Tokyo Ghoul’s many failed allegories

[I wrote this post a whole year ago, before I even made this blog (so no pictures). It was inspired by conversations with my third-year middle school students, who have now graduated. I really liked them so, now that they are gone, I figured I might finally publish this. With that in mind, I am not necessarily reacting against Tokyo Ghoul itself, but rather against what I maybe consider immature interpretations of the series. Not that I consider immaturity bad… I love adolescent mediocrity. It’s more that Tokyo Ghoul isn’t just mediocre, it’s gross. In their exuberance for a dark setting and relatable protagonist, I worry that my teenage friends maybe missed many of the ugliest oddities in Tokyo Ghoul’s thematic content.]

Tokyo Ghoul came recommended to me from a third year middle-schooler so, to be honest, I really only picked it up to win some “cool teacher” points. If I could watch the show for some surface-level understanding of the characters, I would have a great English conversation starter during lunch periods. I would ask “Who is your favorite character?” followed by huddled whispers and a reluctant “I like… iiya dare, dare… Touka is.” I would respond “Oh, Touka? Me too!” and then follow up with the worst question of all: “Why?” This time, frantic huddled whispers as five boys tried to come up with the collective answer “Touka is cool.” Then the ringleader would shout “unbariibabaru” (unbelievable, the freshest middle school meme to come out of cleaning period) and we would all laugh. 11 years of English education in a tiny rural school system, (probably) not wasted!

To my surprise though, Tokyo Ghoul had a really strong start. The proposed themes seemed so much more mature than a standard shounen flick about friendship or whatever, Kaneki and Rize’s post-mortem hybrid relationship had the potential for some interesting depth, and the middle schoolers were right: Touka was cool. For the first two or three episodes, I thought I had stumbled upon a clever, authentic show to finally put a capstone on the over-saturated market of adolescent edge-appeal fiction.

But the illusion broke. Though Tokyo Ghoul had a lot that it wanted to say, it wasn’t doing a very good job saying it. Many reviews blame the flaws in the series on a poor adaptation from the source material and, for their part, my middle-schoolers told me that the manga was “meccha better” (a real cross-language quote, meccha is slang that means “very” or “way,” so “way better”). To be sure, a 12 episode anime is a much more limited format than a manga or light novel with an indefinite publishing window. However, I think Tokyo Ghoul has more fundamental world-building problems that result in frequent — and often gross — contradictions of its themes.

Let’s skip the boring plot summaries and discussions about art or music and dive straight into Tokyo Ghoul’s allegories, which often receive praise for their thematic depth and thoughtfulness. Tokyo Ghoul tackles a fairly tight cluster of ideas regarding discrimination, cyclical violence, and the futility of altruism in a dog-eat-dog world (ghoul-eat-human world?). However, I don’t think the praise is necessarily deserved. Tokyo Ghoul certainly earns points for trying to be more than a hollow shounen action piece, but it never really succeeds because the structure of its allegories repeatedly undermine any apparent themes. Take the most obvious example:

If Tokyo Ghoul is an allegory for racial discrimination, it is a terrible one that comes close to blaming minorities for their own oppression. Unlike minorities in real societies that face persecution for arbitrary reasons like skin color, ghouls are a genuine threat to the majority. Remember, they eat people. Though suicide victims satisfy the peaceful, privileged ghouls of Anteiku, it seems clear that there aren’t enough corpses to go around across Tokyo’s wards. At some point, the ghouls need to kill. Such a predator-prey dynamic means that one side will necessarily oppress the other: the humans either murder the ghouls to protect themselves or the ghouls murder the humans to feed themselves.

Unlike with real-world racial discrimination then, peaceful coexistence is not an option. You cannot give a ghoul equal civil rights, economic opportunity, and cultural representation to create a more just society. You cannot rehabilitate a ghoul to stop preying on people because, well, they need to eat. Every living ghoul directly threatens every living human. Even if a “good ghoul” only eats consensually donated corpses, doing so will increase the scarcity of fair trade corpses and drive “bad ghouls” into the black market of murdered corpses. God help humanity if the relative ghoul population increases and humans lose out both from increased predation and reduced collective self-defense as their majority shrinks. It just isn’t sustainable in the long-term. Until the human-ghoul society can develop a techno-utopian solution with lab grown human meat or something, the two sides will necessarily fight. The structure of the discrimination allegory fails unless we assume that races inevitably conflict, which is the sort of essentialism that makes explicitly racist works like The Turner Diaries so disgusting. Though I am not accusing Tokyo Ghoul of racism, the rules of its universe seem to lead to a similar “genocide or be genocided” conclusion.

