Ken We NOT: What Went Wrong With Tokyo Ghoul?

Tokyo Ghoul visual

To this day, Sui Ishida’s dark fantasy manga Tokyo Ghoul (2011-2018) remains the kind of story I wish I’d come up with.

I was first introduced to the anime adaptation of the manga during an Anime Club horror night, and while I wouldn’t consider it a true work of horror, Tokyo Ghoul is harrowing. The story deals with themes of identity, trauma, and thinly veiled race issues without being too edgy… for the most part.

What made Tokyo Ghoul so interesting is the constant, grounded tension between humans and ghouls.

The stakes always feel high, and the worldbuilding truly brings the ghouls to life in a way that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of society. While fanservice and pretty designs have their time and place, this writer can’t tell you how many times she’s been disappointed by ‘aliens’ and/or fantasy races that turn out to be nothing but cute, humanoid girls.

Yes, the ‘monsters’ of Tokyo Ghoul look human, but Ishida likely made this decision so as to create a sense of ‘otherness,’ of paranoia in the world he’d built. This idea of enemies or ‘monsters’ hiding in plain sight for the sake of turning people against each other is something all too relevant in today’s political climate.

To make up for their otherwise unassuming looks, the ghouls were given a horrifying dependence on human flesh. With that said, perhaps we’re meant to read Tokyo Ghoul as Ishida’s twist on zombies.

But instead of equating his ‘zombies’ to traditional fears associated with consumerism and environmentalism, Ishida tackles a different kind of consuming and changing world altogether. 

Not to mention ghouls having organ-weapons called ‘kagune’ is just a cool idea in general.

So, what exactly did Studio Pierrot’s anime adaptation do wrong?

Tokyo Ghoul visual

The Mados and Juuzou

I have the same exact problem with most of the cast in the dark fantasy anime Akame ga Kill! as I do with these three characters. 

When you want your anime to be taken seriously, as in, you have a complex and heavy story you wish to tell, select tropes must be used with care. 

Now, Tokyo Ghoul may dabble in black and white from time to time, but it mostly deals with moral grays. There are tragic backstories abound among heroes and villains alike, most of them grounded in anti-ghoul violence.

With that said, First Class Ghoul Investigator Kureo Mado, a major human character from the first season alongside his apprentice and partner Koutarou Amon, was way too unsympathetic. 

As is often the case with Tokyo Ghoul, there is more to the man than meets the eye, but it doesn’t help that the shorthand being used for his instability is right in front of our eyes. Kureo’s design screams red flags. 

Yes, his instability comes from the loss of his wife, but you’d think that a man with a daughter would show a glimmer of something other than hate, even for a moment, for the young ghoul Hinami whom he and Koutarou are sent to hunt down. 

Instead, we get the man’s maniacal laughter as he attempts to kill Hinami with her own parents’ kagune.

In hindsight, Kureo is said to have been a good father to his daughter Akira and we, as an audience, get to see his sincere mentorship of Koutarou for ourselves. And yet, that single moment of cruelty was enough for me to lose any sympathy I had mustered for him. Was this Ishida’s plan all along? To show how tenuous the ties that bind all of us really are? 

Regardless, for a show that boasts so many layers, the way in which Kureo Mado was handled seemed like a misstep. Or perhaps, it was meant to contrast and highlight recurring antagonist/deuteragonist Koutarou’s by-the-book morality.

The main point I wish to make about Akira Mado is the fact that her growth and overall story are often overshadowed by her father’s legacy, which is a darn shame. Akira has a cool design and personality, but because so much of Tokyo Ghoul: Root A (Season 2) is devoted to her coping with Kureo’s death by giving Koutarou a hard time, the ‘romance’ that blossoms between them feels lifeless. It feels obligatory.

I loathe that that paired with the fast pacing of Season 2 not only kills the investigators’ chemistry, but it renders Akira a passive-aggressive woman (which at least makes some sense) who doesn’t want to be treated as a replacement for Koutarou’s deceased love, his ‘Doujima girl’ (which comes out of nowhere).

I prefer ships that can stand as friends and ships without weird dynamics in play, thank you very much.

And last but not least is Juuzou.

I brought up Akame ga Kill! earlier for one reason and one reason alone, and that would be Juuzou. 

Kureo and Juuzou both exhibit a kind of madness fueled by past trauma, the latter having been tortured by a ghoul as a child; however, unlike Kureo, Juuzou is framed as ‘cutesy’ and ‘quirky.’ In other words, the guy’s considered a husbando despite his underlying issues. 

