The Tragedy of Tokyo Ghoul

Tokyo Ghoul is one of my favorite manga of all time. It’s dark, filled with rich characters, possesses philosophically complex themes, and has some of the best and most creative fights to ever grace the pages of Shonen Jump. For over 300 chapters, Sui Ishida has constructed an enticing, fantastically written world that has earned its place in the canon of truly great manga. And yet, I can’t look at Tokyo Ghoul and not see it as a failure, because despite all of its obvious merits, it received a terrible and infamous anime adaptation.

And you wouldn’t get that idea just by watching the first season, though you might understand how that could happen. The biggest problem with Tokyo Ghoul’s anime, at least at first, is that it goes too fast. It tries to cover more than half of the original manga’s story in a measly twelve episodes, and it becomes increasingly obvious as it goes on. This leads to scrapping important character development, essential world-building, and throws off the delicate pacing.

So, the first season of Tokyo Ghoul is a mostly faithful, but imperfect adaptation of a far superior story. Things only got truly out of hand in the second season, titled Root A, and not least because the iconic season one opening as replaced by one of the laziest and most boring OPs I’ve ever seen. The generally competent animation of the first season gets body snatched by stilted movements lacking any fluidity or momentum.

The ‘why’ of this question is locked behind mysteries and enigmas, and by that I mean I couldn’t find it out on the first Google search result page of “Why did Tokyo Ghoul get bad?”. But answering “How did Tokyo Ghoul get bad?” Yeah, I can tell you that without exhausting myself dragging the mouse to the second page.

Tokyo Ghoul, at least for its first twelve episode, faithfully follows the story of an ordinary boy who was transformed into a ghoul. Ken Kaneki, a bookish college student, is attacked by his date, Rize, who reveals herself to be a flesh-eating ghoul. In a freak accident, Kaneki’s life is spared by steel beams collapsing and killing Rize, while the emergency room surgeon makes the ethically iffy call to transplant the deceased Rize’s organs to Kaneki in order to save his life.

Kaneki must grapple with the sudden change in his biology, being unable to eat human food, and feeling the compulsion to eat human flesh. He is soon recruited by the ghouls at Anteiku Cafe, led by the kindly Mr. Yoshimura, who procures ethically-sourced human meat for ghouls who can’t hunt for themselves. Well, as ethically as you can find human meat.

Kaneki has a habit of making people angry and/or hungry, and then immediately winning them over to his team once their fight wraps up. He starts an icy friendship with fellow Anteiku employee Touka, recruits his classmate Nishiki, who tried to eat his best friend Hide, and gains his staunchest ally in the form of Tsukiyama, who finally answers the question, “Is he gay, or European?” with a resounding yes.

The anime seriously diverges from the manga when Kaneki is kidnapped by Aogiri Tree, the ghoul mafia, and is tortured to the verge of insanity by Yamori, one of Aogiri’s lieutenants. The trauma turns his hair white and sends him off on a dangerous path in both stories. While both Kanekis strive to become stronger to protect their friends, manga Kaneki starts his own organization and targets both ghouls and ghoul hunters, and anime Kaneki joins Aogiri Tree because…just because.

This is the first major change in a long string of terrible decisions, which was accompanied by a serious downturn in the anime’s production values. I won’t be addressing most of the events of Tokyo Ghoul: re, the anime or the manga, though if you need more reminding, always default on the side of reading the manga.

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The most egregious issue with Tokyo Ghoul is that it’s just too short. 48 episodes to span 325 chapters, and it robs every character of their emotional context; all the subtle character development gets thrown out in favor of bare-bone plot beats. It just looks like characters making haphazard decisions to make the plot move forward because no time is spent exploring them or their thought processes. Kaneki gets it the worst, but it applies across the whole cast.

They completely cut the sequence where Kaneki is initially kidnapped by Touka’s brother Ayato for the Aogiri, and how Kaneki swaps hands to Yamori when he tries to escape. Kaneki is given the choice between escape and saving the lives of the other escapees, and he chooses to sacrifice himself. Yamori lied, obviously, but it’s a vital character moment because it illustrates how Kaneki is a pathological martyr. He has lived his life by the mantra that it is better to suffer pain than to inflict it on others.

