Tokyo Ghoul Review (Seasons 1 & 2)

I’m glad I’m finally getting around to covering this show. It’s already a thing of mine that I like to cover shows where I don’t agree with the majority opinion because it’s more likely to encourage thought and debate, but it’s even better when the show I get to cover is one I really, really like as opposed to one that I don’t.

Also, I was going to start this by covering how people perceive adaptations in order to maybe help manga-readers (of any series) who tend to be disappointed maybe understand why that’s the case, but it ended up being so fucking long that it can seriously make a post of its own. So I’ll just give the TL;DR (sort of) and we’ll jump into Tokyo Ghoul right after.

While it doesn’t apply to everyone, the difference between a regular viewer and a critic is that the former judges a show based on what literally happens and whether it’s entertaining, whereas the latter judges a show based on what it’s trying to do and whether it accomplishes that goal effectively or not.

Generally this is how it goes for any show when it comes to either group, with one major exception: adaptations. When you like the source material of something, it’s very easy to use at as a “cheat sheet” of sorts in a way for grading the show, since you want the exact scenes and pacing and such that made you feel what you did on your first experience.

I won’t say you can’t judge a show this way, but it’s a bit unfair towards it. After all, if you had never seen the source material beforehand, could you even say you were looking for the same things from the show? If you have knowledge of the source material, most of the time you have decently specific ideas of what you expect the show to do, as opposed to going in blind.

I suppose the logic is that you’re grading something in terms of being an adaptation, and like I said, I can’t exactly say that’s wrong to do, but at the very least I think people should start making discrepancies between how they feel about a show in regards to it being an adaptation and it being its own thing which is perhaps trying its own approach.

The pretty obvious problem is that isn’t exactly easy to do. These are memories and experiences that are pretty ingrained into you. There are numerous people saying they don’t see how anime-only watchers could get anything out of the show, and while that might be a genuine opinion for some, there are probably just as many people that aren’t able to grade the show in any way other than an adaptation.

Or perhaps that’s just a biased accusation since I was an anime-only watcher who really enjoyed both seasons of Tokyo Ghoul. Hell if I know.

But this opener has dragged on long enough, I’m sure people care more for my actual thoughts on the show rather than thoughts and analysis of how we consume media in various ways. At least in a post titled “Tokyo Ghoul Review“. I also want to avoid doing the reverse of what I just complained about, so I’m going to keep the anime and manga comparisons to a minimum, and even when I do it will probably only be from a more “educational” angle per se rather than an opinionated one.

Also, since this is my first time reviewing more than one season of something at once, here’s your warning that I’m going to spoil the shit out of both seasons. Believe me, I have plenty to talk about when it comes to both seasons’ finales.

So first thing’s first, I’m going to start this off by confusing everybody. I actually prefer the censored, aired version of Tokyo Ghoul over the disc release version.

It’s normal (and, honestly, expected) to view censorship as bad universally – especially given the weight the term has earned from a big history of real life situations – but when used in clever ways, it can actually be really helpful.

The mind is often more capable of making something terrifying or grotesque in ways that physical representations can’t. Some of the violent things that happen to characters, ironically, have more impact by not being able to see it, because the mind does the work for you instead of your eyes. Not to mention with how desensitized to violence we’ve become given the content in our media, making use of the dark recesses of the viewers’ minds is often the only way to get them to react this kind of stuff at all.

I won’t say the censorship in Tokyo Ghoul was perfect, because there were some instances where you couldn’t tell what was going on, but for the most part it was done in clever ways where you could see just enough to tell what was happening. I’m not quite sure how the censoring process works in anime, whether it’s done by the animation studio itself or the TV channel that broadcasts it, but it came across as being deliberately planned out for the most part. As in they figured out where to place the dark spots so you could vaguely tell what was going on, and if there was too much that needed censored that’s when they did the whole inverted colors thing.

Though the censoring also had a second, probably unintended effect. I was among a crowd of anime-only watchers when Tokyo Ghoul started airing, and after even the first episode, some of them dropped ship because it seemed “too edgy”. While the show can be a bit excessive and dramatic at times, I never felt like it really crossed that line. At least, I did. Once I watched the uncensored version, I found myself agreeing.

The idea (somewhat) behind something being “edgy” is when violence and blood and whatnot in and of themselves are played up for the “cool factor”, or when it comes across as those parts being the core of the work with the story and characters being an afterthought. It’s a largely subjective label, but a simple – albeit, loose – way of thinking about it is if those aspects feel like they’re excessive, and/or being played for entertainment purposes rather than the story.

