Anime, Essay, Tokyo Ghoul

A Violence Like This: Tokyo Ghoul

“There’s a violence in everyone.”

Liquid drips from a metal basin, pooling on the tiled floor. The sound comes from some distance away, which helps – at that distance, it is simply an anonymous liquid, not an actual, vital, absent part of Kaneki’s body. Closer at hand, the truths become harder to bear: his scar-crossed wrists, his grinding teeth, the half-formed toes ever growing in, ever being torn away. Ghouls who feed on humans possess great powers of regeneration, but right now, that regeneration is only denying Kaneki the release of death. His body gives and gives, and yet his tormentor keeps coming back, keeps demanding more. Having lived his life by the conviction that suffering pain yourself is preferable to inflicting that pain on others, Kaneki can only wonder how he reached this metal chair, how things ever got so messed up.

Kaneki’s journey began with more clarity. He had his close friend Hide, and his crush Rize, a girl who liked his favorite author. Ghouls were an abstract concept, something you discuss idly with friends. Kaneki wasn’t a monster – he was quiet and shy, but a fundamentally good person. He wasn’t necessarily happy, but the mechanics of his world were easy to understand.

Of course, moral clarity is often just another term for a lack of perspective. After an unlikely operation imbues Kaneki with ghoul organs, he is quickly disabused of his privileged notions of morality, and thrust into the much messier world of ghouls. Ghouls can pretend to eat human food, but their only true sustenance must come from human flesh. No longer may Kaneki disregard the actions of “monsters,” creatures so far from his own experience that he had the privilege of dismissing their entire species. He doesn’t want to hurt others, but if his very biology demands violence, what can he do?

Tokyo Ghoul’s central metaphor is a messy one, as horror metaphors often are. Its framing of ghouls and humans obviously evokes real-world conflicts of discrimination, but its “ghouls must eat humans” conceit handwaves the true complexity and viciousness of culture-wide bigotry and systemic discrimination, jumping beyond the untrue and actively harmful “everyone’s to blame for discrimination” into the outright comical “our stand-ins for minorities are persecuted because they eat human flesh.” The show’s messiness extends beyond its pat and almost insulting metaphor; there is an element of grindhouse luridness here that undercuts its emotional grasp, and even the central conceit of “embracing your ghoulishness” versus abstaining is framed in contradictory terms, here echoing the violence of revenge, there gesturing towards a kind of sexual release. This messiness makes for a deeply uneven viewing experience, but ultimately, the show winnows itself down to a bracing clarity. Tokyo Ghoul is ultimately about one thing above all else: how Kaneki ended up in that chair, and how he might have escaped that fate.

Tokyo Ghoul sympathizes with Kaneki’s desire to simply be a good person, to be kind to others, to take what suffering he can bear upon himself. But it also believes that any Kaneki who isn’t blessed with the privilege of a life in permanent sunshine will eventually find their way to that chair. Life is just too messy, morality too personal, too uncertain. Unless the world already offers you everything you desire, seeking your aims and impressing your will on the world will necessarily provoke friction, sowing discord and perhaps even prompting vengeful counteraction. And beyond the petty pains we inflict on each other, the world at large tears at our moral clarity, wearing down our strength.

That repeated shot of the bloody clamp, instrument of Kaneki’s torment, could easily stand in for the world in miniature. Tokyo Ghoul understands that violence begets violence, but beyond that, it also understands that something we’ve born once won’t necessarily be bearable the next time. Existing in this oppressive world is a death by a thousand cuts, and each of us scatter new cuts to the wind with our every action. You can address the bad actors, perhaps, but the weight remains.

A character like Mado illustrates the exhausting complexity of this situation. Mado is framed as an over-the-top monster, from his wild-eyed appearance to his delight in inflicting suffering on innocent ghouls. There is no denying that Mado is a cruel and terrible person, and that his actions towards ghouls are unconscionable. And yet, even after his death, Tokyo Ghoul constantly returns to how Mado inspired his compassionate partner Amon to moral clarity and greatness. When Mado is defeated, he’s not just a villain consigned to the gutter, one big “X” mark across the world’s sins. His lingering presence inspires both positive and negative actions – he can be all of these versions of himself at once, justifying a war over his legacy that is morally sanctioned by all sides.

Mado himself was seemingly inspired to his fanatical cruelty by a previous turn of the vengeful cycle, making even his own morality an open question. Would we still condemn Mado if we knew what pain prompted his search for vengeance? What about Kaneki’s torturer Jason, who is also simply following through on the violence once inflicted on him? These are monstrous acts, but they’re not restrained to the domain of monsters – the world tears at all of us in these ways, rattles our own moral convictions, demanding we find violent release. Perhaps that catharsis is what Tokyo Ghoul’s most melodramatic actors seek in their violence; the world has offered them nothing but pain, so pain becomes their vehicle for self-discovery, their canvas for painting their mark on the world.

What else can any of us do? At the spinning violence of Amon and the young ghoul Touka demonstrate, there is no instinct too righteous to elevate itself above these cycles of revenge. Touka avenged an innocent mother by killing her unrepentant murderers, including Mado and a new recruit. Those unrepentant murderers’ associates then returned the favor, working to avenge their beloved mentor and dedicated civil servant friend. Touka’s actions were both right and wrong, and ultimately only certain to keep greasing that violent wheel. And Touka’s actions are only an exaggerated reflection of an even more paralyzing fact – that when we impact the world, our intent will never measure up to the pain we cause. One ounce of vengeance satiated for one gallon for radiating violence all calling for its own answer; a terrible exchange rate, but the only one we have.

