It’s interesting how Tokyo Ghoul seems to be all about consumption, and yet there’s none of it in the beautiful and vividly striking opening. Instead, we have a lot of interesting CG and identity issue going on. Kaneki sits in a chair in the midst of a clear blue sky, but when we return to him at the end of the opening, he’s completely changed as a result of his identity spiraling out of control. Part of this has to do with ghoul and human conflict – a conflict that ties right into the heart of the second episode, where Kaneki is forced to not only fight for his friend’s life and his own, but is also forced to fight against his primal desires to eat his best friend.
But why a ghoul? Why not choose a vampire, or zombie? What distinguishes a transformation into a ghoul than either of these things? Vampires (other than being overused in teenager fantasy stories) are creatures that thrive on blood, not meat, which may suggest a lesser blatant connotation to sexual and carnal pleasure. Zombies are reanimated corpses that lack any intelligence, humanity, and are driven by impulse alone. Ghouls, on the other hand, are creatures who have some degree of human intelligence to the point where they can somewhat control their abilities and are able to differentiate between primal instinct and selfish desires. As H.P Lovecraft describes, “These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree.” They live in the dark and avoid the light; zombies can live in both. In other words, a ghoul is more focused on the idea of transformation, whereas a zombie is the result. This is fitting for the protagonist’s arc, which is a battle between life and death, normality and abnormality, eat and being eaten, and self versus non self. A ghoul can contain all of these dualities into one neat, carnivorous package, and the second and third episode do exactly that, when Kaneki not only continues to avoid his new natural diet, but also attempts to blend into his daily life.
The second episode of Tokyo Ghoul specifically focuses on the former: inner conflict of lust versus self composure. When Touka forces Kaneki to eat human meat, he spits it right back, calling her a “monster.” In return, she asks: “What was it like to eat cake? Or to live without being in constant fear of other ghouls and the CCG?” While this is a glimpse into the hellish world of what it’s like to be a ghoul, it also points out a clear message that being a ghoul isn’t just about being a monster. It’s about controlling that monstrous impulse to consume others, in a world solely based on kill-or-be-killed. Touka’s attitude and nature is in response to this kind of primitive state of society that is shunned away from the world, hidden in shadows, and it is that world that Kaneki has now entered, but not fully become a citizen of.
A lot of this episode takes a look at both sides. The world of ghouls, usually steeped in depraved and lustful desire, is symbolized through the recurring misogynic and sexual motifs. Nishimiya for instance, compares Kaneki’s delicious scent to that of a woman; he craves appetite so much that it is sexual, as shown by his makeout with one of the school students; his kagune creeps out of his pelvis and curls down his leg like a phallus. Kagune seem to be very flesh-like, a mixture between tentacles and actual organs. For a ghoul, the monster isn’t about the continuous desire to feed on human flesh, but rather, the fear of being consumed by your own hunger or being eaten by others. This is represented by Kaneki’s “inner ghoul” which takes the form of none other than Rize, the woman who preyed on Kaneki, and now enables him to prey on others. Kaneki’s hallucinations of Rize are always terrifying and dazzling – she is the Id that he struggles to contain after all.
Humans on the other hand, represent a nearly subconscious self restraint. For Hide, eating is both a pleasure and a necessity, but society dictates that he has the control and freedom to choose which is which and when he can indulge and when he cannot. They are portrayed as the ones who contain the super-ego and ego, easily balancing their lives and living without consequence in regards to what they consume. However, humans too have their own Id – as shown by the CCG Doves, who give into their more hideous impulses due to their self righteous beliefs of killing ghouls. With this in mind, we could ask ourselves – well, aren’t ghouls the same as humans, but with a different and limited set of food choices?
Episode 3 ties this difficult question back to the idea of masks and identity. If one’s perception of a ‘ghoul’ is just their primal state of being, and if that side is less restrained than it is in humans, then ghouls must try harder to wear a mask and hide themselves to balance themselves and blend in with society. Touka plays her role of a high schooler, even forcing herself to eat regular human food though it causes her to vomit it out afterwards. Anteiku on the surface is just another cafe, when really, it’s a hideout of ghouls and an organization that helps weak ghouls out. Humans too, wear their masks, though they are not as obvious as the ones that Uta makes for ghouls. Hide keeps up his facade of innocence when talking with Kaneki; the CCG acts as a civilized, cohesive group in the pursuit of ‘justice’ when underneath, it’s about torturing ghouls for information and hunting them down. Everyone has a different role to play in the light and shadow of society, as emphasized by the fact that many of the ghoul killings and CCG hunts take place at night, while social activity – interacting with other human beings, and fulfilling your set duty. The contrast however, is that ghouls must wear masks in order to fight without their identities being revealed, as a result of being bound by self restraint all the time. The Doves on the other hand, are full out relentless in their investigation, easily beheading ghouls right and left to get what they want.
What does this all boil down to, and how is Kaneki the key to all of this? Our main character is not just a fresh set of eyes looking into a warped world set by blurring dualities.The “monster” is everywhere. It is only when we deny our natural desires – the basic needs of food and water, shelter and care – that we become something completely different than human. Episode 2 and 3 portray how essential balance is to our mental and physical state of being. If we throw everything we want in life and succumb to a primal level, we destroy the things that are the most precious to us in the first place. But if we continue to deny ourselves of the things that we need – things that we may not necessarily enjoy doing – than we destroy ourselves. Humanity walks a fine line between madness and self destruction, and Kaneki is the embodiment of that line, now being blurred by turning into not a full ghoul, but half of one. What Kaneki chooses to do or what Kaneki chooses to transform into is beyond the viewer, but it’s a large sign that despite Kaneki’s claims that he being a protagonist of such a story would end in disaster, he is ultimately forced into that position, and whatever actions he takes will create tremors that extend out into both the human and ghoul world alike.