Tokyo Ghoul boasts strong aesthetics, powerful acting and a promising starts, though it fumbles under the weight of too many characters, too many themes, too little time and an unclear sense of direction for its story and characters.
Plot synopsis: Kaneki Ken, through a series of unfortunate events, is pulled into the world of flesh-eating ghouls. Now forced to live as a half-ghoul, half-human, he must balance his life between both worlds.
Tokyo ghoul starts out on a strong note, introducing a variety of interesting characters and details in a fast-paced, engaging manner. The first episode covers Kaneki becoming a half-ghoul, dealing with having to live on a new diet comprised entirely of humans, and encountering all sorts of trouble. It does all of this in a natural way, without feeling rushed or prolonged, though sadly this cannot be said for the rest of the series. Due to the lack of a clear focal point, the story of Tokyo Ghoul is reduced to a sequence of events, which, while viewed on their own, are quite exciting and well-paced, do not blend into each other naturally. It goes from focusing on Kaneki’s unwillingness to eat flesh, to revenge, to full-scale war with little build-up or proper cool-down, resulting in jumbled pacing, unsatisfactory pay-offs and poor handling of themes and characters.
The series also handles its exposition in an unsatisfactory manner. Vital plot points are revealed through a character saying, “I heard a rumour that…” or, “I have a feeling that…” without ever justifying how they came to their expressed conclusions. This is makes the foundations of several character motivations feel weak, and this occurs more than once. To add to that, important pieces of information aren’t introduced at very relevant times; it often feels as though the writer has information he wants to give the audience and other details he wants to hide, but doesn’t know a natural way in which to do so, making characters that are supposed to think logically look idiotic and supposedly psychotic characters looking like genii.
This inept story structure extends to the series handling of its themes as well. The story at some points seems like a tale of Kaneki uniting the ghouls and humans, though at others feels like a story of war between humans and ghouls, and others still a narrative discussing how we fight what we fear because we don’t understand it. Themes are absolutely not something where quantity should be prioritised over quality. Had this series decided to focus on one, or even two, of these, it could probably have worked in the given time frame, but it wasn’t able to give these themes the development they needed. The existence of a second season is no excuse, because by that point the series should at least have its bearings.
The world building is arguably the single worst area of Tokyo Ghoul, with so little detail being given to the audience that it becomes very difficult to be immersed in the events of the story. The audience are told that ghoul-combat technology has drastically advanced, but we are never informed what it has advance from. The ghouls can’t have been present for that long, at least not in great numbers, as they haven’t been integrated into society yet, which is what they would need to do to survive, nor can they be entirely new, because everyone is aware of them and elderly ghouls have been shown to exist. Has anyone previously attempted to offer them dead bodies in exchange for peace? Do kagune act like power ups that ghouls use when they are especially strong or angry? What defines an “S-Class ghoul”, and what other classes are there? How well-documented are the identities of ghouls? None of these questions are given any coherent answers at any point in the series, and they don’t work well as mystery elements because these are basic details that the audience need to know to get invested.
Character development and characterisation also deserve criticism, because they are mostly absent from Tokyo Ghoul. Possessing a cast which consists of two dozen named and reoccurring characters, the amount of screen time granted to them most of them is negligible. Most ghouls and doves (ghoul hunters) are reduced to shallow serial killing sadists with little reason to kill other than to dominate and oppress the other side. A dozen new characters are introduced out of the blue, with no build up, for the finale, making it impossible for the audience to form an emotional attachment with them. Even those at the café or dove organisation are one-note, for the most part.
The main characters fair slightly better. Kaneki receives moderately satisfying, albeit uneven and not particularly substantial, character development; that is until the final episode, where he does a complete 180° and loses his charm and ability to act as an anchor for the audience. His development in combative prowess also leaves much to be desired, with him matching trained killers in spite of his negligible experience or interest in fighting. This could be written off as a product of his condition, but his skill cannot simply be attributed to being a half-ghoul. Touka is more consistent and solid, though she changes little and much of her past is still shrouded in mystery by the end, which is a mistake for a secondary character. Hinami is essentially just a victim, but her growth of character is slightly more believable. Most of the other characters only show up once or twice before being shoe-horned into a finale in a highly convoluted manner. On the whole, the character cast of Tokyo Ghoul left much to be desired.
