EATING THE COMPETITION
TOKYO GHOUL (15)
Director: Kentarô Hagiwara
Review: David Stephens
The number of imaginative genre-driven Manga franchises in Japan is positively insane. Whilst the average Western man-on-the street would struggle to name a popular example of it other than “Akira”, many horror fans are well-versed in the delights of classic titles like “Guyver” or more extreme examples like “Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend”. One such popular Manga series in Japan is “Tokyo Ghoul”, a dark fantasy about flesh-eating humanoids co-existing with people in an alternative world. It was originally a comic story that started in 2011, and continued into many sequels and ongoing spin-offs. Inevitably it inspired an anime TV series in 2014, with prequels and reboots continuing to this day. However, here we have a live-action interpretation of the story that was released in Japanese cinemas in July 2017. Directed and written by Kentarô Hagiwara, it was modestly budgeted but still managed to pick up a lot of attention in the international genre sites. Now the film is due to get a limited release in selected cinemas in the UK, so YGROY proves that we’re not too cool to ghoul and takes a look at a preview…
Set in an alternative reality, mankind is plagued by the presence of “Ghouls”, who are indistinguishable from the normal population but need human flesh to eat and survive, with “normal” food being literally poisonous to them. In the city of Tokyo, districts are separated into “Wards”, with constant news reports updating the inhabitants on any Ghoul attacks or defeats. Across Japan itself, the “Commission of Counter Ghoul” (CCG) ruthlessly hunts down and kills any of them that they identify. In this world Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota) is a nerdy and bookish student, who secretly harbours affection for the similarly literary-obsessed Rize Kamishiro (Yū Aoi). Thrilled to discover that she is attracted to him as well, they go on a date. But it all ends badly as Kaneki is attacked by a tentacle-throwing Ghoul and only survives due to some shoddy construction work. He recovers in hospital after some ill-advised surgery and some organ-replacement, which just happens to originate from a certain unclaimed body at the site of the incident. Worst medical organisation ever. Of course the donor was the Ghoul who attacked him, and Kaneki finds that one of his eyes has turned permanently red and “Ghoul”-ish. But much worse than that is the crippling hunger that can only be satiated with human flesh, as he becomes a hybrid of the two species. Torn between his survival instinct and squeamish morality, he falls in with a local benevolent clan of Ghouls called the "Anteiku", and discovers that the “monsters” have been mis-represented by the media. Meanwhile, the CCG is hunting down the surviving family of a recently executed Ghoul and look to kill them as well, bringing them into conflict with Kaneki and his new friends…
In a 2-hour film, “Tokyo Ghoul” manages to cram a lot of mythology and faithful representations of the Manga to the screen. It probably does suffer from simplification to some extent, and also falls foul of the issues that most “origin” films have. It’s a long road taken before Kaneki transforms from the wimpy student, and dons the familiar skull-mask from the anime and comics. But fans of the original sources won’t have too much to complain about…
The nice thing about the plot is that it takes time to include some of the themes that enrich the mythology in the Manga versions. Like any species or groups, there are “bad” Ghouls and Humans. One faction of the Ghouls only partake of flesh from undiscovered suicide victims, whilst there are unscrupulous individuals that actively hunt victims in self-appointed territories. Also, members of the CCG think nothing of executing children and “innocent” Ghouls, and in a nice reversal of European myths, it’s them who are shown to dig up graves for their own reasons.
The budget is a little less than some films of this type might own, and the constant CG effects don’t exactly convince in some sequences. But even so, the visual representation of the Ghouls is great fun and very striking. Mostly human, they turned convincingly red-eyed and bestial when transformed, and have unique predatory organs that sprout from their backs. Depending on the individual, this may be sharp tentacles, meaty-muscled “wings”, or feathery appendages that shoot spikes. There’s a great deal of satisfaction seeing Kaneki and other characters scamper around slashing and killing, like demented and bloody versions of Dr. Octopus from “Spider-Man 2”.
Whilst there are perhaps not as many battles as you might like, the final part of the film gives itself over to some cracking confrontations between the Ghouls and the CCG. Kaneki unleashes his potential in his familiar “Superhero”-like guise, and huge (and wonderfully ludicrous) “living” weapons are wielded with aplomb. It unavoidably resembles some sort of skirmish from a Hollywood comic-book film, but has an emotional edge and amount of gore that differentiates it from that genre. In fact, there’s quite of bit of the red-stuff in evidence throughout the film. Plates of eyeballs and innards are munched, shoulders are chewed on, and limbs and heads are cheerfully lopped off at regular intervals.
It’s not a mindless gore-fest though. Masataka Kubota does a good job as the protagonist, all twitchy and useless until he accepts his new role in life in the inevitable “training” montage”. His constant reluctance to binge on skin is nicely played, and there’s a brilliant moment where he goes full-Jack-Nicholson towards the end as his dual identity is put to the test. This plays into the musings of morality and revenge on both sides, as the CCG and the Ghouls both make questionable decisions. There’s also some pleasingly bizarre incidental details, like quality coffee quelling the Ghoul’s hunger (?!) and the flesh-eaters comically covering up their urge to vomit when eating “real” food so as to appear human.
There are plenty of issues that could be nit-picked. For a start, there’s the whole whoops-those-are-Ghoul-organs scenario, along with an odd day-instantly-becomes-night scene. But real-world logistics aren’t (and shouldn’t) be a cause for concern here. Fans of the source material may quibble that this is a version for beginners, and some elements may be lost. But speaking as “beginners” we found it pretty darned enjoyable, and there are plenty of genre fans that will enjoy this offbeat mixture of martial arts, unfeasibly massive clubs, living-swords, cannibalism, and soul-searching. It’s effortlessly enjoyable Manga nonsense and worth keeping an eye out for whether you’re a fan of Japanese anime or not. Ghouls rule.