Don’t believe me? If you do a Google search of his name, one of the first results is ‘Juuzou x Reader.’

Not that there’s anything wrong with shameless self-indulgence. We all do it. It just rubs me the wrong way when an anime makes mental illness out to be something ‘cool’ or ‘edgy,’ even if it isn’t intentional. 

To put it in movie terms, Akame ga Kill! showed its true colors as a mindless ‘popcorn flick’ not even one episode in. Try as it might, to be taken seriously, the characters were zany and so, zany became the norm. I expect better from a work like Tokyo Ghoul.

Juuzou’s androgynous, doll-like design stems from his torture, and while it’s a telling one, it also feels a bit too immersion-breaking. This paired with his ‘cutesy’ violence is for a very specific crowd, but to be fair, it makes his ‘settling down’ in Tokyo Ghoul:re (Season 3) more surprising.

Tokyo Ghoul visual

Hide and Yoriko

Unlike the trio listed above, I take no issue with the characterization of main heroes Ken Kaneki and Touka Kirishima’s best friends.

Hide and Yoriko act as the charming idealists to our heroes’ introversion and pessimism, and by extension, act as the pair’s link to humanity. If anything, I wish we’d been privy to how their respective friendships came to be.

My problem lies with the suspension of disbelief. Maybe this is just me being cynical, but I wish there had been more bite to Hide and Yoriko learning of their friends’ identities as ghouls. Their acceptance and sorrow on behalf of Kaneki and Touka are commendable, but I would have liked a realistic talk or two addressing the whole ‘eating humans’ thing. 

Kuzen x Ukina and Nishiki x Kimi

In terms of ships and shipping wars, the Tokyo Ghoul fandom is fairly civil. Though in a similar vein to Hide and Yoriko, I found the story behind Kaneki’s mentor Yoshimura (previously known as Kuzen) and allies Nishiki and Kimi too forgiving towards Ishida’s horrific concept. 

The romance between Kuzen and Ukina is far more layered in the manga as the lovers were from enemy parties. In the anime series, Ukina is instead tragically killed and this information is never revealed to Kuzen nor the viewers. On the other hand, ghoul-human couple Nishiki and Kimi stay strong throughout the TV series.

This doesn’t change the fact that they still suffer from a lack of conversation about the horrors of being a ghoul. This doesn’t invalidate their love by any means, but I find it odd that ‘turning the other way’ is treated as the norm when it comes to ghoul society and survival. 

Especially if ghouls are intended to represent a marginalized people.

Then again, perhaps Ishida’s point is that there is no perfect way of doing things in this fictional context.

Kaneki x Touka

A not-so-hot take. Kaneki x Touka is a mediocre ship.

Or a perfectly okay one at best.

The pair had a connection from the start, sure, the latter berating and saving the former before introducing him to his new life via Yoshimura. 

The thing is, Kaneki’s anxieties about being part ghoul (a result of him being attacked by ghoul Rize Kamishiro) and Touka’s brother issues led me to believe their shared ‘ending’ would be one of ‘found family,’ of friendship. They never once came off as romantic in Seasons 1-2, and while I understand that a lot of their chemistry is built on absence, on not knowing what you have until it’s gone, and their reunion in Season 3…

I, along with a number of fans, wasn’t quite feeling it.

In the end, Kaneki and Touka being in a romantic relationship didn’t necessarily elevate their bond nor the overall story in a way friendship wouldn’t have.

Like Akira and Koutarou’s dynamic in Season 2, Kaneki x Touka being ‘endgame’ felt more obligatory than anything.

It didn’t hurt Tokyo Ghoul, per se, but it didn’t need to happen.

At least we got the ship’s cute daughter Ichika out of it.

Tokyo Ghoul Re visual

The ENTIRETY of Tokyo Ghoul: Root A (Season 2)

Season 2 requires little explanation for anyone vaguely in the know of what went down, but to put it simply, it made no one happy.

Whether it was done for shock value or not, those in charge of the show decided to take the second season down a canon-divergent path, despite having plenty of material to work with, and completely unraveled Kaneki’s character development by having him join Aogiri Tree, those responsible for his torture during the finale.

Not to mention the fast pacing and failed attempt at a multiple POV-structure. 

Season 2 was what permanently turned me off from watching Season 3. Even then, I’ve looked into the fates of my favorite ghouls and still draw inspiration from Ishida’s mythos when writing.

And that is the mark of something truly special, flaws and all.

©石田スイ/集英社・東京喰種:re製作委員会
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