Although the series has been out on DVD and Blu-ray for several years now, Tokyo Ghoul recently started showing on Toonami, Cartoon Network’s long-running anime programming segment. While diehard fans eagerly anticipate the (eventual) release of a third season, the show’s addition to Toonami’s programming slate serves as a suitable introduction for interested newcomers, as well as a reason for veterans to become reacquainted.
Based off the manga series by Sui Ishido, Tokyo Ghoul is set in an alternate version of Japan’s capital, one where beings known as ghouls co-habit the city alongside the human population. Although they look and act identical to humans, ghouls share flaring red eyes, abnormal strength and a craving for human flesh. Given these factors, the public perception of ghouls is not a positive one and most keep their identities secret. At the series’ center is Kaneki, a young college bookworm who, after an emergency organ transplant, finds himself becoming a ghoul as evident by his ravenous new appetite. But he is no ordinary ghoul, however. Instead, Kaneki is a rare “one-eyed” ghoul, a half-human hybrid. As such, he stands as a potential lynchpin in bridging the relations between humans and ghouls. With the help of a group of sympathetic ghouls, Kaneki becomes immersed in a part of the world he never considered before.
Much like the best pieces of science fiction, Tokyo Ghoul uses its genre trappings to explore real-world themes and issues. Topics like loss, sacrifice and revenge are all present throughout the show. At its core, though, the series’ main underlying theme is the notion of what is to be a monster – or rather, what it means to be human. Despite needing to feed on human flesh, ghouls themselves tend to lead fairly ordinary lives. Many hold jobs, have families and maintain relationships with humans. Much like people in the real world, there are those who possess sadistic tendencies and revel in slaughtering their innocent prey. This also goes for many members of the CCG, the government agency responsible for hunting down ghouls. The ongoing conflict between the ghouls and the CCG has left casualties on both sides, perpetually reaffirming the prejudices between the two groups. In this regard, the series is about perspective and how nothing is as quite how it seems. Far from being one note, many of the characters in Tokyo Ghoul are two-dimensional and developed with their own unique backstories. Even some of the seemingly villainous characters of the series often have some motivation as determined by events in their past. Rarely is someone purely evil and the series’ drama largely stems from the clash of differing ideals in conjunction with the revelations behind a character’s past.
Another prevalent theme explored is the lengths at which a person would go to in order to protect his or her friends and family. Orphaned at a young age, Kaneki’s last connection to his previous life is his best friend, Hide. But being exposed to this violent new world frequently puts Hide at danger from other ghouls, as well as from Kaneki himself. Kaneki is constantly at odds with his hunger, desperately trying to refrain from becoming a murderer. However, without spoiling major events, he is eventually forced to choose between his neutrality and conforming to his urges in order to protect both Hide and his newfound family.
Unlike other popular anime series’, Toyko Ghoul is comprised of relatively short seasons. With twelve episodes a season and each episode averaging at about twenty-two minutes in length, viewers can breeze through a season in a matter of hours. Similarly, as an adaptation of a print series, the show expectedly omits parts of its source material. However, it is definitely a case of quality over quantity as every episode feels important and the series manages to avoid the high filler content ratio present in other shows.
With regards to its visual presentation, Tokyo Ghoul is fantastic. Taking the original character designs from the manga, the artists have done a good job at adapting them for the small screen. More impressive are the characters’ animations, both in an out of the major sequences. Some of the fight sequences, in particular, are fantastic because of their fluidity and sense of speed. Meanwhile, the settings that comprise the show’s drama and action are just as beautifully drawn, at times even bordering on photo-realistic. Even the show’s smaller visual touches are exemplary, the lighting, although subtle, is a highlight. Sunsets, lens flares and the flashing of police lights are all gorgeous. Particle effects are equally impressive with smoke, clouds of debris and various weather effects as standout details.
As a whole, the animation in Tokyo Ghoul is well done but there are a few hiccups here and there. On occasion a character’s movements can defy realism, particularly during some of the more insignificant action scenes, resulting in a lack of emersion. Likewise, the lip-syncing in the English dub can be slightly off, most noticeably during some of the more mundane dialogue exchanges. Truth be told, there will always be some level of disconnect when attempting to dub something that was originally performed in another language. Luckily, though, the differences in lip-syncing in the show are minor and only really apparent to those paying close attention. As with any animated series, certain moments are definitely better than others, but for the most part Tokyo Ghoul’s strongest visual elements help it standout above the minor inconsistencies.
Although perhaps not as immediately gratifying as the show’s visuals, Tokyo Ghoul’s audio is generally strong. “Unravel”, the song that plays during the opening titles for the first season, remains catchy even eleven episodes in with its mix of electronic, orchestral and rock elements. Within the episodes themselves, more practical orchestral music is used. Often a combination of strings and piano, the music covers a range of moods from somber to hopeful, chaotic and horrifying. As with the show’s visuals, the more minor characteristics of the audio are excellent, namely the foley and other sound effects. For instance, the wet, organic splatters of flesh being pierced are well-replicated and appropriately juicy.
There is only one real drawback to Tokyo Ghoul’s audio: the aforementioned English dubbing. On its own, the English dubbing is generally good but viewers coming from the original Japanese audio will find the transition somewhat jarring. Characters like the head-strong Touka and the biased Inspector Mado feeling appropriately portrayed by their voice actors/actresses. Other performances, however, can come off as somewhat inconsistent. The performance for Kaneki, for example, while great during the more dramatic moments, can at times feel forcefully innocent during the simpler bouts of downtime. These issues are more nitpicks than concrete problems, though, and viewers going in to the show for the first time via the English dub will most likely not take issue.
Beyond looking and sounding good, Tokyo Ghoul also features some excellent directing. Many of the key fight sequences, aside from their animation, are exciting and memorable thanks to slick compositions and editing. This also extends to the more dramatic sequences where the framing and organization of shot lend themselves in amplify the underlying emotions of a respected scene. For instance, in certain close-ups, characters are drawn as if through a fish-eye lens, the implied distortion of these shots reinforcing a character’s deranged mentality. Other techniques like racking focus and the use of canted angles are both conservatively and intelligently implemented throughout.
Being a series that features flesh-eating beings, Tokyo Ghoul is, to be expected, a bloody show. Depending on which version viewers watch, there is a certain amount of censorship with the series. Inverting the color of a particular shot and blurring, or even darkening part of the screen in order to mask the copious amounts of red on screen are common techniques of the show. With that said, Tokyo Ghoul never feels like it is going out of its way to be gratuitous with its depiction of blood. Every drop feels meaningful and the sequences where blood is shed are spaced out enough so that each instance never feels tiresome. Even so, viewers with a thirst for carnage will still find themselves satiated with the violence.
As a whole, anime is very much an acquired taste, particularly to Western audiences, and chances are Tokyo Ghoul won’t persuade skeptics into any semblance of appreciation. With that said, however, anyone with an open mind and willingness to overlook the medium’s shortcomings will be surprised to find how much the show has to offer. Deep characters, thoughtful themes, great art and a generous dose of violence make Tokyo Ghoul a delicious course worth diving into. Bon appetite!