His entire persona is defined by that willingness to ail on the behalf of other people, but he is sent off on a new and dangerous path when he takes Yamori’s advice to heart. “All the disadvantages in this world stem from incompetence.” This leapfrogging from one erroneous ideology to another is what makes Kaneki’s early characterization so painfully but elegantly written. This, like many other features of the manga, is never given the time it needs to breathe.

Ayato and Touka are two characters that have handled the trauma of losing their parents in individual ways, but they both struggle with a lot of anger and feelings of powerlessness. However, the anime fails to convey that the two still care for one another, even as they become enemies. Ayato comes across as just an angry kid in the anime, and to be fair, he totally is, but he’s also lonely and took a terrible road in life because everyone he cares about gets taken away from him.

He’s a foil for Kaneki, but that only works when both of them get the needed time in order to demonstrate their similarities. The anime doesn’t even explain that Ayato cares about his sister. When he first kidnaps Kaneki, he beats the ever-living crap out of Touka in both media, but the anime doesn’t reveal to the audience that he only did that because he knew Touka is too stubborn to give up, and unless he physically incapacitated her, she would wind up fighting Yamori, who wouldn’t hold back.

And can we mention how it’s never actually explored why Kaneki joins Aogiri, or why they let him? Leaving Anteiku in the wake of being kidnapped and tortured makes sense, but joining the gang that kidnapped and tortured you? And you just cannibalized one of their commanders! Joining Aogiri is a much stranger choice than striking out on his own, so why do they explain it far less than the manga explains the rational decision he made originally?

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Um, All Might, you look a little different.

Now, the fights are arguably the best part of Tokyo Ghoul. The ghouls’ kagune, or a fleshy appendage that serves as their primary weapon, are uniquely suited to the series’ style of grisly and frenetic fighting. I, however, would argue the best part of Tokyo Ghoul is watching Sui Ishida’s evolution as an artist. Just try and compare any of the early chapters to something from Tokyo Ghoul: re, and you see how he honed his basic understanding of panel flow and character designed to mastery.

And the studio behind the anime, Pierrot, can be pretty hit or miss. They usually work on perpetually-running anime like Naruto, Bleach, and Black Clover, but their work in the first season was pretty good. Not phenomenal, but the highs were high enough and the lows were easily ignored. That stopped almost immediately after the second season began, and I can’t pin down what the exact source was. There’s not a lot of clear data on how much time Pierrot had for either season, but season two began airing only three months after the first season ended. If there’s anything to blame for the drop in quality, it’s probably that.

The fights are utterly neutered; there is no longer any sense of real movement or impact in battles that should feel wild and frantic. The ghouls and the investigators at the CCG fight with biological weapons that writhe and wriggle. Every clash between kagune and quinque should be grotesque, as they represent a sort of primal extension of the characters themselves. There is a brutality to them, and it comes across in the manga, but once it comes into motion, it’s lost.

And I will not forgive the monstrous character assassination against certified best girl Akira Mado. In her fight against the ghoul Naki, she is bitten in the leg and sustains serious damage, but her response in the manga and anime couldn’t be more different. Anime Akira cowers like a damsel, begging her partner Amon to go on and leave her just so he can puff his chest and protect the helpless victim. Manga Akira mocks the very idea, snarking Amon’s concerns that her “uterus must have ruptured”, all while not expressing a moment of doubt. It comes across like the anime was written specifically to weaken one of its best characters.

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And Tokyo Ghoul: re has the nerve to take one of the best manga of all time and make it mediocre.

Tokyo Ghoul is one of the most egregious anime adaptations in recent memory, if not ever. It’s genuine difficult to think of an anime that received such a powerful story with phenomenal characters and fights, all with a bow on top, and then just proceeded to waste it. This could have been a Lesson in Disappointment, but I’m not disappointed. I am as angry as I will allow myself to be over a cartoon.

They could not have made a worse anime if they tried, because at least some things can become so bad that they’re good. Tokyo Ghoul Root A is almost completely without merit. If I have enough to say about the Tokyo Ghoul: re anime, I might make a follow-up to this. I’m currently drafting a few ideas, but there’s a good chance it will overlap with what I say here, so it’s not a guarantee.

So now is your chance to pick up the Tokyo Ghoul manga if you were let down by the anime. Alternatively, if you haven’t tired out of my writing, follow the Otaku Exhibition so you can get notified whenever a new essay goes up. If you prefer those notifications in 280 characters or less, though, you can check out the official Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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