When I watch the uncensored version of the show, it’s as if the atmosphere itself changes almost due to the very nature of being “uncensored”. All of the violent and bloody bits are so much more in-your-face and it’s actually a bit off-putting. Not in an intended way, though, more in a “did they really need to shove that in my face?” way. I actually find it really hard to watch the fight in the second episode of the first season when it’s uncensored. It just comes across as enjoying the bloodiness of it way too much when there’s three or four different shots of giant globs if it splattering everywhere. Sure it’s still there in the TV airing with the inverted colors, but the filter helps repress it a lot. Not to mention it makes for a clever starting point when the scene then transitions into the next filter where Rize shows up to manipulate him.

Another part of why I don’t care much for the uncensored version is probably because, as I said before, you can actually tell what’s happening in most of the censored bits of the show. I can tell when the end of a foot blurs past the visible part of the screen and suddenly stops in the correct orientation that Kaneki’s twisted leg just corrected itself, I don’t need it explicitly shown to me to get that.

Maybe if the show had aired uncensored in the first place my feelings would be different, but as it is now it almost feels unnecessary and as a result, excessive in a lot of places. I mean if you can censor something to prevent it from being off-putting, but still get across what’s happening, isn’t there at least a bit of artistry to that? I suppose the idea is that you should accomplish this without resorting to censorship, but I personally don’t see a problem with manipulating a usually harmful tool to the creators’ advantage. Hell, I kind of admire it. It was one of the more obtuse things I enjoyed about the show.

But maybe I’m dancing a bit too much around the core of what makes Tokyo Ghoul so great to me. I explained some of it in my “No, The Tokyo Ghoul Ending Wasn’t Bad” post, but now I get a chance to really dive into it.

The first episode of the show sets up that, one, Kaneki is pretty damn unlucky, and two, he will do absolutely everything in his power to maintain his identity as a human. He doesn’t view himself as half-human and half-ghoul, to him he’s a human who’s being tempted by this unnatural force into becoming a ghoul. This may seem like semantics, but it’s actually a really important distinction that, especially at first, Kaneki doesn’t see there being any possible middle ground. You’re either a human, or you’re a ghoul. Even after he integrates into Anteiku, he still views himself as a human mentally, just one that unfortunately has a ghoul’s body.

Following that, Kaneki then has to deal with various struggles that pull him further and further towards the one thing he doesn’t want: submitting himself to his ghoul side. The recurring thing that gets beaten into him over the course of the first season is that he needs power to accomplish things. Whether that’s stopping someone from doing something bad or protecting somebody he cares about, Kaneki continuously has to draw on the ghoul body that he disdains, often with it being a strain on him mentally.

I don’t know what the common fandom opinion is, but I never viewed the Rize bits as being literal. She was just this sort of representation of the dark corners of Kaneki’s mind and the ghoulish urges he now had to deal with, rather than her spirit living on through her organs or whatever.

This all comes to a head in the finale, where it gets drilled into Kaneki that his inaction isn’t this glorious act of martyrdom that he makes it out to be. He’s quick to blame himself, but he won’t do anything about it. People die because he’d rather play the pacifist, and the world isn’t fair enough for something like that to work. He’s shown through his own experience of losing his mother how much unintentional harm that mindset can do to others, and that’s what ultimately breaks him.

Make no mistake though, Tokyo Ghoul isn’t a story about some rise to power, it’s a tragedy. The morality and practicality of Kaneki’s philosophy aside, this is a teenage boy who’s had his world flipped upside-down on him and had the harshness and unfairness of the world brutally beaten and tortured both physically and mentally into him. This finale isn’t some “enlightenment” and a glorious rise to form.

It’s a kid being turned into a monster because violence and power is the only way to get what you want when you’re dealing with other monsters.

The show always dangled this thread throughout that Kaneki would somehow manage to stop all this madness since he was the bridge between humans and ghouls, yet the finale instead has him just becoming another cog in this machine of hatred.

That’s probably why I loved the ending while many others didn’t. The plot in and of itself was never that interesting to me, nor were the action bits, it was the reasons behind what was happening that grabbed my attention. The bits in Kaneki’s head where he’s yelling about his resentment towards his aunt aren’t good or impactful just because he’s yelling, it’s because he’s directly abandoning everything he stood for morally and used to define his humanity. He was willing to let his aunt be forsaken if it meant saving his mother. He was willing to hurt someone if it meant saving his mother. He was willing to kill his aunt if it meant saving his mother.