I don’t even think Tokyo Ghoul works as some kind of Malthusian ecological allegory when considered outside of the constraints of human society. The predator-prey relationship between humans and ghouls is only superficially similar to the one between say, wolves and deer. In a real ecosystem, both predators and prey must exist to create a balanced and prosperous biosphere. If the deer population explodes in the absence of predation, they will cause a collapse in both plant-life due to overgrazing and their own population due to resultant starvation. Similarly, if there are too many wolves, the deer population will collapse due to predation and the wolf population will collapse due to starvation. Ecological constraints then encourage a balance.

No similar balance exists between humans and ghouls. Remove the ghouls and the human population prospers as it currently does. Remove the humans and every ghoul starves. Ghouls do not help maintain a healthy ecosystem. Instead, they more resemble parasites on the body of humanity than genuine apex predators: they only harm their host without benefiting the rest of the world’s species. Again, the proposed allegory does not match the narrative.

But let’s flip back to human societies for one more point on discrimination. Is it fair for a parasitic species to occupy the allegorical place of an oppressed minority? Given the historical prevalence of racists describing their targets as parasites, I think the answer is an obvious “no.” Tokyo Ghoul isn’t gross for the cannibalism… it’s gross for the way the biological basis of that cannibalism implies the impossibility of humanistic coexistence.

The awkward structure of Tokyo Ghoul’s world-building even damages simpler themes. For example, on the morality of meat-eating, the show draws frequent parallels between ghouls eating humans and humans eating livestock animals. However, it’s another false analogy because the ghouls have no choice in the matter. The moral dilemma is to eat humans or die, which really isn’t much of a dilemma, is it?

By contrast, humans can choose to abstain from meat. A vegetarian or vegan can live a perfectly healthy life without killing any conscious animals. The moral dilemma for humans then becomes one about personal preference, environmentalism, and shifting definitions of consciousness. Is it alright to kill and eat a conscious creature that feels pain to satisfy the human preference for meat? What if the butcher uses a painless method? What even is a conscious animal? The Japanese vegetarians I have met tell me that fish are not conscious and thus not meat. Is that true? These are all much more interesting, nuanced questions than the simple “eat humans or die” binary established in Tokyo Ghoul. Again, the structure of the narrative fails the proposed allegory.

Tokyo Ghoul’s strongest theme regarding the cyclical violence of revenge doesn’t even work well. The show seems to present revenge as one of the key driving forces behind the conflict between humans and ghouls. Like feuding Hatfields and McCoys, when a human murders a ghoul, the ghouls murder a human as revenge, prompting the humans to do the same, resulting in a ceaseless blood debt that cannot be repaid. Both the human Mado and the ghoul Touka fall into this trap, with Mado implied to want revenge for a dead family member and Touka wanting revenge for Hinami’s murdered mother. An excellent setup to explore cyclical violence!

Except… the mechanics of the Tokyo Ghoul universe make any peaceful solution impossible. If the humans “turn the other cheek” and ignore a transgression, they will become the passive victims of the ghoul’s predation. Similarly, if they settle some sort of compromise and accept payment for the blood debt, a ghoul will inevitably attack again when the hunger pains become too much to bear. There is no moral ambiguity here. This is a simple “do or die” situation. There is no forgiveness. There is no compromise. The humans either kill the offending ghoul or suffer the same loss next month when the ghoul needs to eat again.  For humanity as a collective entity, killing ghouls is not revenge. It is prudent self-defense. The allegory fails to support the theme.

The revenge theme works better on a character level than on a societal level. Though the whole of humanity cannot engage in revenge due to the contrivances of Tokyo Ghoul’s world, individuals absolutely can. Mado hints at past loss at the hands of a ghoul, resulting in his unusual sadism and zeal in his ghoul hunting duties. This leads him to kill Hinami’s mother, a relatively harmless ghoul that only threatened suicide victims. Touka feels incensed at Mado’s unjust street execution and murders some throwaway police mooks (poor mooks!). When she eventually gets revenge on Mado, the previously upstanding cop Amon becomes hardened in his resolve to eliminate ghouls in an effort to avenge his mentor. It’s a neat little narrative loop (repeated between the gangster Yamori, his police torturers, and the protagonist Kaneki) that works well enough with the individual characters. It is just unfortunate that Tokyo Ghoul as a whole cannot capture the theme on a larger scale.

