As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below.
A common attitude in some anime communities, if only due to a vocal minority, is that the source material of an adaptation (be it the manga, light novels or visual novel) is always, always superior to the anime. It’s not an attitude I care for, because I usually find such claims to be largely exaggerated. Usually. Sometimes, there comes an anime that makes you wonder. You can’t help but notice the flaws, the awkward story bits that don’t add up (or get dropped altogether), the underdeveloped characters that stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of the cast, and just a general lack of purpose. What’s even worse is when these cracks start to form in a show that, up to that point, had been remarkably well-done. On that note, it’s time to take a look at Tokyo Ghoul and its sequel season, Tokyo Ghoul √A.
Ken Kaneki is an 18 year old college student. A bit of a bookworm, but a normal and compassionate person. One day, after being mesmerized by Rize, a gorgeous woman at the local cafe, Kaneki manages to work up his courage and land a date with her. They have a great time, and eventually start walking home together. After all, it can be dangerous out there, with violent, man-eating ghouls lurking in the darkness. Like Rize (oh, s**t). After being attacked nearly to death, Kaneki is cornered in an abandoned construction site. All hope is lost, until several steel beams topple from the edge of the half-complete structure and crush Rize to death.
Authorities arrive, and the critically injured Kaneki is hospitalized, in need of advanced surgery and organ replacement. Against ethical and moral laws, the surgeon makes a snap decision to harvest these organs from the most immediate source: Rize’s corpse. Upon returning to consciousness, Kaneki finds himself disgusted by his hospital food… and with a curious, horrifying appetite for human flesh.
When starting an episode of Tokyo Ghoul’s first season, you would be greeted by a little song called “unravel”, by TK from Ling Tosite Sigure. I’d already been a fan of Ling Tosite Sigure for their work in Psycho-Pass, and “unravel” is arguably their best (or TK’s best). While the song itself is quite good, it’s the lyrics that really bring everything full circle. If you don’t see it right away, you will, because the entire song is almost excessively important to Kaneki as a character.
Speaking of Kaneki, I enjoyed his role in Tokyo Ghoul (which is good, considering he’s the main character). The conflict between his Ghoul hunger and basic human empathy was incredibly compelling, especially as the series progresses and he is placed in increasingly grotesque, brutal situations.
It’s not common in fiction for a main character to be as tortured and broken as Kaneki was in his worst moments. Kaneki tries to remain a good person and hold onto his lofty ideals, but the world beats him down mercilessly, in a downward spiral that can be difficult, but strangely satisfying, to watch unfold. Also of note is Kaneki’s voice actor, Natsuki Hanae. Hanae’s really been on a roll lately, lending his voice to several high-profile anime (Your Lie in April, Aldnoah.Zero) and he delivers a strong performance for Tokyo Ghoul.
Luckily, much of the rest of Tokyo Ghoul’s cast is just as interesting, from the badass female lead to the stoic government investigator to the wise but troubled elder ghoul to the various flavors of insanity that the show throws at you. The pool of voice actors hits hard too, populated by the likes of Mamoru Miyano (Steins;Gate, Death Note, Durarara!!), Kana Hanazawa (Steins;Gate, Psycho-Pass, Angel Beats!, Durarara!!), Takahiro Sakurai (Code Geass, Anohana, Psycho-Pass), Sora Amamiya (Akame ga Kill!, Aldnoah.Zero), Katsuyuki Konishi (Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, Akame ga Kill!), Toru Okawa (Fullmetal Alchemist, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), Rie Kugimiya (Fullmetal Alchemist, Gintama, Fairy Tail) and Yuki Kaji (Attack on Titan, Black Bullet, Nisekoi, Noragami, Durarara!!). If the strength of its cast was the only merit of an anime, Tokyo Ghoul would be in a good place.
A Gray World
As the series progresses, Kaneki and the rest of the ghouls increasingly come into conflict with the government ghoul investigators known as the CCG (Commission of Counter Ghoul). The world of Tokyo Ghoul really emphasizes that the two sides of any conflict are not implicitly good and evil. On both the human and ghoul ends of the spectrum, you have people just trying to do the right thing and keep their friends alive, along with vicious psychopaths that thrive on the violence, and everything in between. It’s a very morally gray show, with nary a shade of black or white to be seen. Even the most horrific characters typically have a shred of tragedy to them, some past event that twisted them into the people they are today. By the end of the series, there are very few “winners”, because everyone has lost something dear to them.
When It’s Good, It’s Incredible
When Tokyo Ghoul is firing on all cylinders and hitting every note perfectly, it’s great. There are a sprinkling of scenes and moments throughout the series that I absolutely loved, in practically every aspect of their execution. These are scenes that I would literally go back and rewatch as soon as the episode was over, because I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Coincidentally, two such scenes fall in the finales of their respective seasons (and bear extreme musical similarities, to boot). I only wish I could say Tokyo Ghoul maintains this bar of quality throughout its run, because if it did, I would probably have nothing bad to say whatsoever.
