Based on Sui Ishida’s acclaimed manga series of the same name, Tokyo Ghoul tells the story of Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), a stereotypically nerdy and weak young man who, after a date-gone-wrong, gets turned into a ‘Ghoul’. Ghouls resemble humans exactly, but cannot live off a human diet, and must eat other humans or ghouls to survive.
Thus begins one of the film’s central conflicts: how Kaneki can survive in his new state without succumbing to ghoul behaviour. Kaneki’s state of mind is well-portrayed by Kubota who has a fantastic grasp of all the emotions the newly-converted ghoul is going through.
Luckily Kaneki is helped along the way by a group of ‘friendly’ ghouls called Anteiku, who try to satiate their hunger in more peaceful ways, like only eating humans who have committed suicide. Anteiku also shields ghouls from the Commission of Counter Ghoul (CCG), a government agency tasked with searching for and neutralising the species. The juxtaposition between the two factions asks an important moral question of the audience: just who are the good guys here?
And when the CCG start chasing a young female ghoul after brutally murdering her mother in front of her eyes, Kaneki and his female companion/love interest Tōuka Kirishima (Fumika Shimizu) decide to take action.
Unfortunately the drama here is impacted by two things: firstly Shimizu’s performance is not up to the standard of Kubota’s as Kaneki. Far from his wide range of emotions, she remains decidedly one dimensional throughout. And one dimensional is the perfect word to describe the primary antagonist of the film, Kureo Mado. Resembling a sort of hybrid between Light Yagami and L from Death Note, Mado delves into ‘crazed and merciless government official’ territory too often, and his hammy performance never seems threatening. Ditto with his CCG partner Kōtarō Amon who, despite being more emotionally complex, is even less of a challenge for our heroes.
A reason for this is the ghoul’s use of Kagune, organic weapons unique to each ghoul. These are incredible powerful offensive tools, and while the CCG have their own counter for these, once Kaneki and Tōuka get going there’s really no doubt of the outcome.
The Kagune themselves were an anticipated part of the film, fans were excited to see how they would be translated to live action, and the results are mixed. While it is undoubtedly awesome to see these powers in a real-world setting, they often seem a little off in action: the camera work speeds up or slows down too much and they don’t look natural to the eyes. Credit to the animators for the designs though, when the action stops and the Kagune can be appreciated they look great.
The cinematography on the whole in the film is impressive. Camera operators know just how to manipulate the viewer’s emotions, making us feel Kaneki’s claustrophobic loneliness by trapping the narrative in his dark, cramped flat, and providing a sigh of relief when Kaneki is welcomed into Anteiku’s warm and spacious coffee shop. These are simple shot techniques that nonetheless work well in a film that shifts its tone frequently. This also extends to the camera work with characters, especially Kaneki who we see in numerous close ups to resonate his changing emotional state.
Music in the film was composed by Don Davis of The Matrix fame, whose moody and subdued score only really gets going in the final act of the film. Fortunately the sound design stands up much better under scrutiny: Kagune powers sound just as visceral and dynamic as you’d expect, and well-placed environmental cues are chosen to help build tension.
While it doesn’t break any ground in the Japanese horror landscape, Tokyo Ghoul is a very worthy two hours of your time, providing enough gore, action, and surprising emotion for manga fans and newcomers alike.
VERDICT: Kentarō Hagiwara’s Tokyo Ghoul is sure to please viewers. Fans of the manga will find reverence and respect for the source material in the film, while new viewers can appreciate the unique tone and dilemma of Kaneki’s journey. Special effects and certain characters can be hammy, and the film lies in a confusing mix of genres, but it is very hard to go into this and not have a good time. Just make sure you can handle all the blood that will be thrown at you!