So when you have a character start the show by drawing a line at eating people being the point of no return, then end the show on a shot of him devouring his captor after mentally breaking him, boom, you’re done. You laid out the idea clearly and executed on it, you did it. I mentioned after the season ended that I actually would have been fine if it didn’t get a second season because I got a complete story out of it, and I meant it.

Yes, there are more literal plot events that can happen, clearly, but since there would be no thematic purpose to it anymore, there’s no real point. The only reason for the fights to start or continue would be for plot reasons, which are also pretty pointless considering Kaneki is already free.

Also, one last thing, I normally don’t go over voice acting because it’s typically good in every show so there’s no excessive need to draw attention to it, but holy shit Hanae Natsuki was literally the perfect choice for Kaneki. I don’t know if he auditioned, or was selected ahead of time or whatever, but it’s one of those roles that an actor was just sort of born for. One that’s going to define them for quite a while. Kind of like Takahiro Sakurai as Makishima in Psycho-Pass. I mean, Sakurai was big before that role – dude was Suzaku in Code Geass after all – but Makishima just sort of defined him as a voice actor for a while. It’s the same with Hanae Natsuki as Kaneki.

Now, the second season. As much as I also love Root A for reasons I’ll get into, this season is the one where I’m a bit more on board with the complaints it gets. Definitely too much foreshadowing and too many plot points that get introduced but then don’t really go anywhere. That whole thing with the “Clowns” in the first episode, the whole prison break thing so they could free… somebody or something (though there were nice bits with Kaneki and Amon in it),  and… actually I think that’s it. I was originally going to list the freeing of Jason’s subordinate too since he doesn’t really do anything significant, but on rewatch he actually serves an interesting role in regards to Kaneki. That obviously being him freaking out about Jason being dead and blaming CCG and Kaneki just has to stand there knowing what really happened. In extension it serves as this giant source of guilt for him which helps kick off Kaneki’s change throughout the second season.

The other issue is one that wasn’t as massive a deal to me as an anime-only watcher, but rustled the jimmies of manga readers: Tsukiyama’s final scene falling completely flat.

I feel like the only way you can dislike the scene to the point of genuine irritation is if you read the manga beforehand, because the disappointment requires, well, expectations. That’s not something you really have if your only experience with Tsukiyama is from the anime. He was always this over-the-top weirdo, so it’s not like I was expecting much. It’s already been established that while there are a lot of good people on both sides of the conflict, not everybody is one. The scene was just odd because it felt like it wanted you to start taking Tsukiyama seriously as this good but flawed person, yet there was just no precedent for it so it just felt really off. It was probably the one time the show didn’t feel like it was in control of its own tone, now that I think about it.

It seems like these issues were a result of two things. The first is that the plot structure for the second season was different than the first. While both seasons are mainly about Kaneki going through some sort of character transformation, season one plot-wise was random interconnected arcs with the last one just happening to bring different factions to one location. The second season, however, is basically constant buildup until the giant battle at the end. I mean, individual things happen, but it’s clear they’re building up to something.

The second thing is that, while I can’t guarantee anything since I obviously don’t know what went on behind the scenes, it feels like they didn’t have a firm grasp on how everything was going to end. I assume that most of the show – especially the script – is done ahead of time. It’s possible that after the first season finished airing they wanted to rework where they were going with the ending, but already had the first few episodes of season two set in stone. It would certainly explain the plot points that get brought up, then unceremoniously dropped. But hey, I’m just speculating.

So, on to what I loved about Root A. It was interesting to see what they were going to do thematically after the first season. I actually wasn’t sure if they had anywhere to go at all. They proved that wrong by switching gears and going in the almost opposite direction. If the first season was Kaneki’s tale of falling from grace, then the second season is his redemption.

While he’s now willing to hurt people, Kaneki’s main goal is to protect the people he cares about. It’s why he joins Aogiri at the start of Root A. While Ayato isn’t willing to say it – probably because he’s forced to hide it – Kaneki can tell he’s in Aogiri because it protects Touka in some way or will lead to something that will keep her safe. Kaneki sees a bit of himself in him. None of this is explicitly stated, but reading between the lines of their dialogue, that was the impression I got and rewatching the scenes with that interpretation everything fit.

