As seen through the eyes of director Shuhei Morita and scriptwriter (and playwright!) Chuji Mikasano, Tokyo Ghoul is a closed circle. The story begins with Rize the man-eating ghoul facing down sadistic killer Jason, and ends with Rize’s protege confronting and ultimately devouring the same creature. Kaneki is force-fed human flesh at the end of the very first episode and rejects it soon after, only to gulp down Jason’s flesh in the finale. The show’s OP begins and ends with Kaneki sitting alone in a chair, his hair turned white in its final frame. And of course, Jason tortures others because many years ago, he suffered the same fate, and brought it upon the one who inflicted it on him. He visits it onto Kaneki, and so by the end Kaneki too is cracking his knuckles, having become yet another instrument in the ongoing cycle of suffering fueled by the hunger of ghouls and the fear of humans.
Tokyo Ghoul is never stronger than when it focuses on the central tragedy of Kaneki’s evolution from human to monster. The inevitability that despite his good intentions, he will be ground up in the same machine and spat out as a man-eater. At the same time, Tokyo Ghoul is never weaker than when its reliance on its own source material forces it to deviate from its carefully constructed circle. The last few episodes are a real lowlight, introducing a dozen or so characters from different squads and trying to hold a shounen tournament arc within two or so episodes. Considering its built-in limitations, parts of it almost work: shounen tournaments are so often drawn out into multiple-episode sagas that to have so many fights that are only implied, characters introduced and disposed of in a matter of minutes, borders on being refreshing. But it’s still far too rushed, and indicates that Morita and co. were seriously pressed for time when it came to satisfying fans of the manga as best they could within the twelve episodes they were given.
Thankfully they saved the best for last. The final episode of Tokyo Ghoul completes the circle, bringing home Kaneki’s character arc in the nastiest (and most honest) possible way. After ruthlessly examining Kaneki’s psychology, in the midst of absolute despair, Rize convinces him once and for all to forsake his last remnants of humanity and fully embrace the mantle of destroyer. The only glimmer of hope is that Kaneki claims he will evolve past Rize, perhaps becoming something more than a man-eating ghoul or a fearful human. But the series ends not with transcendence but with violence and futility, Kaneki’s transformation bringing only horror. I suspect this is the story Morita and co. wanted to tell all along, limited as they were by scheduling, time and the expectations of manga fans. If they don’t quite nail everything else, by bringing home Kaneki’s character arc in the most brutal possible way they do full justice to both their own ambitions and the spirit of the original manga.
The Tokyo Ghoul anime makes significant changes to its source material in fitting everything into twelve episodes, but I still have a few gripes regarding how they handled things. If anything I wish they cut more, as the staff’s vision of Tokyo Ghoul often seemed more interesting than that of the original manga. At the very least, by focusing their attention on Kaneki’s development at the expense of the fights or the larger political sphere, Morita and co. wisely emphasized the best parts of the original material while (save for the final arc, which again was far too rushed) improving the pacing significantly. The next season of the series (with the bizarre title Root A) promises to bear an entirely new story concept thought up by the original mangaka himself, which has me hopeful the next go-around may be even more ambitious. But that brings me to my next suggestion, which is that I don’t think Tokyo Ghoul really needed a sequel at all. Morita and co. already brought us the tragic fall of Kaneki from possible savior to monster, brilliantly wrapping up his development in the time allotted. It’s such a brave ending, nearly on the same level as something like the Berserk anime’s final stages, that it’s practically a shame the creators won’t let it lie. Few series have the chutzpah to end as definitively as Tokyo Ghoul does. Even if Root A turns out to be even better, why re-open a circle that is already closed?