By Ishida Sui
This series is one of my absolute favorites, so this review is more than a little biased, but I’m a sucker for deep-plot horror with body horror and good character development.
And boy does Tokyo Ghoul deliver on all these points. It is a long game manga, so the action and web of character relationships builds up slowly, becoming more tangled as more plot is revealed to the reader or to the characters.
Ishida Sui presents a unique vision of a world where supernatural creatures openly – for a given understanding of the word – exist alongside humanity. The conflict between humans and ghouls rose out of a single detail – ghouls can only consume human flesh… and coffee.
The human side of the equation is presented as it exists in reality, with human prejudices, hypocrisy, and penchant toward patriarchal systems, while ghoul culture is the antithesis to humanity. The most powerful ghouls are female, with only a few ghoul organizations headed by a male, compared to the prevalent female lead ghoul gangs that exist in this version of Tokyo. Female characters are given agency as both characters and leaders or warriors alongside their male friends and enemies.
This series is also heavily literary. Kofka and Murakami are both influences, and various classic works of literature are referenced or can be found in the plot. The manga is also self referential – hints that are dropped chapters before they become relevant occur often, and the content of same numbered chapters between the first series and the sequal often deal with the same themes or actions. Dramatic panels that perfectly mimic a previous, closely related scene set the stage for internal symbolism.
There is a lot of visual information given in the panels and pages, but the best and most important aspect of this feature is that it is not integral to the understanding of the story as it is. Though literature majors such as myself (and the protagonist) get a lot of pleasure in finding such symbols and literary references, there is no required reading list for enjoying Tokyo Ghoul. The plot holds itself up just fine, even without closely examining every pillar that it’s built on.
Speaking of things in the series, there is a lot of gore. Not as much as one would expect from a series mostly populated by cannibals, but enough that individual wounds almost appear realistic, given the circumstances. Interestingly, there is no sexual violence – really there’s no sex at all. Cannibalism in literary series is usually a sexual metaphor, if not more, but this is another thing that highlights the differences between humans and ghouls: consumption as power rather than sex.
Tokyo Ghoul is a unqiue horror series that is completely aware of the common stereotypes and tropes that go along with its themes and cleverly subverts them without being heavy handed. Memorable characters and dynamic relationships compliment the steadily growing plot and its complicated web of organizations, individuals, and ethics.
The first series, Tokyo Ghoul, is complete, while the sequel, TG :RE, is still ongoing. The first chapter was redone several years later and is worth the re-read, as are the original manga pilot chapter and the side stories and extra comics, as well as the art that the author posts on Twitter. The TV anime is pretty bad, but the live action previews for the movie are quality.