Anyway, Kaneki is doing all this to protect who he cares about, namely Hide. The irony is that these new actions just get Hide even more motivated to find Kaneki and help him, which by the end of the season ends up getting him killed. The biggest motivator for Kaneki’s turn at the end of the first season ended up being the exact thing that happened because of his turn. That, combined with their talk before Hide’s death where Hide tells him how he knew everything all along and even thanks him for the things he did, is what ultimately redeems him. There’s a shot of Kaneki’s hair reverting to its old color, even though it doesn’t literally go back. Symbolism and all that fun stuff.

Fighting anymore is pointless to him, so he returns Hide’s body and gives himself up. He’s done. The ending is then vague enough to leave open the slim possibility he might still be alive, but I always saw it more as showing his death to be unnecessary since he had given up and you know full well how it will end. The idea with that final shot before the credits being of Arima’s white hair seemed to be this message of what kind of person you had to be to continue living in this unfair world.

This is all the core of what I love about Tokyo Ghoul so much. It pulls off a tragedy from two different angles for each season. The first is a downer ending of a character’s mental weakness eventually overpowering and destroying them, and the second is the restoration of that character, albeit through the death of a loved one. While there are individual plot issues and weaknesses here and there, the core elements that made up these tragedies were insanely strong because we got to learn so much about Kaneki and see him struggle.

I feel like that’s probably why general audiences prefer the manga. Way at the beginning I mentioned that for the most part, people just care about what literally happens in something, and from what I’ve seen of it along with the differences I know it has from what happens in Root A, the manga seems to favor shock value over thematic consistency. It’s why there’s so many single and double-page spreads and has a very loose, erratic art style. I’m not saying this is approach is wrong, I just certainly know which I prefer.

Though there’s certainly more about the anime that I like beyond just its themes, but most if it speaks for itself. Do I really need to explain why the tenth episode of Root A along with it’s ED images is such an effective episode that almost made me cry? It seems obvious. I can’t really go over the other positives without just repeating what happens in the show. The music is great, the cinematography is superb (so, so many memorable single shots in the show, hot damn).

In my Seraph of the End post I did say I would cover directing for at least a bit though, so I could do that.

While I know opinions will be opinions on the Tokyo Ghoul anime, if there’s one thing I do want to make unanimous, it’s just how fucking good of a director Shuhei Morita is. As far as I’m aware of, Morita personally directed the first and last episodes of each season, so just off the last episode of the first season alone I feel like a lot of people already agree that he’s a great director, but I’ll go over a few of my personal favorite scenes that I feel are a little more ambiguous in execution.

A minor one you may not have even noticed, is they repeated an attack. In the first episode, Rize attacks Kanaki with a jumping leap with her hand outstretched towards him. Eleven episodes later, Kaneki does the same leap attack towards Jason after his transformation. It’s one of those clever little things that you don’t notice consciously, but you pick up in the back of your mind.

There was also the final episode of season two, where Hide was talking to Kaneki, and there were occasionally shots of blood falling to the floor. At first it’s done in a way that you think it’s Kaneki bleeding, since there was a similar shot in the previous episode. Over time, more and more blood falls, then Hide seems to be having trouble standing up as you see him awkwardly moving his hand over the table in a way that suggests he’s leaning on it for support. Then finally Hide flinches, a massive amount of blood pours out, and there’s enough that you can see a reflection in the pool, which shows Hide’s legs right before a slumps to the ground. The bait and switch along with the pacing of the reveal was perfect. I remember getting that sinking feeling in my chest when it happened.

The reveal of Anteiku being in flames was another instance of great visual pacing, and clever use of sound, too. First the sky is turning red, then as Touka makes her way to the building, there are what seem like orange snowflakes in the air, and everything is quiet. All you can hear are noises Touka makes, and then everything goes black as she wonders, “Why is Anteiku…” when it suddenly switches to her looking at the entire building engulfed in flame as the bass sounds of the fire suddenly start roaring. The impact of that reveal by making use of sound makes the scene hit way harder than if we had seen the fire in the distance and she just made her way towards it.

