“Notwithstanding the failure to turn Kaneki’s coming-to-terms into the moving experience it needs to be (…). [The narrative] is still one of the better high-budget live-action adaptations to appear in recent years.”
It has become a logical sequence nowadays in Japan, a good selling manga gets serialized, a successful serialization is then turned into an anime – sometimes it receives some light-novels as well, and, if a movie studio sees potential to earn money with it, a live-action movie is made (General-note 1).
Tokyo Ghoul, the Japanese dark fantasy manga series drawn and written by Sui Ishida, followed the same sequence and was ultimately turned into a live-action adaptation. This created an opportunity for Kentaro Hagiwara, as this is his first feature, to prove his worth as a director.
To celebrate Shueisha’s January reveal that Tokyo Ghoul and its sequel series Tokyo Ghoul:re attained a combined 34 million copies in print worldwide, we present our review of Hagiwara’s cinematographical rendition of the first three tankobons and decide if its better than most live-action adaptations that were released in recent years.
In Tokyo, creatures, called Ghouls, are living among humans. As they hunt humans for food, they form a lurking threat to human life. To safeguard human beings, the government-formed Commission of Counter Ghoul (CCG) hunts and exterminates as many Ghouls as possible. Alas, they continue to exist in the shadows of the vast city.
One day, Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), a normal university student, finds the courage to ask Rize Kamishiro (Yu Aoi), the girl he is in love with, on a date. To his surprise, she accepts. When things starts getting romantic, Rize suddenly bites Kaneki, revealing herself as a ghoul. Luckily, Kaneki survives this encounter by undergoing surgery, but is forced to accept the fact that he has become a half-ghoul (general-note 2).
The best way to describe the narrative of Tokyo Ghoul is to consider it as a coming-of-age narrative, or more correctly put, a coming-into-being narrative. After becoming a half-ghoul, Kaneki’s first trail concerns accepting his reality as half-ghoul, e.g. that human flesh is now his diet. As is shown in the narrative, this path of acceptation is synonym for realizing a subjective position as a half-ghoul as such. Luckily, as is common with these kind of narratives, he is accepted within a small symbolic network, i.e. the neighborhood cafe Anteiku, and finds a mentor in its manager Yoshimura (Kunio Murai) and a trainer in co-worker Touka (Fumika Shimizu); both helping him gain orientation within this new society.
And while the manga, by way of its inclusion of internal dialogue, is able to explore Kaneki’s internal struggle with his transformation more deeply, the choice to omit this internal dialogue and, instead, to express it non-verbally, helps evoking this struggle, while allowing the narrative to retain its pace and to explore some of the relationships within this small symbolic network. Furthermore, by giving us a look at the inner-workings of the CCG, a morally ambiguous contrast between both parts of society is evoked. And while the aforementioned all the elements to become outstanding, the narrative treats Kaneki’s coming-to-terms with his ghoul-nature too superficially, unable to turn this pivotal change into a moving experience.
Kentarō Hagiwara’s visualization of Tokyo Ghoul is exciting and visually engaging (cine-note 1). While the cinematography mixes fixed and moving shots like any other narrative, Kentarō Hagiwara’s blend is highly effective in evoking an array of emotions and framing the horror-action in an exciting and, often slightly, disturbing way. His subtle shifts from (often subjective) shaky shots, as a cinematographical way to express Kaneki’s emotions, to steady shots that often fixate on facial expressions, are successful in establishing a path of identification (between the spectator and Kaneki) and enforcing, when necessary, the tension in the narrative (Cine-note 2, cine-note 3).
Eventually Hagiwara diminishes his use of shaky shots, but his compositions of action-scenes remain as exciting as before. The tension present in these scenes is supported by Hagiwara’s successful toying with cinematographical distance and by an attentive and rather subtle interweaving of looming sounds and suspenseful music with the presented imagery. Furthermore, the mix of sounds and music is instrumental in evoking Kaneki’s mental state and underlining his rather abrupt coming-to-terms with his condition (Narra-note 1).
Tokyo Ghoul is a very visually appealing narrative that is highly effective in evoking an array of emotions – supported by fitting acting performances – and framing the horror-action – which relies on decent CGI – in an exciting way. All the important moments of the first three Tankobons, Kaneki’s struggle and the morally ambiguous intersection of both society in particular, are well presented. Notwithstanding the failure to turn Kaneki’s coming-to-terms into the moving experience it needs to be – failing to empower the impact of the finale, Tokyo Ghoul is still one of the better high-budget live-action adaptations to appear in recent years and a perfect introduction for newcomers.
General-note 1: Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.
General-note 2: As the movie does not always explain the ghoul-terminology, we do want to give two short definitions. ‘Kagune’ is a special predatory organ that can manifest itself and be used as a weapon during battle. ‘Kakugan’ refers to the color of eyes. when Ghouls are excited or hungry the sclera in their eyes turn black and their irises red.
Cine-Note 1: To create a visually engaging narrative, Hagiwara uses a diverse palette of techniques, e.g. extreme close-ups. close-ups, pov shots, slow zoom-ins and zoom-outs. The use of zoom-in and zoom-outs prove once again that, if they are used thoughtfully, they are an added value to the cinematography.
Cine-note 1: When shaky shots are used, they always aim to express Kaneki’s subjective position.
Cine-note 3: Besides cinematographical fixating on expressions and setting the stage for moments of surprise, fixed shots and concatenations of those shots – as moments of pause – are often used to frame those moments where characters are “fixed” themselves, e.g. when Kaneki and Rize having their restaurant date. Nevertheless, exceptions are present.
Narra-note 1: Despite Kaneki’s coming-to-terms with his condition, one important subjective fear remains. As made apparent in the end, Kaneki remains afraid to lose control over his humanity and succumb, albeit temporarily, to his ghoul-nature. At a deeper level, one could argue that, even though he comes to terms with certain aspects of his ghoul-nature, a moral problem between his human side and ghoul side does persist.