Putting aside the opening and ending themes, Tokyo Ghoul actually has a decent soundtrack (which was composed by Yutaka Yamada). The instrumental pieces are all well and good, but during √A in particular, the series makes surprisingly liberal use of insert songs, many of which are top-notch. One of my personal favorites is “Glassy Sky”, performed by Donna Burke.
Tokyo Ghoul’s first ending theme, “Seijatachi” by People in the Box, is perfectly fine, but what really stands out in my mind is the second season’s theme, “Kisetsu wa Tsugitsugi Shindeiku” by Amazarashi. Again, perfectly fine musically, but it kept me watching every episode anyways. Why? The visuals. The credits of every single √A episode feature completely unique and (in my opinion) beautifully done artwork. Of course, this art is usually directly connected to the characters and themes of the specific episodes, and it’s hard not to appreciate extra little touches like that.
If only they had put those extra little touches towards the show itself. Both seasons of Tokyo Ghoul are animated by Studio Pierrot, who would probably be best known as the production studio behind Naruto and Bleach. I frankly can’t speak for the quality of animation in either of those because I have very little experience with them, but Tokyo Ghoul’s was inconsistent, to put it mildly. For every good looking fight, there was another scene that just felt lazy or even embarrassing. One of the most egregious examples took place in the series’ final episodes, during a rather large and climactic battle (see below).
I’ve made no secret of my love for the first season’s opening, so I was somewhat disappointed when it was announced that the second season would make use of a new theme. This disappointment was exacerbated when I finally saw the new opening. The visuals are boring, static and nothing to really look twice at it, and the song (“Munou” by österreich) is average at best. I think they were going for a calmer, more contemplative piece, but it never attained that kind of impact. Appropriately, this lackluster opening, and its inferiority to the first, would come to be emblematic of the second season as a whole.
Perhaps the most infamous fault of Tokyo Ghoul is not a fault of the plot, characters or even the animation. Rather, it is a very simple tactic: censorship. Tokyo Ghoul is not a pleasant show. It’s packed to the gills with blood, grit and gore, supposedly. I couldn’t see half of it!
With a combination of black bars, color inversion and good ole fashioned blurriness, Tokyo Ghoul seems dedicated not to let you see any actual violence. It’s not as bad as, say, Terra Formars, but the censorship can be very jarring at times. This is slowly becoming a non-issue, as the uncensored episodes are released into the wild, but it was a frequent annoyance for the weekly viewer such as myself.
Too Much, Too Fast
Near the end of Tokyo Ghoul’s first season, and extending through the entirety of √A, Tokyo Ghoul is plagued by a problem of introducing too much, too fast. New characters and plot angles are introduced at a breakneck pace, often with little to no explanation. Who’s this guy? I don’t know, never explained. Why are they attacking this? I don’t know, never explained. How did this lead to that? I don’t know, never explained. This is particularly upsetting when the new people and plot elements are used for an almost deus ex machina effect, shutting down the conflict and tension between more established characters.
Ironically, as quickly as √A introduces these plot threads, it’s just as quick to cut them off. Multiple (fairly interesting) characters are brought up, fleshed out to a reasonable degree and then shunted aside, with no resolution to their personal conflict or even any further plot relevance.
Hey, anyone remember this guy? He had maybe five minutes of screentime? Ten? He’d been set up to be important. Strange, because he was never heard from or mentioned again. Well, I suppose missteps along the way can be forgiven if everything pulls itself together in the end.
Lack of Resolution
Huh. Well then.
You see, when the first season of Tokyo Ghoul ended, a portion of the fanbase was in an uproar. The episode basically stopped in the middle of the plot, not even leaving us at one cliffhanger but instead suspending multiple fights between multiple characters practically between punches. I wasn’t personally concerned, because by that point √A had been announced, and I felt certain that a second season would bring a proper ending to the series. If only I knew how wrong I was. Once again, Tokyo Ghoul leaves us with a finale that resolves very little. There is a strong difference between an intentionally ambiguous ending and simply a poor one, and Tokyo Ghoul ultimately falls into the latter. It leaves way too much just up in the air, even in regard to Kaneki himself.
If I had to describe Tokyo Ghoul in a single word, it would be disappointing. The series started strong, with a solid first season that managed a good balance between frantically violent action and thought-provoking despair, censorship aside. Then, √A took the reins, seemingly without any kind of plan or writing foresight, and bumbled along until tripping over its own feet, managing a graceful fall for a few seconds, then faceplanting. I can’t help but feel this story deserved better, that there were pieces with real potential that √A completely squandered. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Tokyo Ghoul’s first season is an adaptation of its source manga, while √A purports to tell a “new” story that branches off from the original material.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment) on a scale from F to S, I would give Tokyo Ghoul, as a whole, a C rating. If this was a review of √A alone, my rating would be much harsher, but the saving grace of the first season manages to pull up the score ever so slightly. In fact, if anything you saw or heard here intrigued you, I would recommend watching season one of Tokyo Ghoul, but later proceeding with the manga rather than the anime that followed.
Tokyo Ghoul is currently available for legal streaming on Funimation and Hulu. Again, watch the first season. It’s good. √A is not. A handful of nice scenes can’t make up for an overall lack of writing competence.
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