Touka Ghoul, Tortured Pathos, and Quickly Demoted Women

Tokyo Ghoul had promise once. Mostly that promise was vested in Kirishima Touka. That promise dribbled away. By the end, there’s no promise left. It doesn’t help, either, that taken as a whole the two seasons of Tokyo Ghoul are a complete mess: not just the women but the narrative, the inconsistencies, the characterization, the garbled illogic of it all.

Nice soundtrack, though, and the very first episode looks uncommonly good. (It also appears to be where they threw all their budget.) Otherwise, the visuals are marred by a ridiculous, unprecedented amount of censoring.

Touka is typical of a shounen love interest (and we can tell she’s Kaneki’s love interest from episode 2-3) in that she starts out initially stronger than her male counterpart. She can beat up the antagonist, as long as that antagonist isn’t the antagonist, the final boss. She can thrash the faceless mooks while the male protagonist cowers, until she can’t and he’s no longer cowering.

She rips off one of his arms and half his face.

Let’s not delve into the giant issues surrounding this fight – Tsukiyama is a gay or bisexual man who’s so over-the-top camp that even his ghoul weapon is vibrant purple; he’s obsessed with and wants to eat Kaneki (and this craving for Kaneki’s flesh is constantly portrayed in a creepy, skeevy sexual way)* – and focus on Touka for the purpose of considering Quickly Demoted Women. This is her shining moment. This is where she gets to demonstrate that she is not to be fucked with. Even though it has to be at the expense of the one queer character.

*NB: Tsukiyama is not the only queer character in the show. There are several others, all male. They are all as or more problematic than Tsukiyama. Nico is arguably the absolute direst.

Then she gets downhill and keeps going until she hits rock bottom. The next time we see her fight again it’s to watch her get trounced again and again and again by her younger brother. Her moment of defeat and utter disempowerment happens to coincide with Kaneki’s moment of powering up – admittedly, he only powers up after having been horrifically tortured, but still. After that, Touka spends the rest of episodes not doing very much and in the final episodes, all we see is her running around uselessly. I’m not being figurative. There are endless shots of her just… running around trying to accomplish things and then being too late, being stopped, or just somehow never reaching her destination. I’m not even sure why she’s running around like a normal human person when, previously, we saw her defying gravity and leaping from rooftop to power poles with ease.

My next candidate for halfway-decent-female-character was Mado Akira. She does go into battle in high heels and pencil skirts, but we do get to see her in combat gear. Unfortunately, the first significant fight she’s in winds up with her having to be rescued and literally carried by Amon to safety. In fact, Amon has to carry her twice – once when she gets completely drunk and then later during the lab raid.

Her characterization, too, quickly declines; she starts off entirely ignoring what her male colleagues think of her. Then she becomes obsessed with following the footsteps of the men in her life – first her dead father, then her colleague/love interest Amon. She has no female friends. I’m not sure we even see her talking to another woman, failing to meet the already low bar of Touka’s characterization; Touka, at least, talks to other female characters (Irimi, Hinami, Yoriko) even if a lot of time the subject of conversation is Kaneki.

Tokyo Ghoul chugs along on a fuel of dead women. Yoshimura’s wife (and the mother of his child) is dead. Kaneki’s mom is dead. Hinami’s mom is… er… dead. Akira worships her dead father Kureo while never mentioning her mother; alarmingly,  we never find out what her mother looked like. To become a wife (heterosexual naturally, as this show doesn’t even pretend queer women exist) or mother is to sign your own death warrant.

Then there are the women who are alive for five seconds or whose image defines the series, but who in actuality are as good as dead: Rize barely gets a few lines in before those steel beams drop on her and spends the rest of the series appearing as hallucination or flashbacks – she’s a prop to or motivation for male characters, a representation of Kaneki’s id, a smell that informs Tsukiyama’s lust for Kaneki. Kuro and Shiro appear briefly before getting beaten to pulp by Juzo (a young man and their former classmate; in Tokyo Ghoul, female combatants being defeated by men is a cherished trend). One of them is probably dead and I can’t remember which, as they don’t show up onscreen long enough to… um… evince discernable personalities.

This is a poignant sequence, but while I appreciate that the show means to demonstrate the empathy of CCG personnel, it’s pretty odd that not a single one of them opens fire.

Do I think Tokyo Ghoul is a good show? Sort of. It achieves pathos – very slowly and belatedly; you have to put up with a lot of formula to get there and large portions of the show are simply incoherent or absurd. If you haven’t read the manga, Kuro and Shiro look like nonsensical additions. Kanou barely shows up, severing crucial connective tissues that would hold the ‘turning humans into artificial ghouls’ subplot together. There’s no clear answer as to why Yoshimura et al don’t simply evacuate Anteiku and go hide, since they know well in advance that the CCG is planning to scorch the earth and purge the 20th ward of every ghoul alive. Fights are won or lost according to author fiat rather than previously established relative strength of the combatants. The last few episodes of Tokyo Ghoul √A feature more characters frantically running than your average Olympics marathon, when we have seen before that these same characters have no trouble leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Even Kaneki mysteriously loses his superhuman gravity-defying powers and is reduced to… running.

The severely wounded ghouls don’t munch up all the dead humans lying around like a guilt-free buffet, even though we’ve seen Touka go from weak to full strength just by taking a bite of Kaneki. Yoshimura as the Owl can literally fly but, somehow, during the CCG raid he fails to escape. Eto as the Owl is nearly invulnerable, but because author fiat mandates that Arima must be able to stand up to her, in their fight Eto is suddenly slow and clumsy. The final episode sees Hide dying from a fatal wound. Where did he get this wound? How did he manage to resist this wound long enough to drag/carry Kaneki to safety and make coffee? Hide’s supposed to work for the CCG as an office courier; why’s he even on the ground as part of a raid?*

*What is the human resources department at CCG even like if they just let office workers go to battle, probably without any combat training…? Is their HR run by sadistic children?

And that’s before taking into account that I had to look up half this stuff up on the fan wiki to make sense of  anything. Because to know who Arima even is, you have to pay attention to this one flashback from Kureo’s point of view; the anime does nothing much to establish who he is, why he matters, how he’s apparently superhuman. The anime hints at Kanou’s scheme to create artificial ghouls, but blink and you’ll miss it. I’m not sure if it would even be possible to tell that Eto/Sen is Yoshimura’s daughter if I hadn’t looked it up. Tokyo Ghoul √A is just a botched mess. There are way too many characters to keep track of and none of them gets enough screentime to matter. Do you remember Banjou? Because according to the wiki, he’s still alive. Should he appear in the third season, good luck getting anyone to recall or care who this random guy is. The pathos achieved in the final episodes of Tokyo Ghoul √A is effective, but it arrives after two seasons of broken storytelling and the only way for this pathos to function is for you to accept the mountains of narrative illogic that precede it.

The anime, then, appears to be more for fans of the manga than its own standalone product… except it deviates from the manga in crucial points, leaving us with a thing that’s half-this-half-that and not successful at either. While I’ll watch the third season, I don’t really look forward to the next salvo of narratively tortured arcs, garbled characterization, and probably more quickly demoted women. And any pathos or characterization successfully achieved perpetually reserved for male characters – at, always, women’s expense.

Maybe they can pay Miura Takahiro to direct the third season.