However, I would like to push back on the character-driven themes a little as well. Glowing reviews of Tokyo Ghoul often praise the moral ambiguity of the characters. The argument typically suggests that because Tokyo Ghoul provides strong backstories to motivate revenge, the characters rise above the unnuanced mediocrity of a standard “mad cackle” anime antagonists. Except… they kind of are standard “mad cackle” anime antagonists. Tsukiyama especially is a clown of a villain whose dandy boy French gourmet routine would border on parody if Tokyo Ghoul didn’t take itself so damned seriously. Tsukiyama derives pleasure from watching his food suffer and even tenderizes his own meat by, you know, pounding it against the ground (ground meat, standard butcher shop stuff…). Coupled with the bizarre sexually-charged undertones of his activities, it almost became funny. I laughed out loud when he said (I paraphrase) “I’ll eat you while you eat her.” This is not nuanced or gritty, people! He’s just insane and evil!

Even the supposedly morally ambiguous antagonists Mado and Yamori don’t hold up to scrutiny. Though the revenge backstories can explain Mado and Yamori’s cruelty, they cannot excuse it. The characters are irredeemably evil unless you think sadism is a proper response to injustice. Mado doesn’t just do his duty to protect humanity as a cop; he relishes in the pain he causes and seeks to do more than the minimum harm. Yamori is obviously worse with his enjoyment of torture in his role as a gangster-terrorist. There is no moral ambiguity here — neither Yamori nor Mado inflict additional pain out of some moral calculation to protect a worthy cause. Instead, they cause unnecessary suffering simply to satisfy the sadistic impulses from their drive for revenge. That is not a sufficient justification. Mado could perform his street executions quickly and compassionately. Yamori could fight the ghoul-hunters to protect his friends without enjoying a little torture on the side. However, both choose not to. They are bad people.

Tokyo Ghoul’s nunanced villains also collapse when considering their physical depictions. The show repeatedly and unfairly associates physical disability with villainy. Mado and Yamori aren’t just evil: they are stereotyped as freakish, hideous monsters. Mado has a hunchback and a bulging eye like a dessicated corpse. Yamori is a hulking brute with an unnaturally broad forehead and offset eyes (from what I’ve seen, he’s even uglier in the manga). The absolute worst villain in this regard is the pit fighter Taro. He isn’t just impossibly large and ugly like Yamori, he literally has some sort of intellectual disability. By contrast, all the heroes in the show are either perfect, gorgeous specimens like Amon or Touka, or plain ordinary like Kaneki or Yoshimura. In Tokyo Ghoul, unattractiveness and disability mean evil.

Beyond disability, the series also has a weird habit of associating non-heterosexuality with villainy. This is most obvious with the brief appearance of an excessively stereotyped flamboyant gay man named Nico in Yamori’s entourage. The show then proceeds to suggest that Yamori has a homosexual relationship with Nico. But why include Nico in the show at all except to not-so-subtly hint at a connection between perceived sexual deviancy and criminal deviance? He has no further relevance to the plot and, like with disability, only seems to associate gayness with evil.

The other main ghoul villain, Tsukiyama, presents his own problems as another unfortunate “flamboyant gay man” stereotype. Though his sexuality is never revealed so clearly as Yamori and Nico, Tsukiyama essentially replaces Rize as Kaneki’s bookish “date.” Of course, Tsukiyama just wants to eat Kaneki (how is Kaneki so stupid to fall for the same trick twice?) but it isn’t hard to swap out food for sex in the allegory given all of Tsukiyama’s weird sexually charged comments towards Kaneki and Touka. At that point, Tsukiyama looks like a classic date rapist following a “gay predator” stereotype. As with the discrimination allegory, I won’t go so far as to accuse Tokyo Ghoul of homophobia because the intent is unclear, but the implication is still gross.

If Tokyo Ghoul repeatedly fails as an allegory and manages to undermine its own themes with its world- and character-building, is it at least an enjoyable watch? For me, absolutely not. As an action show, it barely manages escape shounen mediocrity by indulging in excessive violence. Worse, the narrative struggles to justify this violence because it fails to remain coherent across the show’s short 12 episode cour.

Many reviews of Tokyo Ghoul comment on the appropriateness of extreme violence in the setting. After all, Tokyo Ghoul establishes a bleak and dangerous world with strong themes related to cyclical violence. But I just don’t see it. Tokyo Ghoul is still superhero-esque cartoon violence, just of an unusually dark variety. Due to the ghoul’s durability and regenerative powers, the fights can become tedious to endure. When a villain repeatedly stomps a protagonist against the ground with probable bathtubs worth of blood splashing around only for the victim to get back up and fight again, it’s just silly. There is no gritty realism here to mirror the story’s pessimistic themes. As in any shounen show, the ganbatte ethos prevails.

