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.

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