Anime(?) Review: Tokyo Ghoul (2017) — I Hunger!

Got to say, not being able to eat pork again for the rest of your life sounds painful.

Pre-Review Background

I don’t really keep up with the manga circles, but even an anime fan who was on life support would know about Tokyo Ghoul given that it’s one of the biggest recent Japanese comic properties. The manga is still going on to this very day. It received two anime adaptations that drew mixed results from fans on the Internet, but every anime fan I meet in real life loved the first one and never let their opinion of the rather horrible second one get them down. And as always with the popular manga, a live-action adaptation soon emerged, but would it be decently received ala the Ace Attorney/Rurouni Kenshin live-action films, or will it be a soulless cash grab like Attack on Titan/Parasyte/the American movie adaptation of Death Note? Well I don’t know what fans’ pre-conceptions were before the movie came out, but I was excited to see it given that it was hyped as much as Rurouni Kenshin.

Tokyo Ghoul had its problems sure, but the first season (I never bothered with the second because I didn’t want to see more) was an overall decent show with strong characterization, slick (if shonen-esque) action scenes, and great visual storytelling. What I liked the most about the property was the concept of ghouls and how they have to eat humans to survive, but a good chunk of them like the main character would rather not commit murder. It’s a pretty good take on discrimination and how sometimes the differences between groups are just too big to overcome, but that won’t stop them from trying. Since I knew beforehand that the live-action adaptation would mostly be covering the good parts and that it didn’t have a horrible reputation like most attempts at making live-action adaptations out of manga, I was hoping that not only would the film be good, but that it’d iron out the faults of the anime adaptation in the process. Did it accomplish that? Well I can say this: I don’t remember Kaneki being this whiny in the anime.

General Plot

Tokyo Ghoul: The Movie follows the basic premise as the manga, but mostly follows an original storyline otherwise. Ken Kaneki is a normal college student who manages to ask out the girl of his dreams, only to discover the hard way that she’s actually a ghoul. When said ghoul ends up dying from a large number of steel beams falling on her, Kaneki has her organs implanted in him in order to survive, turning him into a half-ghoul who can’t eat anything but humans. After defending his friend from being eaten, he’s forced to hide out at a cafe called Anteiku where ghouls try to live in peace with humans whilst feasting on suicide victims in the area. The cafe is also welcome to ghouls that need help in regards to finding a place to live, including a young female ghoul named Touka and a mother/daughter combo who are on the run from the CCG – a group of trained ghoul hunters who use supernatural weapons formed from dead ghoul parts.

Unfortunately, the little girl (whose name escapes me) can’t bear to leave without imparting some final memories to her father’s grave, so Kaneki does it for her, which somehow attracts the CCG to the mother and daughter’s escape route. I honestly don’t know how that logic works, but the point is that the mother ends up getting killed and Touka wants revenge on them despite warnings that doing so will bring more attention to the cafe. However, she can’t do it alone, so Kaneki trains under her to become a Japanese masked superhero, fighting to protect his new species whilst refusing to kill his former race in the process. What follows between then and the climax is a lot of ridiculous action, a lot of ridiculous pondering on the nature of ghouls, and a lot of Kaneki whining to the audience every five seconds. And it was pretty cool.

Personal Dissection

For this adaptation, Tokyo Ghoul takes more inspiration from superhero storytelling to the point that it’s less a horror action film and more a Marvel movie with worse special effects and better everything else. We see the transformation of a normal dude into a super powered being, we see him adjust to these powers alongside a female cohort that may or may not be a love interest, and then we see him kick ass against ridiculous villains who belong to secret organizations. Of course, the thing that stands out about Tokyo Ghoul in general – not just in comparison to The Avengers – is the whole ghoul discrimination aspect, and I’m pleased to say that even when it’s being flashy, it still focuses a good chunk of its story on Kaneki’s characterization in regards to being a monster who refuses to kill the people he needs to eat in order to survive. The movie can overdo his angst a little, but he always makes the smart decisions when the time comes, so it’s never to deal-breaking levels.

This is the kind of anti-racism storytelling I wanted when I sat through Virgin Soul’s constant “oh my god, you’re demons. You’re bad. You’re bad”. Something that actually analyzes how hard it can be to overcome differences even when you acknowledge they exist, as well as offering possible (but you don’t have to be definite, because racism is too big an issue for a cartoon to handle) solutions to the problem. The bad guys aren’t exactly developed beyond humans who hate ghouls because they eat people, but the fact that ghouls eat people is pretty much all the justification you should need given how the audience is presumably human and therefore don’t want to die. It can be hard to sympathize with them when they’re attacking ghouls who just want to run away, but to be fair, how exactly are they supposed to separate the caring mothers from the Risas? Especially when said caring ghouls end up getting people who did nothing wrong killed in acts of revenge?