Also, honorable mention to the walking scene. I know everyone gives it shit because “oh my god it lasts forever and nothing is happening”, but it’s actually a minute and fifty seconds – yes, I checked – and there really is a lot going on with it. A big part of season two was emphasizing that while there are outliers, the vast majority of humans and ghouls are just doing what they think is right. There is no “right” side to this war, it’s just two species whose lifestyles are too inherently at odds and a cycle of hatred and killing that’s resulting in a fight that needs to unfortunately be fought. The damage is just too great. So seeing the carnage that the battle has wrought on both sides, along with a ghoul carrying a human back to CCG with all the soldiers watching, a lot is being said without characters needing to literally do that much. I’ll take a walking scene that says a lot over a fancy fight that has no deeper meaning to it any day.

There are more scenes that Morita did that I really like, but most of them don’t really need me to explain them, they speak for themselves (namely almost the entirety of the final episode of the first season). But what I like most about him is that he understands the different approaches that needs to be taken with different mediums.

A common complaint thing people did with the anime was take a frame from the show, and a page from the manga, and show how the manga had more impact, which of course it did. On a single-frame basis, manga is the superior medium because the entire point is that it’s made up of a bunch of static images that need to portray lively scenes, so they’re designed to have impact by nature. But in actual context, the anime version of the scenes were fine. Morita did an interview that’s actually on Funimation’s channel, where he explained that with anime it’s more about scenes as a whole rather than any individual frames. Unlike manga, anime has music and motion to help set scenes up, so while individual impactful shots can be done, it’s more about creating scenes that work. He talked about some other bits in regards to working on the anime too, it’s a pretty interesting video.

The gist of this whole thing is that while Tokyo Ghoul doesn’t do everything perfectly, the core idea that makes up the show is so undeniably solid that it’s hard for me to hold its faults against it. A lot of those faults deal with things that just serve as a backdrop for the real character drama anyways.

It’s definitely one of those shows where your perspective on what it is will influence your opinion of it a lot. If you see it as an action series with horror elements with Kaneki being kind of annoying and his change at the end of the first season being “cool”, you’re probably not going to have a great time. Maybe season one you’ll like, but season two pretty much shits all over that perspective of the show, so it makes sense that people weren’t happy.

I know it’s hard to separate yourself from your first viewing and thoughts, but if you didn’t like the anime, try watching it a second time as a character study instead. Your opinion might just change. That’s not a guarantee or anything, there are reasons people dislike the show beyond just that, but it’s something to give a try.

By the way, one reason manga readers shit on the anime is this idea that the staff threw out Ishida’s storyboards for Root A, and how there was bad blood, but there’s no solid proof of this. It’s just one of those things someone threw out based on circumstantial evidence and people started treating it like a fact. Storyboards get changed all the time, it’s why they’re rough drafts. I actually investigated Ishida’s twitter and the Tokyo Ghoul anime’s twitter to see if I could find anything, and came up with nothing. Actually, I came up with evidence that supported the exact opposite.

The anime’s twitter put out tweets every once in a while with some storyboard’s Ishida had done, which he retweeted. Ishida actually regularly retweeted a lot of stuff the anime’s twitter put out. He also pretty regularly tweeted out the end cards he drew for the episodes. He also did a tweet on the tenth of April which had all the end cards he had drawn along with a thanks to the anime staff, and the next tweet was to his tumblr where he posted a lot of text about the anime production.

There was also a bit where someone tweeted a rare pepe at him and he wondered what it was. People told him and then he drew a rare pepe of his own interpretation. It was actually kind of amazing.

Anyway, I had to do a machine translation for the tumblr post because I can’t read Japanese, but from the bits where sense can be made, he mentioned stuff like the massive amount of time he worked on the storyboards with the show’s scriptwriter (even over Skype) and how they talked about changing things from the manga. I’m pretty sure there’s even a bit where he directly mentions some of the storyboard not being used, and how he might release some of those at one point, but again, machine translation.

Getting back to the actual show, I could honestly go over each episode and point out what I love in each and every one, but as I said before it’s largely down to perspective. If you watch the show with the perspective of it being a character piece, it does a great job of speaking for itself. It’s why I got even more out of the show on a second viewing.

It’s just not often that I watch a show that has such a firm grasp on what it wants to do with its characters and morphing them harshly, yet organically. Or maybe it’s just because its a tragedy that’s done so well. There’s a reason that the tragedy is such a classic tale.

I love it because it’s a grand tale in a grand world that at the end of the day comes down to a grand bond between two characters. Despite all the ghouls and fantasy, Tokyo Ghoul is remarkably human, and there’s something incredible about that.

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