On the more positive side of things, the visual presentation of Tokyo Ghoul is an example of how strong artistic direction and character designs can overcome weak technical merits to create something truly impressive. The background art in Tokyo Ghoul is often highly detailed, particularly in the first few episodes, and most of them have a harsh, bleached look to them, which blends perfectly with the tone of the series. Buildings coloured stark white, blood red and murky green help to set the tone for dramatic or brutal scene, while more earthy browns and yellows tend to dominate the coffee shop, giving it a homely atmosphere. The character designs are also an area worthy of praise, with there being a wide variety of character heights, hair colours, builds and transformations. Beautiful gothic imagery comes to life whenever ghouls use their kagune in combat, though they do seem a bit reminiscent of standard shounen power-ups in terms of function and design. There are a few character designs that don’t quite manage to work, opting to look “cool” without fitting into the tone of the anime, but these don’t occur until the climax of the series.
The animation itself is more on the average side, with studio Pierrot’s commitment to multiple series simultaneously preventing them from giving Tokyo Ghoul the priority that its brilliant designs deserved. Thankfully, this is also saved, for the most part, by strong directing, with CGI crowd walks and off-model characters being few and well-placed. The action sequences are well-drawn, though the weapons and characters occasionally interact unrealistically with their backgrounds (bullets do not dissipate into sparks upon impact). Additionally, the fluidity of the detailed kagune is not up to par with what may be experienced in more high budget series, though this rarely affects the immersive quality of the series.
In terms of audio presentation, Tokyo Ghoul is highly impressive. The score successfully elevates the dramatic scenes into something much more memorable, thanks to good implementation. Loud, bombastic instrumentations give great aide to already tense scenes, both during fight sequences and the more emotional moments. The series opening is quite iconic, though the piercing vocals and rushed lyrics leading to the chorus prevent it from being something I can recommend very highly. The ending is much too vocally punk and visually typical to warrant high praise either, and the half-minute comedic skits at the end of each episode are a tonally inconsistent embarrassment. The sound design also left more to be desired, with creators missing an opportunity to give each weapon its own unique sound effect. When gun shots were fired, or flesh pierced by a sharp blade, they don’t always carry as much impact as they should, which is a shame because it really broke the immersion and failed to support the aforementioned excellent character designs.
Though Tokyo Ghoul’s uneven sway from light-hearted and personal to large scale and dramatic does, in many cases, cause tonal confusion, it allows for some great performances from the voice actors. Mamoru Miyano proves pulls out all the stops with his performance as Tsukiyama, an eccentric, aggressive bisexual food snob; Natsuki Hanae sounds convincingly wimpy as the protagonist, Kaneki Ken, and all of the plentiful adversaries and allies serve their roles with a good level of intimidation and creepiness.
With that being said, I would never recommend that someone check this series out in Japanese, as it has one of the best dubs I’ve ever heard from Funimation. This may have been due to the actors having already voiced the characters with the broadcast dub of Tokyo Ghoul √A before this season, but nonetheless, the end product is impressive. The evil ghouls exude danger and roughness in a way that their quieter Japanese counterparts couldn’t manage. Todd Haberkorn sells Ayato’s malice with outstanding sincerity, Christopher Sabat knocks it out of the park with Yamato’s bloodcurdling sadism, and Monica Rial goes against type with a frightening performance as Rize. Austin Tindle gives Kaneki a more natural, masculine voice, Brina Palencia’s grit as Touka far surpasses the calmer performance of Sora Amamiya, and J. Michael Tatum pulls of a deceptively charming portrayal of Tsukiyama. At worst, the cast equal their original Japanese counterparts, and at best they overshadow them. The acting in many parts is so good that the overall weak story may be excused.
Overall (Japanese): C-
Overall (English): C
Tokyo Ghoul can, though perhaps shouldn’t, be seen in all of its uncensored glory on AnimeLab or purchased through Madman if you live in Australia, and Funimation if you live in the United States.