In the original Arabic folklore a ghoul was a shape shifting monstrosity which feasted on human corpses, and would use that shape shifting ability to lure humans to their deaths in order to feed on their remains. Completely different from a wendigo, which is when a human engages in the ultimate taboo of cannibalism and becomes a monster, as a ghoul was never human to begin with. Tokyo Ghoul takes a little creative license by making its ghouls more distinctly human in features, but still a whole other species. Though vague on exactly how long, humanity had been well aware of the existence of ghouls to the point they even have laws and agencies to deal with the man eaters who emerge from anonymity to make mischief. This story is about those lines between humans and ghouls blurring through a very peculiar set of circumstances.
Our hero in this tale is one Ken Kaneki, a reclusive college student more interested in burying his nose in a good book than the possibility his nose might be the only thing left to bury if he was jumped by a man eating monster. Not sure if there’s a name for this convention yet, but it seems like whenever a first episode has the main character go on a date the encounter is doomed to not end well. As a consequence of his brush with death, Kaneki learns that he has become less human and more ghoul, with the horrible appetite which accompanies that nature. Desperate to not cross a line from which there is no return, Kaneki delves deep into a world that till then was out of sight and out of mind.
Given the set up, Tokyo Ghoul has plenty of directions it could go in. There could be straight horror, ham-fisted social commentary, the psychological terror of an egodystonic compulsion, or perversely comic gross out humor in the vein of Blood Feast and its sequels. After a whole lot of sitting around and talking about how the world works what we get is more like an R-rated version of X-Men. Not a bad thing in itself if there was greater variety in the powers ghouls wielded. There was a club in which the more deranged ghouls engaged in rituals for preparing and eating unusual specimens, but that subject was never touched on again after the main character spent most of his time running away from a dude who looked like he fit better in Berserk.
Then there were elements which stunk of a typical shonen action manga, such as enemies becoming part of the team. In one case it was justified because one character who otherwise would have been little more than a plot device gained some layers and a story with some decent suspense. In another, partly justified because it reinforces a moral grey area where one might have to put up with a completely repulsive person for the sake of survival. At least it doesn’t appear the series will devolve into the power of friendship saving the say without consequences, but it’s a little annoying for the first season to end with very little resolved besides the main character to make a difference.
Back in the day, there probably would have been enthusiasts of anime who decree such an ending was the unconventional nature of Japanese storytelling when really it was because the manga was still ongoing. These days, a full twenty five-ish series almost never happens so twelve to thirteen episodes come out and the response is gauged to see if making more is worth the costs. Maybe the second season uses everything set up to great effect, but Tokyo Ghoul reminds me of the premium channel shows which constantly build up to something yet never amounts to the climax we were anticipating. While it’s not all bad and has some interesting parts, the anime isn’t highly recommended. Wait for it to come on Netflix or borrow the discs from a friend.