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TOKYO GHOUL Brings the Dark Fantasy Manga to Red-Eyed Life (Fantasia Review)

Think about the worst first date you ever had. Did she take you to see her crummy boyfriend’s band? Did he pull out one of your hairs and start flossing with it? Did she take a bite out of your shoulder, lick blood off your face, and leave you forever changed into a horrible half-beast that can’t stand the taste of your favorite food?

If not, your track record is slightly better than the poor sap at the center of Tokyo Ghoul, the first live-action adaptation of the popular manga from Ishida Sui. That sap is Kaneki Ken (Kubota Masataka), who just barely lives after an attack by a first date who turns out to be a ghoul, then gets the ghoul’s organs transplanted into him. It saves his life, but changes him into a hybrid of the vampire-like monster and a human. The bad news is that he’ll never want to eat spaghetti bolognese again. The good news is that he’s gained super strength and fleshy tentacles (“kagune”) that emerge from his back to give him a Doc Ock vibe when he fights.

Tokyo Ghoul Cafe

And he’ll have to fight, because humans are out to wipe out the ghouls. The Commission of Counter Ghoul hunts them down without mercy. Fortunately, Kaneki falls in with a benevolent group of ghouls at the Anteiku cafe that give him human meat from suicide victims and help him with his transition.

The classic Anne Rice beats are all there. The change, the moral conflict of becoming a killer, the new abilities, the new family, and the new enemies. There are major differences, of course, starting with the slight alterations to the human-eating monsters. Ghouls can hang out in the daylight and drink coffee, which is one of those arbitrary rules that the film drops in your lap without worrying much about it. That’s an invitation to go with the flow of it all, which works for the most part. The only time it really breaks down is in the many, many fight scenes where the physics of what the ghouls can do to each other (and to humans) fluctuates with frustrating inconsistency.

Hagiwara Kentarô’s film is harmlessly mainstream. The standardized transition from gawky dweeb to gawky dweeb who can choke you with his back tentacles hums along with Twilight‘s broad appeal, a smiling version of Resident Evil‘s gore, and the best CGI of 2001. In the early scene where Kanecki gets turned, his crush giggles with innocent glee as she straddles him to lick the blood from his face. Tokyo Ghoul uses that as a tonal home base, unafraid to pour out buckets of the red stuff alongside a feeling of joyful discomfort. A handful of puns slip through the movie’s grin (“My professor will chew me out!”), and there’s an excellent scene where a young ghoul in mourning shoves away a plate of eyeballs and greasy arm meat, too sad to be hungry.

Tokyo Ghoul RAin

It also does a stellar job of placing us in Kaneki’s POV as he changes, using camerawork and sound design to turn a steak dinner into something horrifying and grotesque. It wants us to lose our appetite for human food, too, and it succeeds.

Unfortunately, Kubota doesn’t inspire much interest with his performance. The everyman role is always a challenge, especially surrounded by mythical beings in a longstanding war, but it’s a challenge he’s not up for even after he earns his fleshy wings. The script isn’t any help, either, offering him three possible settings: awkward gawkiness, awkward new-hunger freak out, and awkward badass.

Shimizu Fumika, who plays the sullen young ghoul Toka, picks up a lot of the slack while dropping sarcastic shade on everyone around her, and Murai Kunio serves well as the wizened elder statesman Yoshimura, who owns the cafe. But the caffeine injection comes from Ôizumi Yô, who plays the definitely insane, gray-haired ghoul-hunter who eats donuts while wearing gloves and wields secret weapons which put him almost on par with the beasts his trying to eradicate.

Tokyo Ghoul Police

Tokyo Ghoul worries the same concerns organic to many vampire stories. The mixed status as both predator and prey. The anguish of feeling like a murderer at every meal. The ghouls are essentially vegans who hate that they eat flank steak all the time. It creates both an internal struggle for all the ghoul characters, and a fascinating social situation that effectively means that, if you suspect your best friend of being a ghoul, you should drop by randomly with teriyaki chicken. Some ghouls try to mask their intense disgust for human food in order to survive this obvious marker of their otherness, which means the price of strength and speed and super powers is a kind of eating disorder.

There are goofy parts to Tokyo Ghoul, and there are elements clearly from the manga which aren’t explained at all (they get masks, maybe solely because they look cool?), but the film is largely understandable for non-readers. After all, it’s launching off a myth we all easily recognize, even with its freaky masks on.

2.5 out of 5 human cheek burritos


Images: Schochiku

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