Tokyo Ghoul (2017)

Tokyo Ghoul first published by Sight & Sound, March 2018

Review: Though hardly a household name in the West, the Tokyo Ghoul mythos is ‘big in Japan’: first a success as Sui Ishida’s serial manga (from 2011), next as Shuhei Morita’s animated television series, and then as prequels and sequels in both those media, as well as ‘light’ novelisations and video games. This latest incarnation, a feature film from Kentaro Hagiwara (Anniversary, 2016), represents the story’s first live-action outing, essentially retelling the original manga series’ story while evidently also aspiring, through casual allusions to other places, characters and storylines, to being the opening chapter of a larger film franchise.

Set in an alternative Tokyo where monstrous ‘ghouls’ live hidden among the general populace, hunting humans for their flesh while in turn being hunted themselves by ruthless government agencies, this dark gothic fantasy centres on Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), an introverted, bookish student who accidentally becomes a half-ghoul after undergoing the transplant of a ghoul’s organs. While Ken must now negotiate his intermediacy between humanity and ghouldom, in fact even before this semi-metamorphosis he was already an outsider figure, his orphan status and crippling shyness marking a broader adolescent rootlessness. In the group of ghouls who run the Anteiku coffee shop and who, like him, refuse to kill for their food, orphan Ken finds something like family – but he must decide how far he is willing to fight and to embrace his own monstrousness in order to keep his new clan together. Meanwhile, in the Commission of Counter Ghoul, agent Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) must choose whether to shut down his own humanity like his driven boss Mado (Yo Oizumi) or to enjoy life a little like their new rookie colleague Kusaba (Tomoya Maeno).

In a story where everyone is desperate to find their place – and balance – in a hostile world, themes of empowerment and coming-of-age (reflecting the late-teen target audience) occasionally emerge much like the mutant wing-like or tentacular organs (called kagune) hidden in the ghouls’ bodies or in the agents’ weaponised briefcases. Rendered in unconvincing CGI, these grotesque corporeal extensions are, along with some very sketchy characterisation, the most cartoonish vestiges of the film’s source, delineating a product that feels as hybrid in nature as its protagonist. Ken shows little interest in taking advantage of his new abilities, preferring instead to repress the more predatory ghoul’s parts that are now buried inside him. Only when his new family is threatened does Ken decide to take a stand, submitting himself to literally bone-breaking training with Touka (Fumika Shimizu) even though he recognises that her brand of vengeance is not for him. This makes our epicene hero all at once refreshing in his moral stance against violence, and not a little anodyne, with many of the films conflicts, despite all the Lovecraftian special effects, remaining internalised. Still, when these brooding kids resist the patriarchal system embodied and imposed by the older Mado, Tokyo Ghoul fans can identify with the collective struggle to preserve and perpetuate an alternative subculture.

Synopsis: In an alternative Tokyo, ghouls live hidden among the human population, hunting them for food. Shy, orphaned student Ken is surprised when Rize, the girl he fancies from afar, goes on a date with him. In the park, Rize reveals she is a ghoul and attacks him, but is killed in a freak accident. Resuscitated thanks to a transplant of Rize’s organs, Ken wakes to discover he is a half-ghoul, craving human flesh but unwilling to kill. After a confrontation with predatory ghoul Nishio, Ken learns that he has kagune, powerful tentacular appendages that emerge when he is threatened. Desperate for food, he is taken in at the Anteiku cafe by old Yoshimura who, with a small group of other ghouls, consumes only the flesh of suicides. Meanwhile, Commission of Counter Ghoul Agents Mado, Amon and rookie Kusaba hunt down the ghoul Ryoko and kill her using a weapon (called a quinque) fashioned from the kagune of Ryoko dead husband. The ghoul Touka attacks the three agents in revenge, killing Kusaba, but is injured by Mado’s quinque. Ken trains with Touka. When Mado lures Ryoko’s young daughter Hinami into a trap, Ken and Touka go to her rescue, fighting Amon and Mado respectively. Ken defeats but spares Amon. When Mado, using two quinque made from both the kagune of Hinami’s parents, is about to kill Touka, a terrified Hinami sprouts her own kagune for the first time and kills Mado. The three limp back to the coffee shop.

© Anton Bitel