Tokyo Ghoul (2017) Movie Review: Gore Abounds in This Convoluted Adaptation
While the “zombie” genre has undoubtedly become a centerpiece of popular entertainment in the West, the style as a whole is not that popular in Japan. While recent cinematic excursions such as Shinsuke Sato’s I Am a Hero (2016) has further brought the concept of the undead into the mainstream, tales of the undead in Japan have often been positioned more so in the realm of the spiritual rather than being purely manifested in the physical. Kentaro Hagiwara’s Tokyo Ghoul brings an exciting twist to a genre that many have considered oversaturated as of late.
Based on the manga series by author Sui Ishida, the world of Tokyo Ghoul is an alternative universe where individuals are known as “ghouls” reside alongside humans in secret. These ghouls can only survive on consuming human flesh thus human beings are the natural food source that they must feed on to survive. We then enter Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), a young college student who unexpectedly has his life turned upside when his first date with a girl named Rize (Yu Aoi) goes awry when we discover that she is a ghoul who was preying on Ken, viciously attacking and injuring him. Barely escaping the attack and presumed to be dead, Ken wakes up to find himself hospitalized and with an unquenchable appetite for human flesh. He soon discovers that for him to have survived the assault by Rize, some of her organs were transferred into his body, in turn turning him into a half-ghoul in the process.
Slowly accepting his newfound status as a half-ghoul, Ken learns the intricacies of the hidden and isolated worldview that accompany what being a ghoul entails. Meeting up with a ragtag group of other ghouls at a local cafe, Ken gathers himself an entourage that is at first wary of trusting an individual such as Ken but willing to teach him the ins and outs of the ghoul world. What he soon discovers is that while the extreme cravings of being ghoul are ever present, there is an even greater danger in the form of an anti-ghoul governmental department led by ruthless Mado (Yo Oizumi) and Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki). Their sole purpose is to search and eliminate ghouls at all costs, bringing Ken into more profound conflict with himself and friends.
Notwithstanding some of the conventions associated with the transformative hero trope, Ken’s process in understanding his newly acquired status as a ghoul is what drives the uniqueness of Tokyo Ghoul’s narrative. Ken’s rather crude transformation from human to half-ghoul is highly visible throughout the film, providing some connectivity to us as the audience as we share his painful status as someone caught between the human world and the ghoul world. It is the moments where Ken attempts to deal with the complexities surrounding leaving his old life behind and accepting his fate where the film indeed finds its strides. His slow descent into assumed madness as he attempts to understand his predicament is undoubtedly impressive, where hallucinatory images of Rize interject into his psychological state of being, leading to some haunting imagery as Ken is between two vastly different understandings of the world.
As the film introduces Mado and Amon and their avid crusade against ghouls though, brutal physical confrontations take that place of much of the prior questioning revolving around the shifting of identity and community. The film descends into one encounter after another, and although relatively entertaining to watch from a visual standpoint through it extensive usage of CG, does very little to address and resolve the diametrical nature of Ken’s status as a half-ghoul or even Mado and Amon’s merciless handling towards ghouls. More time dedicated to both character building and the expansive world that surrounded these characters would have sufficed - instead we seemingly only receive a glimpse of what characters and the world have to offer.
As much of the remainder of the film divulges into scattered gore-drenched battles in an attempt to raise the emotional empathy of the film’s characters, it comes at the considerable expense of its narrative. Tokyo Ghoul at the very least resides in the realm of pushing creatively through many of the standards of the genre, bringing together an interesting take on the transformative processes of shifting from one world to another. If the narrative had remained focused on this transition phase undertaking by Ken, Tokyo Ghoul would have made for an engrossing character study attentive to the desire to see more of Ken’s transformative process and how it influences his desire to solidify his newfound identity. Instead, we have a film that attempts to satisfy both the action-oriented crowd as well as those inquisitive of the characters and their backstories, unfortunately doing neither of those directions too well.