Two weeks ago, I picked up a show called Penny Dreadful which aired on Showtime. Featuring a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but replacing that League with an American sharpshooter, a woman possessed by demons, a cruel hearted adventurer (who could potentially join List of Worst Dads in Media alongside Gendo and Myoe), Dr. Frankenstein, and Dorian Gray, the show delved deep into the types of horror I enjoy: physical, supernatural, and psychological. There is all sorts of weird and crazy stuff: multiple possessions, The Grudge groans, werewolf tales, terrible tarot fortunetelling, vampire hunts, sex with women with sicknesses…you name it, and the show probably has it.
Penny Dreadful is not a subtle series – there’s a lot of sex, naked bodies, gore, and terrifying atmosphere. But underneath the persistent grimness is a sort of campy feeling – a feeling well earned by the title itself. The darkness and attempt to remain terrifying is so extreme its almost endearing, ridiculous, and funny, but in a good and honest way. It’s the same feeling I see lurking behind Tokyo Ghoul, which is a manga I’ve read and have looked forward to regarding its adaptation – a first episode that has not disappointed me, for the exact reason that it may have disappointed others.
The first episode of Tokyo Ghoul is a war between beautiful, vibrant animation and mediocre storytelling. We’re caught between admiring the tasteful dramatics of ghoul action and the sad story of a shonen protagonist undergoing horrific physical and mental changes. The link between these two paths however, is one single action.
Ken Kaneki eats. A lot of the episode focuses on him chomping away at some kind of food, whether it be a cheeseburger, or steak, or fries…..or human meat.
As the story progresses, Kaneki finds that the things he’s come to love the most are things he can’t stand to eat, due to the fact that he’s become a half ghoul. He tries gulping down his favorite burger only to find that he has to vomit it back out. A lot of these scenes are drenched in dramatics – Kaneki convulses, throws a fit, and sluggishly walks around Tokyo crowds, lamenting at the fact that he’s slowly changing into something he can’t recognize. It is only after Kaneki realizes what he’s become that he’s forced to turn to cannibalism, and the entire event is rather terrifying and pitiable!
Or so we think. The fact is that throughout this episode, I was half laughing, not because Kaneki is a terrible character – on the contrary, I enjoy his role as a protagonist very much, but simply because there is horror meshed with such overt theatrics that it’s funny. But I’m truly enjoying it. And it seems like Tokyo Ghoul is too, based on how much it stylizes and self indulges in these scenes.
Anime, in most form, is over dramatization. I don’t necessarily mean this as a bad thing – ridiculousness is a term that we’ve associated with lack of class or controlled technique. Anime however, proves that this connotation can be incorrect. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is in all forms, ridiculous. But it is also fascinating, enjoyable, and fully aware of how ridiculous it is and uses it to its advantage. To be dramatic is to be expressive, and while that may come with a camp feel, it makes the show all the more enjoyable. Camp is something that can be coincidental – in the case of shows like Psycho Pass for me, which can be entertaining but also disconcerting at the same time, since it relies on my perception for what ‘camp’ is. After all, “I’m” the one that finds it funny, but the show doesn’t seem to think so itself! And so we have my interpretation, isolated by my own views, and that sense of disconnect isn’t as enjoyable.
On the other hand, camp with an intent is much more fun and easy to digest (pun intended). Penny Dreadful has a sincere respect for its source material – a quality that is found in every delectable gore and sex-ridden scene that it tastefully shows, and that is what I find lovable about it. It chooses to be that kind of show that is self aware of how ridiculous it’s going to get. But it also takes its ideas seriously, without an ounce of pretension. Much in the same way, Tokyo Ghoul for me not only respects the idea of ghouls (enough that, y’know, it’s no Valverave – we have ghouls wreaking havoc across Japan! Chomping on some good ol’ flesh! Black eyes at the screen!) but parallels that respect with the enthusiasm it has in drowning itself in gloom and doom. The end result? It’s having fun with itself. Tokyo Ghoul is a penny dreadful at heart. And that’s why it’s pretty damn great.
Okay, so Tokyo Ghoul is ridiculous campy horror. What does this have to do with eating? Throughout the episode, Kaneki eats things he wants to and doesn’t want to. I find this similar to how a lot of people consume pulp horror and as a result, how some people are reacting to the show. Horror, as a genre, is fascinating already – as a playground for topics we tend to avoid as a general audience, and touching upon taboos and forbidden topics that we dare not mention. Serious horror takes a look at these things and plays upon our most intimate, natural fears. B horror? Not so much, and as a result, we perceive it as something disgusting and repulsive, unintelligible, and frankly, uninspired. And it’s true! B horror is all of these things. But it also tends to be judiciously self aware – a quality that is rare in most serious horror I’ve been exposed to. Tokyo Ghoul seems to have some inkling of self awareness, and it’s something I enjoy the hell out of consuming, be it ‘bad’ or ‘good’ meat.
Here is the thing. At the end of the day, we can eat whatever we want. As human beings (or as half ghouls) we have the choice to differentiate food for necessity an food for enjoyment. But as consumers we must know what we’re eating, learn that it’s okay to eat it, and understand why we’re eating it. The food itself may be good or bad, and we’re often very caught up in defending or convincing ourselves that food is “good” and “bad” and what’s necessary for us to eat and whatnot, but that’s not quite the point, is it? You eat what you eat to survive and enjoy. And that’s frankly, enough.
You are after all, what you eat.