Season Review: Tokyo Ghoul

Despite a lack of subtlety and some truly absurd story arcs, a well-developed core cast, a central question with no easy answer, and a riveting final episode make Tokyo Ghoul’s first season a worthwhile (albeit bumpy) ride.

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Very mild spoilers throughout. I can’t review without discussing overarching themes and touching on some character arcs and plot points, but I’ll avoid any specifics.

For those coming into this without any background knowledge, a quick synopsis: Tokyo Ghoul is an urban horror story set in an alternate Japan inhabited by both humans and ghouls: People who look human but have heightened physical abilities, a few supernatural powers (regeneration, specialized “predatory organs” called kagune), and – most importantly –  must eat human flesh to survive. After a near-death run-in with a ghoul, college student Kaneki Ken finds himself yanked into a complicated underworld of warring factions – both human and ghoul alike.

As the description suggests it’s a dark, often unsettling series, and while much of the violence is censored it’s still graphic enough that if blood and gore really isn’t your thing, then this won’t be the series for you.

In my Midseason Review I described TG as “wanting to have its cake and eat it too,” and this continues to sum up my overall feelings about the show. Episodes 4-6 were a truly frustrating stretch of ridiculous bad guys and over-the-top storylines. Much of it felt like brutality for brutality’s sake (as opposed to being for actual character/world/theme-building purposes, as I would argue the final episode was), and I was getting pretty sick of it. Happily, the next few episodes were more internally focused and therefore quite good, and even when things went balls-to-the-wall again I was at least invested enough that I could kind of enjoy it.

Every time TG focused on its characters and the psychological/social ramifications of its world, it knocked on the door of being a truly excellent series. If you can look past the gruesome violence and campy villains, there are a lot of difficult ideas and complicated relationships swirling through this show, and the central questions of the series – “What defines a ‘monster’?” followed closely by, “Can humans and ghouls coexist?” – run through all of its interactions, from Anteiku’s attempted pacifism to the hard-line stance of the Ghoul Investigators, and obviously through Ken’s own unique struggle to walk the line between the two worlds.

While I would have loved to see these ideas addressed with a little more understatement (Ken and Amon’s confrontation was about as subtle as a bite in the shoulder), they certainly made an impression, and the series season’s final episode was one of its finest: tense, disturbing, tragic, and beautifully executed. For the first time all season, I understood why this show is classified as a “horror” series – proof, I think, that the truly frightening elements of TG aren’t its manic antagonists (both human and ghoul), but the capacity for savagery lurking within even the kindest of its characters, as well as the growing sense that this violent cycle of vengeance truly can’t end until the various factions have destroyed each other.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Pierrot announced that Season 2 is slated for Winter 2015, so Ken and the Gang will be back with more gut-ripping (albeit censored) violence and moral ambiguity in a few months. I’d told a friend that I probably wouldn’t watch a second season if it happened, but the last episode was so well done that I’m on board for at least another Rule of Three. There really is so much potential here. Let’s see if Tokyo Ghoul can do something great with it.

Season Grade: B-

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