Frankly, Tokyo Ghoul’s own emotional generosity extends far beyond my own, moving into territory I’d call naive at best and terribly destructive both-sideisms at worst. That Mado was a loving husband and father doesn’t do anything to change his gleeful complicity in structural violence and oppression. That he was dearly mourned doesn’t mean the world wasn’t a lot better off with him dead. At a certain point, all this lamenting about cycles of violence itself becomes an expression of privilege – the high-minded rhetoric of those who aren’t forced to choose between violence and death, or violence and continuous suffering. Those who see violence as an unconscionable disruption of a peaceful order are always those so favored by the existing violent order that they see it as peace. They are Kaneki before his turn, telling those who cannot even exist without forcefully asserting their space that “I’m not a monster like you.”

Tokyo Ghoul isn’t seriously interested in exploring these structural inevitabilities; its concerns lie more with the strange, inherent allure of violent release, how we as a species seem drawn to it. Perhaps that’s why we feel so little satisfaction from laudable but emotionally dry good works, while the raw meat of righteous vengeance makes us salivate so. Tokyo Ghoul’s characters often seem to be seeking that violent heart, staring out across reflections, wondering where the true self lies. Kaneki himself is narratively divided between two clear selves, his human self and ghoul self, his original convictions and organ donor Rize’s influence. But we don’t need ghoul organ transplants to contain multiple selves – all of us possess a personal moral conviction, and all of us possess a violence too.

I’ve certainly struggled with that violence myself. Looking at all the madness and suffering in the world, seeing things that just seem so wrong and so clearly wrong, I want to lash out and fix it. To snap my fingers and make righteous violence; to close my eyes and erase one tyrant after another, my snapping fingers singing like Jason cathartically cracking his own bones. Hurt by the impositions of others and the suffering I see, I carry anger that stews and builds, and the world offers no easy release. That perhaps is the most frustrating thing of all – we all carry this frustration, all this righteous need for vengeance, but the world offers no equivalent containers. When we pour out our anger, we only feed the machine, and if even our idle actions inspire resentment, how can we hope to syphon off all our own internal violence? We cannot – we bear it instead, living as unsteady vessels, brimming with an anger we almost hope to spill.

Tokyo Ghoul does not condemn that violence. Strapped to that metal chair, bleeding from countless repeated injuries, Kaneki’s suffering might well stand in for the weight of the world itself. “This world is messed up,” both he and Amon agree, but then why are they trying to kill each other? “This world is messed up,” but nonviolence can’t fix it. “This world is messed up,” but it’s just so hard to keep being kind, to extend your hand when it’s only ever slapped back. “This world is messed up,” and those who embrace self-interest are rewarded for their actions, while laughing at those of us who try to be kind as fools. “This world is messed up,” and what I saw as kindness was only ever weakness. “This world is messed up,” and I will fix it, I will make it right, I will burn it down.

Tokyo Ghoul is an unhappy story for an unhappy world. Kaneki’s selflessness is beaten, in the end. He tries very very hard, but trying very very hard will only get you through a moral sprint, and life is a marathon. Jason may die, but his poison won – those awful bloodied clamps passed his anger on, and that anger lives in Kaneki now. The violence takes Kaneki, and he has every reason to let it. We are not as strong, not as kind, not as generous and unflappable as the world continuously demands we be. We build up grudges and wear down patience, all while our own footsteps propel tiny hurts into the world, tiny violences that are as difficult to redress as they are easy to inflict. The world does not reward our charity. The world does not validate our pain.

If there’s any hope in this story, it is offered through Touka, not Kaneki. Though she begins the story as a bitter and self-hating person, she learns to not only value herself, but even to understand and regret her own complicity in the cycles of violence. While her brother Ayato represents one natural reaction to a lifetime of oppression, Touka hides hard-won compassion under a jaded shell. Kindness really does matter, charity really can bring an angry soul back to, if not peace, at least the level perspective necessary to judge our own actions, and perhaps hold back our fist. There is a hope there.

But that hope is a frail light in a cold world, and ultimately, Kaneki was the one who had to suffer the chair, anyway. We can try to be good, we can try to care, but that weight will always bear down on us, that rusted clamp, that mocking gaze. The world greets us with violence, and no matter our strength or conviction, that violence will take a toll. The violence shapes us, directs our ideas of truth and justice, tempers our anger and steadies our hand. To deny that violence is to be lead by it entirely; all we can do is acknowledge the unfamiliar face in the mirror, respect the pain in its eyes, be strong enough to meet its gaze. Know that others are fighting too, that much of the pain we cause each other is unintentional, and that we must respect the hurt we cause will always outpace the intent we bring. We are so, so much better at causing hurt than being kind, and we are so, so much more receptive to hurt than compassion. We are the human and the ghoul, we are the killer and his prey. Our goals are righteousness incarnate, our sins herald angels to smite us down. We will break this world and hurt each other and that gnawing hunger will never, ever go away. We must always seek desperately to be kind. We will never truly, fully succeed.

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