I feel a kind of critical dissonance trying to talk about Tokyo Ghoul at any length. On one hand, the show offers a complex reconsideration of the inherent queerness of vampirism in fiction, wrapping its neo-gothic aesthetic around a conflicted coming-out narrative that foregrounds the fundamental physicality of queer transgression. On the other, it’s an anime that struggles to incorporate the density of its source manga, often disappearing into the labyrinthine intricacies of its over-stuffed mythology.
Of course, these two qualities can comfortably coexist; narrative fiction is littered with examples of underwhelming stories elevated by the vitality of their subtext. But the disparity between Tokyo Ghoul’s two halves resists any kind of coherent critical reading that would allow me to champion said subtext: hence the dissonance. The show’s text seems to quash and, at times, actively resist its underlying messages. Two seasons in, I’m entirely unsure whether I’m over-analysing the series’ themes or if those themes are merely obscured by the unwieldiness of the show’s sprawling storyline.
In an attempt to unpack that dissonance, let’s start with the first season, which is simultaneously better and more interesting than its successor. Tokyo Ghoul’s protagonist is one Ken Kaneki (Natsuki Hanae/Austin Tindle), an unassuming college student who’s just looking for a girlfriend. He snags a date with the beautiful young Rize Kamishiro (Kana Hanazawa/Monica Rial), who shares Kaneki’s quiet love for literature while also planning to kill him and eat him. Those plans are cut short by an accident on a construction site that injures both ghoul – Rize – and man – Kaneki. After some emergency surgery, Kaneki emerges with half of Rize’s organs, as a half-ghoul/half-human hybrid.
Shades of Blade here, and countless other vampire stories. The ghouls of Tokyo Ghoul aren’t particularly far removed from vampires, and they’re not intended to be. Vampiric shapeshifting is reimagined as an ‘organ’ called “Kagune” which ghouls use as fearsome weapons. Blood-sucking gives way to straight-up devouring, with ghouls feasting on their human prey. But the core of vampirism – its transgressive sexuality – is retained and granted resonance by Tokyo Ghoul’s emphasis on such visceral physicality.
Vampires have always fallen somewhere on the continuum of queerness (ranging from Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula to David Bowie in 1983’s The Hunger). Even Twilight’s attempts to subsume this aura into Christian abstinence relies on the threat of transgressive Transylvanians. But that queerness is typically overlaid with a veil of elegant respectability; Count Dracula doesn’t want to fuck Van Hellsing, he just wants to suck his blood, after all! Tokyo Ghoul radicalises vampirism by tossing that veil off with a flourish, abandoning the euphemism of blood-sucking for bone-cracking evisceration.
Ghouls, at least initially, are portrayed from a human perspective that renders them utterly terrifying, not simply for their ability to kill but for their ability to maim and rend their victims. As the series continues, however, these portrayals soften into something more complex. Ghouls initially seen as selfish savages reveal their own doubts and weaknesses, and the audience and Kaneki alike come to understand that ghouls, for all the violence associated with their lifestyle, are not inherently villainous.
These two ideas – ghouls as vampires stripping of elegance, and ghouls as outlaws from society worthy of sympathy – offer a radical portrait of queerness. Growing up, I can recall fear of queer individuals was rooted in the physical; evocations of anal sex, or discussions of sex-reassignment surgery that held a sense of wrongness to my infant ears. While public discourse towards queerness has somewhat softened in the intervening decades, that’s gone hand-in-hand with platitudes replacing physicality. Leather and assless chaps out, #LoveIsLove in. (Laurence Barber elaborates on this idea here.) Tokyo Ghoul – implicitly, subtextually – rejects that paradigm by offering a portrait of queerness that is at once confronting and utterly natural, with Kaneki learning over the course of the first season to accept ghouls in his own community and, ultimately, his own incipient ghoul qualities.
But while Tokyo Ghoul’s emphasis on the physicality of queerness lends Kaneki’s “coming out” more nuance than you’d expect from a comparatively big-budget anime, it’s not without its fair share of problematic stuff. For starters, there’s the character of Shuu Tsukiyama (Mamoru Miyano/J Michael Tatum), an effeminate, French-speaking dandy who befriends and then attempts to eat Kaneki. While he fails (obviously), he still regards Kaneki with a predatory eye that endures even after he becomes a ‘good guy’ late in the first season. Tsukiyama’s flamboyant fashion sense isn’t necessarily a problem, but the creepy way he grooms and stalks the (much younger) Kaneki whiffs of homophobia.
This goes without mentioning the plethora of issues that go with aligning queer physicality with, y’know, eating people. Most of these issues are an exaggerated take on the issues associated with any vampire film – consent, violence, rape – but just because they’re rehashed issues doesn’t mean they’re not issues. That’s especially apparent in the culmination of Kaneki’s first season arc, where his coming-out as a full-fledged ghoul is only enabled by an extended torture session (by a torturer who was himself subjected to brutal punishment in his youth). To connect sex and violence is understandable; sex and abuse is, I suspect, a bridge too far.
But then again, it’s entirely plausible that this overarching reading isn’t at all intentional. That’s my first thought upon completing Tokyo Ghoul’s second season, which backgrounds Kaneki’s arc so thoroughly you’d be forgiven for forgetting about his character halfway through the season. Aesthetically, season two certainly fits the post-coming-out vibe, amping up the black-and-red teen goth vibe like someone hitting up their first gay bar. But the story proper relegates Kaneki to the margins – with a new funky white haircut and a hunger for human flesh – only allowing him to return to the fold when his ghoulish hunger has been somewhat sated.
It feels like somewhat of a cop-out, subtext or no. The second season instead largely focuses on the backstory of Anteiku – the ghoul-friendly hideout/café that protected Kaneki in the first season – and the CCG (Commission of Counter Ghoul) investigators trying to hunt down rogue “predatory” ghouls. The investigation stuff was the weakest link of the first season, and while it’s a little better here it still feels like a distraction. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast quickly balloons out to dozen of characters given insufficient time to foster the kind of depth of character promised early in season one (a casualty, I suspect, of trying to incorporate as much as possible from the manga).
There are other canonical queer characters (depending on your definition of queer); while the manga’s trans character has yet to join the anime fold, investigator Juuzou Suzuya would seem like a perfect opportunity to interrogate the themes established in season one. A mischievous young man with a predilection for ostentatious self-harm (he stitches his arms with brightly coloured thread), his backstory in the manga involves abuse, murder and persistent misgendering. This fertile soil is largely left untilled, though, outside of an ominous (and unexplained) flashback.
Tokyo Ghoul remains somewhat of a closed book to me. Are the complex yet ambiguous queer themes introduced in its first season deliberate, or accidental? Was there a conscious shift to move away from these ideas in the second season, or was this simply a casualty of an emphasis on beautifully-animated action sequences? I’m hoping a third season will resolve these questions with a deeper interrogation of the ideas lurking beneath this show’s surface, because, as is, this really feels like something great overburdened by over-faithfulness to the source material.