I first watched Tokyo Ghoul in 2016. At the time the world of anime was relatively new to me and up till that point, I’d only watched shonen. I was so caught up in the grim, gory atmosphere of Tokyo Ghoul that I didn’t think about the show’s underlying themes beyond the surface.
I knew there was a lot Tokyo Ghoul was trying to say and the show wasn’t exactly subtle about it. However, I was so deeply involved in Kaneki’s personal grievances, I couldn’t care less about what the larger story was trying to say.
During the pandemic, I had more free time on my hand than I knew what to do with. Naturally, I spent the majority of my time watching new anime and rewatching old ones, including Tokyo Ghoul.
This time I paid more attention to what went beyond Kaneki’s angst and Tsykiyama’s horny explosions of blood lust. So here we are, trying to figure out the philosophy of Tokyo Ghoul. Of course, minor spoilers' warning for the Tokyo Ghoul anime.
Tokyo Ghoul is set in an alternate reality where creatures that look like normal people called ghouls, exist. However, they can only survive by eating human flesh and living in secrecy among the human population, concealing their true nature in order to avoid capture by the authorities.
The plot revolves around Ken Kaneki, a student who narrowly escapes a deadly encounter with Rize Kamishiro, his date who reveals herself to be a ghoul and attempts to eat him. He is rushed to the hospital and is in critical condition. Kaneki discovers after his recovery that he underwent surgery that turned him into a half-ghoul.
This was accomplished because some of Rize's organs were transferred into his body, and he now needs to consume human flesh to survive, just like normal ghouls.
Tokyo Ghoul and Racial Discrimination
Fans and critics of the show alike have praised Tokyo Ghoul’s representation of race relations and inter-racial/inter-community conflicts. In its raw moments of bloodshed and violence, the show attempts to say something about the cyclical nature of violence and humanity at large.
To its credit, Tokyo Ghoul is considerably better than mindless gory battle royale seinen of similar genres. However, when a show tries to be more than mindless violence, it should be analysed as such.
Tokyo Ghoul shows Ghouls as living in secrecy, hiding their true identity from humans while trying to fit in. Perhaps this is a metaphor for minorities trying to survive and fit into the societies they live in. At the same time, Ghouls survive on human meat and literally can not consume anything else.
In the real world, minorities are seen as threats and discriminated against based on their skin colour, ethnicity, gender etc. However, in the world of Tokyo Ghoul, ghouls are literal threats to human survival. If Tokyo Ghoul was trying to be an allegory for racial discrimination, it does a poor job of it since it kind of blames the minorities (in this case ghouls) for their oppression without intending to do so.
If tomorrow all of the people in the world were to suddenly get over all the mindless differences that cause any form of discrimination, we could, in theory, co-exist peacefully. That isn’t the case in Tokyo Ghoul. Even if by some miracle, ghouls and humans were to accept each other’s existence, ghouls would still need human flesh to survive.
The nature between ghouls and humans would still be that of a predator and prey. There is no case for peaceful co-existence between humans and ghouls without putting either one at a disadvantage. Moreover, if your story’s stand-ins for minorities also happen to be the ones cannibalizing on the rest of the population in secret, I am not sure what sort of story you are trying to tell.
The Morality Of Tokyo Ghoul
After Kaneki transforms into a ghoul, he craves human meat to the point of madness. The human in him however is disgusted at the thought of cannibalism. The peaceful ghouls of Anteiku only consume the meat of already dead suicide victims.
The members of Aogiri Tree, a more radical group of ghouls, strives for freedom for ghouls where they can live their lives embracing their identities as ghouls. Then there are outliers such as the hedonistic binge-eater Rize, the sadistic Yamori and the gourmet Tsukiyama.
The show frames eating human meat as a moral dilemma of sorts. However, the fact of the matter is, ghouls would literally die if they do not eat human meat and there is nothing else they can eat. In a popular vampire based movie series that I would rather not name, there were two kinds of vampires- the ones who fed on human blood and “vegetarian” vampires who fed on animal blood.
As funny as the concept of “vegetarian” vampires is, they do have a choice here, hence drinking or not drinking human blood could be a matter of choice. The ghouls are not given a choice. If the dilemma is between eating human meat to survive or dying of starvation, it isn’t a dilemma now, is it?
Is Tokyo Ghoul Bad?
Yes and No. Fans of the show will tell you the show was great in its first two seasons and terrible in the latter two and that you are better off reading the manga. Certainly, Tokyo Ghoul: Re is a terrible adaptation. The animation is poor, the storyline is incoherent and the anime original plotlines are horrendously bad. In that sense, the manga will offer you a better story. However, is that a good story in itself?
There is a lot Tokyo Ghoul wants to say about the world we live in. How successful it is in doing so is a topic for discussion. Tokyo Ghoul has one of the most compelling openings of animes in recent history. The show sets up some very interesting, clever and dare I say deep questions to be explored.
Kaneki’s strange relationship with Rize in his Psyche, Kaneki’s place in the middle of the human world and the ghoul world, the good, “vegetarian” ghouls of Anteiku, the sadistic CCG inspectors and so on. I jumped into the show, expecting great things to happen.
While the show has its moments of brilliance, the episode ‘High Spirits’ comes to mind, the overall series left me disappointed. As the show progresses, its philosophy keeps contradicting itself into a jumbled mess. The issues with Tokyo Ghoul as a story run deeper than unfaithful adaptation and rushed animation. The music in all 4 seasons however is so good, it almost redeems the entire mess, almost!
I can never bring myself to discard the show completely since I happen to have a soft spot for Kaneki and Touka is a really cool character. Also, “Unravel” is the best anime opening in the history of anime openings, fight me and you’ll lose.
The show wanted to say a lot of things, and for its ambitions, it deserves some praise. However, what Tokyo Ghoul ends up saying is neither coherent nor profound and that is just a bit sad.