Getting into the “bad adaptation” criticisms, the narrative pacing in Tokyo Ghoul is awful, especially after the mid-way point at the conclusion of the Tsukiyama villain arc. The show frequently jumps to new locations or plot threads with zero explanation. Without any forewarning, Touka suddenly appears with to save Kaneki three separate times in a mere twelve episodes. Each time, I laughed at my poor computer “Where the heck did she come from?” Similarly, the cops Amon and Mado frequently teleport to plot convenient locations around Tokyo with minimum investigation (despite being, you know, detectives? Two street executions aren’t exactly sleuthing…). For that matter, I could never figure out if they were solving a specific case or just trying to fill some kind of monthly district kill-quota. The grand, universe-level goal to kill ghouls is clear, but what specifically were they trying to do?

Several times, I paused the show and went back because I thought I had accidently skipped a scene or episode. Episode 10 stands out in this regard by starting with a sudden and random raid on a police station (was it a police station? I watched it twice and still don’t know). In the same episode, a new ghoul shows up at the Anteiku coffee shop to look for Rize… and then Touka’s brother shows up at Anteiku to fight Touka… and then Yamori shows up at Anteiku to kidnap Kaneki because… well, I have no idea why despite its critical importance to the series finale. It’s a mess as breathlessly arbitrary and repetitive as the previous sentence. The lack of sufficient worlding-building or foreshadowing left me constantly asking “why?” Why are ghouls attacking the police station? Why are ghouls attacking neutral Anteiku? What the heck is Aogiri Tree? Why why WHY do they want Kaneki? I should not need to read the source material to answer these questions. I need to know to understand the next episode!

Kaneki’s internal dialogues with Rize in the final two episodes are interesting enough but severely lack context. Who the hell is she? Throughout the first ten episodes, the show waffs about with worthless hints that amount to each character saying “I knew her, but I didn’t really know her, you know?” (Thanks for the information guys!). Then suddenly, she reappears to monologue about her personal philosophy of selfishness, despite the show offering no previous engagement with those ideas, and attempts to disprove Kaneki’s selfless philosophy, which again, had little previous establishment in earlier episodes. She somehow convinces Kaneki (his mother was an altruist, his mother beat him, ergo, altruism = bad), who then proceeds to have a Dragon Ball style super-saiyan power escalation to defeat Yamori. In the shounen twist of the century (sarcasm), his hair even turns white (whatever). I laughed out loud at the supposed climax. Oh, and why exactly was he being tortured again? Oh, I never knew in the first place. Shocking conclusion!

Tokyo Ghoul is an action shounen in all but name with a *wink-wink nod-nod* by image conscious publishers that insist they aren’t marketing something so graphic to children. The narrative is a mess, the themes fall apart with scrutiny, and the characters are cardboard cut-out archetypes. What is left to enjoy in Tokyo Ghoul? The gratuitous violence, I guess. One of my middle schoolers seems to like Kaneki as a sort of wish-fulfillment self-insert type (he tells me he has cosplayed the eyepatch before), but I suspect much of the appeal of the show simply comes down to the forbidden fruit that is late-night anime for overworked Japanese students that maybe have an hour or two of unsupervised free time a day (seriously, with mandatory school sports they are at school from around 7 to 7 Monday to Friday and practice at 8am on weekends too. Many even go to cram school after sports). The violence becomes like a badge of honor worn in a tiny rebellion against a rigid education system that doesn’t allow any greater misbehavior (the “bad boys” in my school don’t wear their uniform jackets in class. Mad lads indeed).

I suppose there is value in that, but Tokyo Ghoul isn’t for me. I can appreciate a solid shounen show from time to time and I can tolerate narrative or thematic failures if the show remains entertaining. Tokyo Ghoul deserves praise for at least trying to engage complex themes, but the whole thing just made me sad. I don’t enjoy multi-episode torture scenes and I don’t enjoy stereotyped depictions of disability and sexuality — especially when linking them to evil. I don’t enjoy long, repetitive fight scenes that indulge violence for its own sake (how many curbstomps is too many curbstomps? in real life, one. in fiction, two). Though some moments crept into funny-bad territory, like the Tsukiyama arc or Kaneki’s transformation conclusion, Tokyo Ghoul is never bad enough to celebrate as a masterpiece of failure like Mirai Nikki. I will tell my middle-school students I liked it to win some easy “cool teacher” points and because I am too cowardly to say otherwise. But, I will be lying, and nothing makes me sadder than lying to children.

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