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This past summer’s anime Tokyo Ghoul may ostensibly be a dark and twisted horror story about superpowered monsters who feed upon humanity; but beneath its surface, it’s so much more.
Tokyo Ghoul takes place in a world quite similar to our own but with one major difference: Humanity is not at the top of the food chain. Instead, the ghouls are. Ghouls look and are capable of acting like humans though their diet consists entirely of human flesh—and coffee. (No. Really. That’s not a joke.) However, while they all must eat humans to survive, they are hardly homogenous when it comes to their philosophies and society.
Some ghouls are simple hunters. They blend in and live seemingly normal lives; but when hungry, they trick hapless humans into being alone somewhere with them and then proceed to devour them.
Then there are the Gourmets—the Ghouls who have built a whole culture around eating. They fancy themselves the high society of Ghouls as evidenced by their lavish dinner parties and the sampling of various rare cuts of human meat they offer.
But the group of ghouls that comes closest to being pure evil are the binge eaters. They live for no other reason than to kill and eat—and they happily kill and eat even when they don’t need food.
Watching how these groups are fleshed out (no pun intended) by getting up close and personal with their various members and seeing how ghouls who follow these different philosophies interact with each other is always fascinating.
There is also one other major group of ghouls: those who wish to live peacefully alongside humanity. These ghouls, instead of hunting, feed on the corpses of the recently dead—often in the form of suicide victims.
For one character, however, it goes beyond simply not wishing to kill to eat. Rather, Toka, the main female lead of Tokyo Ghoul, truly longs to be human with all that entails. She does her best to live a normal human life. She goes to school, has a part-time job, and even has a human best friend—who has no idea Toka is a ghoul. She’ll even go to ridiculous extremes to be closer to the human ideal, up to and including eating massive amounts of poison (read: human food). Her whole situation is heartbreaking and at the same time, truly endearing.
College student Kaneki is the central protagonist of Tokyo Ghoul. After an accident, he unknowingly receives organs from a ghoul during a transplant operation to save his life. From that point on, he finds himself as much ghoul as human. He longs to eat human flesh but is still disgusted by the idea of cannibalism as much as any of us would be. The idea of murder likewise revolts him.
Much of the anime is built around Kaneki’s learning about ghoul society; and the more he learns, the more he sees his unique place in the whole situation. To the humans, ghouls are nothing more than amoral beasts—born serial murderers that need to be exterminated. Not a single human seems to know about the intricacies of ghoul society with all its clashing philosophies—which makes sense. Humanity has no way to know this information. After all, the police are far more concerned with stopping ghouls quickly and lethally than with talking to them. And most people who encounter a ghoul are on the menu, so to speak.
Thus Kaneki is in the rare position of being a potential bridge between the two races. He is human but is living the life of a ghoul. Of course, just because he could potentially bring humans and ghouls closer together doesn’t mean he is up for the challenge.
Besides its exploration of ghoul society, Tokyo Ghoul also succeeds thanks to its characters and their surprisingly emotional stories. Toka has her impossible dream to be human. A pair of ghouls are haunted by their past even as they try to raise their daughter. Even the police who would kill any of the ghoul characters on sight have their own tragic reasons for hunting the far more powerful ghouls. Each story we encounter serves to not only allow us to connect with the world on a personal level in addition to an intellectual one but also makes the characters sympathetic, regardless of which side they are on.
[Skip to the next section to avoid spoilers on the ending of the anime.]
The oddest thing about Tokyo Ghoul is the fact that it abruptly ends. The final few episodes of the series build toward a thrilling conclusion: Kaneki is captured and tortured while Toka and the others begin a rescue attempt in the middle of a massive Ghouls versus Cops battle. Yet, as Toka and the others pair off with their respective adversaries and Kaneki escapes his bondage, the series ends.
It’s not even a cliffhanger, really. A cliffhanger ends at a low point for the heroes—making you wonder if/how they will escape their seemingly unwinnable situation. However, Tokyo Ghoulends before this point. While danger is looming, no one is in dire straights. Toka and her allies have yet to even begin their battles; and Kaneki seems to be handling his situation on his own. It feels like there is a missing episode—so much so that I was truly shocked when I tuned in the following week only to see a different anime airing instead.
And yes, while a second season has been announced in the weeks since Tokyo Ghoul finished its run, the anime, as it stands now has a truly baffling ending that neither completes the narrative nor creates a cliffhanger situation.
Despite its complete and total lack of anything resembling an ending, Tokyo Ghoul is definitely one of the high points of the summer anime season. It builds a hauntingly violent world filled with multilayered characters living in an excellently well thought-out society. However, it’s important to mention this is very much an anime that is solidly in the realm of ultraviolence. If excessive gore, torture, and cannibalism upset you, this is most certainly one you should avoid. If not, then give this one a watch.