Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tokyo Ghoul

The good folks at Funimation were kind enough to send along a copy of the manga-to-anime horror fantasy Tokyo Ghoul (12 episode blu-ray and DVD pack). While conceptually a thing of beauty and a true original, there are nevertheless certain issues that may or may not be alleviated by further installments. Let me explain.

First off, I’m always on the lookout for a new monster. Vampires and zombies have been done to death, and even witches are starting to get on my nerves. So Sui Ishida’s Tokyo Ghoul manga (2011 - 2014) provides a welcome addition in the form of the contemporary Japanese “ghoul,” a complex, quasi-shapeshifting individual in humanoid form that feeds on human flesh.  The term “human” gets bandied about to distinguish from the ghoul types, but psychologically and emotionally, these ghouls seem pretty human to me. Nevertheless, they live in their own subculture, walking among humans by day and preying on them by night. Sometimes they don special, custom-made masks which make them look very menacing and cool indeed.

Ishida provides a rich lore and taxonomy pertaining to the ghouls, with local factions inhabiting the various wards of the city and a government organization, the CCG (Commission of Counter Ghoul) dedicated to exterminating them with extreme prejudice. The most compelling aspect of your average ghoul is the presence of a kagune, a retractable spectral appendage sprouting from the ghoul’s back, that can either protect or attack depending on its Rc type (yes, it’s all very involved). The boys at the CCG have developed their own synthetic version of the kagune, called a quinque — imagine a light saber, but the beam is huge and fanciful and can resemble anything from a gigantic baseball bat to an enormous, fanged tapeworm.

The central character is a guy named Ken Kaneki, and here, in the anime at least (I confess I have not read the manga), is where we start to run into trouble, story-wise. You see, our boy Kaneki is a drip, an utterly uncharismatic milquetoast of a college student whose infatuation with a beauty at the local coffee shop ends badly. Yep, she’s a ghoul, and through a characteristically over-the-top series of events, she winds up dead and he winds up with some of her organs implanted in him, rendering him a “half-ghoul.” This makes him a very unique individual in the ghoul community, and a fixation for several particularly unsavory ghouls.

As with most manga adaptations, there is an ever-growing and varied cast of characters. Too bad more wasn’t done with them. Even Kaneki’s best friend Hide, an irrepressible class clown type full of possibilities, is left to languish on the sidelines.

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of action and drama, because there is. It’s just that it’s rather uneven — it feels like director Shuhei Morita was unable or unwilling to really explore the material and instead just whittled it down to a few specific characters and plot arcs (none of which are really resolved — I get it, more on the way, but still … ).

Things get all torture-porny in the last three episodes, and it is here where the whole affair truly goes awry. I was already fairly annoyed by Kaneki’s incessant whining and screaming at the outset (he doesn’t acclimate well to his transformation and subsequent violent encounters with ghouls and the CCG). His physical abuse and torture at the hands of the sadistic ghoul Jason (anyone for a wire cutter toe treatment?) is beyond gratuitous. I’ve seen my share of Japanese exploitation cinema, I understand the formula: lots of torture makes the revenge all the sweeter. But c’mon, guys, 99% torture and 1% revenge is, well, like I said, extremely uneven.

Perhaps I’m just getting old and this is what the kids are into these days. In any case, I can’t fault the animation quality or voice work, and the whole Tokyo Ghoul universe is overflowing with potential. A second series, Tokyo Ghoul √A, scripted by Ishida, was released this year so look for that on disk some time soon. Meanwhile, both the manga and first season are available now, so if you’re in the market for a new and original monster genre, Tokyo Ghoul might just be the ticket!

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