2017’s Fantasia Film Festival runs July 13th through August 2nd.
It’s hard out there for a shy guy, and Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota) knows that first hand. He’s surprised then when a pretty girl who also enjoys fiction books agrees to a date, but while things go well at first her decision to bite his shoulder and chew his flesh puts a damper on the evening. It turns out she’s a ghoul — a vampire-like creature who looks human but needs to eat humans to survive — but things only get worse when Ken survives the encounter. The operation to save his life sees doctors transplant the girl’s organs into Ken, and soon he finds himself experiencing strange feelings and cravings.
While most monsters are born Ken’s been turned into a half human, half ghoul, and being an awkward young man is now the least of his concerns. Ghoul hunters, unfriendly ghouls, and a growing desire for human meat are new permanent fixtures in his life, and he’s going to need help if he’s going to survive it all. Good thing the local coffee shop is ghoul friendly.
Tokyo Ghoul is a live-action adaptation of a very popular manga and anime series, and it serves as a mostly competent introduction to a familiar yet specific world of monsters. It’s every bit the story of someone forced to find refuge in new surroundings and “friends” after having no choice but to leave the old behind. The ghouls look human until they don’t — eyes turn red, teeth grow far more deadly, and sometimes fleshy appendages sprout from their backsides to slice, pierce, and otherwise murder those unlucky enough to be slapped with said fleshy appendage.
There’s a definite familiarity here as Ken finds his new breed comes in both evil and good (well, chaotically neutral anyway) varieties and is stuck forging new relationships even as he dodges other challenges. The film rarely surprises, but one of the exceptions is the first appearance of a ghoul’s “kagune” — the aforementioned flesh weapons — which vary from ghoul to ghoul taking the form of beautiful, Abyss-like wings, anime-friendly tentacles, projectile-launching nubs, and more. They’re the coolest element of the film, but on the visual front at least they’re also the least fully-realized. The CG is attractive in its design, with a single exception mentioned below, but it never blends properly with the surroundings and instead feels and looks like animation layered atop it all.
The action is a mix of bloody bites and attacks, but it shifts gears once Ken undergoes a training montage to learn martial arts. It’s enough to leave viewers town as it entertains visually and comedically, but it also leaves you wondering why a ghoul even needs such skills. The answer comes quickly, but it’s far from satisfying. Instead of ending fights quickly with their kagune the creatures prefer, inexplicably, to brawl. It feels especially egregious when Ken and his friends find themselves fighting for their lives while still sticking with leg sweeps and punches rather than flat-out murder at the tip of their pulsating flesh weapons. The aim towards more typical fights is further burdened by characters who spend far too much time waiting for their enemies to prepare themselves for the fight. Because seriously. Just kill them. With your meat flaps.
There’s fun between the fights in the form of some of the supporting characters including a charismatically unpleasant young woman named Touka (Fumika Shimizu) who begrudgingly accepts Ken into the fold. The pair of agents hunting the ghouls are also interesting with one being a hard-assed madman () and the other being a far more restrained enforcer. They wield kagune that have been removed from ghouls and weaponized for humans, and the latter agent, Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki), is stuck with one that resembles nothing more than a shawarma spike complete with rotating meat. I’d question it, but he also wears a long, white, expensive-looking coat to fight ghouls in which most likely results in exorbitant dry-cleaning bills, so who knows what’s going on it his head.
There are interesting touches in Tokyo Ghoul — their ability to consume nothing but human flesh and coffee for example — but there are also beats that feel like missed opportunities to grab viewer attention including the introduction of the ghouls’ face masks. It feels like a film designed for newcomers, but it ultimately fails to leave viewers hungry for more.
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