Tokyo Ghoul Review
Japanese cinema didn’t wait for Disney’s current trend of adaptations to start transforming successful anime (themselves technically adaptations of popular manga…) into live action films. Some of these have proven to be very good (Rurouni Kenshin, Azumi, Crows Zero, 20th Century Boys, Death Note (the Japanese version, not the recent Netflix one)), very decent (Gantz, Black Butler, Orochi - Blood), some have even achieved cult status (the Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood series), or have been directed by prestigious anime directors (Mushi-Shi). However, for all these worthwhile adaptations, there has been numerous average ones (Attack On Titan, Lupin the 3rd, GTO, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler to cite only a few of them) when not plainly bad (most of the American versions actually, the most infamous being Dragon Ball Evolution). Tokyo Ghoul therefore joins this rather long (though not exhaustive) list and the result is definitely not amongst the most successful of the genre.
Buried in books and a quiet life, Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota, 13 Assassins, Rurouni Kenshin!) is all but dead to the world in an age where flesh-eating ghouls live among us. But when his only chance for survival is an organ donation that turns him into a ghoul-human hybrid, he finds sanctuary at Anteiku, a café run by the people he once considered monsters.
What makes a good live action adaptation? Does it need to be entirely faithful to the source material and just transpose what has already been done well but with real actors and special effects, or does it needs to bring something more to make the film more than a pale copy of the original material? This is a tough question to answer and to sketch the beginning of an answer, two main types of audience really need to be taken into consideration: fans of the original anime (or manga) and people with no knowledge of the original text. Both these audiences are likely to have similar considerations in mind (mostly story, actors, and special effects) but different perspectives and as a result different expectations in front of the final product.
Tokyo Ghoul is only the second film directed by Kentarô Hagiwara. The screenplay was written by Ichirô Kusuno (The Big Bee) on the basis of Sui Ishida’s manga and the eponymous anime adaptation. It feels obvious from the start that the team behind the adaptation has not tried to do anything else other than attempt to illustrate the manga/anime story with real actors and CGI. Therefore, another key question comes to mind: is the movie actually worthwhile in itself or is it just interesting because the original manga is good?
Tokyo Ghoul actually starts off pretty well. After a brief explanation setting the scene and of the world the story is set in - an alternate reality where ghouls (mostly human looking creatures ) can only survive by eating human flesh, live among the "normal" humans in secret; hiding their true nature to evade pursuit from the authorities) - the film opens as a romantic comedy, before talking an abrupt 90° turn to become an action/horror film. This is an intriguing start, even if made obvious by the initial explanation, and it has at least the merit of making you want to see more. What follows is actually quite thought-provoking and touches on exciting concepts, for instance who, of the humans or the ghouls, are really the “monsters”? However, that is short-lived and the film becomes dull rather quickly, and never really manages to sustain any kind of excitement or even the slightest curiosity (how long does it really take an audience to understand that Ken is abnormally hungry!).
Tokyo Ghoul also lacks proper character development. Kubota’s slightly androgynous physique gives Ken interesting qualities which, despite being classic for such a story, make him both very relatable and difficult to empathise with. However, despite this appealing aspect, the film never really provides any real sense of character evolution. Even worse, during its second half, Tokyo Ghoul randomly becomes a superhero movie which even comprises the indispensable training montage, in this case so ridiculously short and scant that it becomes laughable. The film isn’t helped either by its complete lack of real antagonist to oppose Ken.
There is also a key inherent issue with Tokyo Ghoul in relation to the fact that both manga and anime can use very different visual styles to differentiate themselves from each other. However, this is much more difficult, even if not impossible at all, with films and unfortunately, like previous versions which have gone before, Tokyo Ghoul’s visuals are so generic that they don’t allow it to differentiate itself from other live action adaptations. Hagiwara does bring some interesting visual ideas at some point in the movie (mostly in the fight scenes like the one in the riverbed) but the rest are nothing extraordinary (especially the scenes in the café).
On the plus side, Tokyo Ghoul benefits from a good cast (even if it's not exploited to its full potential) and rather efficient special effects with regards especially in relation to characters’ ghoulish attributes. In short, Tokyo Ghoul has a fairly interesting concept inherited from the source materials but it is handicapped by a very average visual treatment, which doesn’t allow it to differentiate itself from other anime live adaptations, and rather boring characters. Which overall makes for a largely forgettable film sadly.