None of the ghouls go through any sort of unique characterization themselves, but they’re all sympathetic for the most part, even if Touka acts a bit too much like a stereotypical dark action girl in this version and a lot of the supporting cast sort of drop out as the movie goes on like they got their paycheck in advance and happily danced off set the first chance they got. It is a little awkward how Kaneki’s best friend sort of drops out of the movie after he nearly becomes a victim in order to drive home that our half-ghoul protagonist can’t go back to his normal life, but there are worse ways for a major supporting character to leave the show. The ghoul who tried to kill the best friend sort of drops out after his act is done as well presumably to show up in a sequel, and the other members of Anteiku end up not lending a hand in the final act because they don’t want to antagonize the CCG any more than they need to. I think the little girl and her mother got more screen time than Yoshimura did. Hell, I don’t even think Yoshimura was in the bar all that much to begin with.

Being a Japanese movie, of course the effects are hokey and the acting is hammy. But they all work well to give Tokyo Ghoul a sense of camp that never prevents you from taking the movie seriously whilst still delivering on the fun, not dissimilar to Shin Godzilla. The action is over-the-top as well, but it can also be surprisingly well-choreographed and brutal – even if it’s a little hard to take seriously that a normal human can wield a giant ghoul hammer, let alone keep it in a suitcase. Of course, you get the usual training montage, the usual speeches about how killing is wrong, and the usual last-minute asspulls that Japan just love using. Well okay the training montage is more American, but the other two are distinctly Japanese in my mind.

Blending camp with interesting philosophy isn’t always a surefire combination and Tokyo Ghoul isn’t an exemplary case of it, but it pieces all of its elements together quite skillfully to make an entertaining origin story of a boy coming to grips with his new nature and the horrors/benefits that come with it with a heavy focus on the former. Some people have made their distaste of the changes that the movie has made to the original manga known, but I obviously dismiss those because most fans of Kino’s Journey wouldn’t say the same thing for the original light novels. Besides, if I wanted to watch the anime, then I’d watch the anime. And I wouldn’t mind either, because it was a decent show just like how this adaptation of Tokyo Ghoul is a decent movie.

In an age where horror movies are making a resurgence through tried-and-true methods that are executed well with the occasional new thing thrown into the mix (Get Out for instance), Tokyo Ghoul definitely deserves recognition. It may not be a scary movie – although the initial ghoul might freak you out a bit – and I may see it more as a superhero film than a horror one, but it’s effective in everything else that matters from thrills to tone. I’ve been given to understand that as of this writing, the movie is being screened in Scotland’s anime festival, and I’d say it deserves to be there (the Resident Evil movies on the other hand…not so much). No matter how you see Tokyo Ghoul in terms of genre or category, what matters is if you see it as a good movie first. At the very least, it gets my recognition, so take that for what it’s worth.

Conclusion

In my opinion, Tokyo Ghoul is an even better benchmark for how a decent superhero movie should be done than the new Wonder Woman – which was an alright benchmark on its own. It has a lot of the cliches and the action/CG can be a bit silly, but it backs up those elements with some surprisingly strong moral quandaries regarding discrimination against a group that’s inherently toxic to humans. You wouldn’t see Thor integrate a story about what it means to truly rule over the human race whilst having Chris Hemsworth battle the Hulk, now would you? Yeah, I notice all the reviews that say that Thor: Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air for the Marvel Universe, but why exactly do we have to limit what superhero storytelling can accomplish to that project?

I’m not sure if more Tokyo Ghoul movies are planned, but if they are, I wouldn’t mind seeing them. And if they end up sucking, well this movie still exists and isn’t going anywhere. Not sure if I consider it the best Japanese live-action adaptation of a manga, but on its own terms, Tokyo Ghoul is one of the better entries in just about every genre I can think of for this year. Horror. Superhero. Action in general. Character-piece. Wouldn’t say I’m a fan, but I definitely recommend it if you have some spare time.

Additional Quips

  • So the CCG has the ability to track down where ghouls are escaping to based on graves they dig up, but not the hideout itself?
  • Damn I referenced a lot of movies in this review, didn’t I?

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