticism, for the franchise’s handling of this content recaptures what vampires themselves often lack today.
Vampires are much altered from the demonic beings of folklore, and even from Dracula. Anne Rice pioneered the repentant vampire; a creature with humanity as well as with monstrosity, a creature torn between these two extremes. Since then the demonic side has been taken increasingly less seriously, relegated to giving vampires a reason for getting a little bit angsty. (Let’s not even talk about Twilight – please.) Hellsing, a vampire anime about vampires per se, pulled off its own impressive take through returning to the origins in a sense, showing antihero Alucard/Dracula as a monster exultant in his own monstrosity. Tokyo Ghoul does something else; its ghouls are more human than most vampires are, as well as more monstrous than most vampires are, restoring importance to the struggle between the two. To explain this: the ghouls are not undead, nor are they nocturnal, nor do they differ from humans in many ways except for their dietary requirements and their possession of a predatory organ called a kagune. At the same time the absence of the romantic traditions surrounding vampires emphasises their feeding’s brutal nature – no slender white necks in moonlight, in fact it’s all a bit messy.
Given that the ghouls, half-ghoul Kaneki particularly, are so human save for their involuntary flesh-eating tendency, Tokyo Ghoul is in part a depiction of people impelled to desperate measures by that primal imperative of the will to survive. Nothing but human flesh keeps them alive, animal meat being no substitute; while some compromise by eating the dead, few have this opportunity. This urge – this theme of hunger, and of appetite – drives the first part of the manga and the anime particularly. The need to feed is the force behind the plot here, ghoul-on-ghoul fights erupting over prey, some ghouls grouping based on feeding preferences (binge-eater or gourmet, for example). Further into the anime – this being further than I’ve read in the manga – the conflicts become much more political ones, and increase a lot in scale. It’s the ghouls versus the government anti-ghoul operatives known as the Doves, as well as disputes between ghoul factions who differ in their aggressiveness towards humanity. The ghoul versus human conflict’s rather tragic, a war few want to be fighting, one with sympathetic characters on both sides, an inevitable war over an insoluble issue. And with regard to the arguments between the ghoul organizations, another benefit of ghouls not being undead loners is that this allows them to have complex affiliations including familial ones.
Tokyo Ghoul tells a compelling story filled with characters whom it develops all the time, and whom it’s not afraid to transform drastically; this last applies to its hero especially. Furthermore it delivers visually, the kagune battles in particular being impressive. But above all it reinvigorates the vampire – or vampiric creature – genre, and approaches its subject matter intelligently. It questions humans’ position in the food chain, questions our right to see ourselves as the species of greatest importance; in a sense it exposes the anthropocentric nature of human morality, in this much like that other excellent recent anime Parasyte. I also appreciated the texture provided by the frequent literary references in the manga, in particular the comparison of Kaneki with the protagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but a must-read/must-watch for manga/anime fans with no objections to a fairly dark horror-fantasy.