Monday 29 January 2018

Tokyo Ghoul (Japan 2017: Dir Kentarô Hagiwara)

The arrival of Tokyo Ghoul, based on the incredibly popular manga of the same name, comes at the end of a six year success story for the franchise. Originally appearing in serial form in the 'Weekly Young Jump' magazine back in 2011, there have been on line spinoffs and TV adaptations, and while the world waits for a planned anime feature of the sequel Tokyo Ghoul:re, we now have a live action version of the original story. Whew!

Director Kentarô Hagiwara, whose directing CV previously comprised shorts and TV work, has the unenviable and not inconsiderable task of taming the multi tentacled beast (pun intended) that is the 'Tokyo Ghoul' franchise, and condensing it to a mere two hours (similar to Adam Wingard's only partly successful movie adaptation of the Death Note manga last year), while aiming to satisfy both established TG fans and those new to the franchise. Like me.

And I'm pleased to write that he's pulled it off: Tokyo Ghoul is that rare thing, an action film with a profound emotional heart. Masataka Kubota plays Ken Kaneki, a bookish student living in Tokyo, a city whose inhabitants are a mix of humans and ghouls (a form of vampire) living side by side. The ghouls are indistinguishable from their human neighbours until their lust for blood and flesh transforms them into something more nasty (including wings and tentacles, named kagune); ghoul murders are monitored, and the culprits obsessively tracked down by the Commission of Counter Ghoul (sic). Kaneki remains oblivious to the ghoul threat, until he is savagely bitten and stabbed by Rize - a seemingly sweet girl who is in fact 'one of them'. His life is only saved by a combination of falling masonry which lands on the murderous Rize, killing her, and valiant doctors who are able to operate on him by replacing some of his organs. The problem is that the organs previously belonged to newly dead Rize; the result being that Kaneki becomes the first human/ghoul hybrid.

Much of the film is devoted to Kaneki's battle with the rising ghoul within him. This has been done on screen many times before of course, but Kubota's performance here is quite heartbreaking, which I wasn't expecting. Scenes of him attempting, and failing, to remain human by eating 'normal' food are incredibly affecting (assisted by genre favourite Don Davis's stirring score). His adoption by Mr Yoshimura - owner of a ghoul friendly cafe who sources the menu from bodies reclaimed from a nearby suicide forest - is touching but merely adds to his dilemma. Rejected for his lack of ghoul purity by cafe worker Tôka (Fumika Shimizu, excellent) who also struggles to reconcile her outer 'normality' with her inner ghoul, he is literally stuck between two worlds. But with the death of a close friend he is forced to choose a side, and fully embrace the ghoul within him.

Tokyo Ghoul's last half hour sets up more traditional superhero antics - the battling ghouls even have masks - but they are well staged and the time taken by director Hagiwara to establish the characters means that the pyrotechnics have context. This isn't an empty franchise movie of the kind currently clogging up the multiplexes - it's a nuanced film, bringing fresh life to admittedly rather hackneyed themes of alienation and otherness, sensitively scripted by Sui Ishida, adapting his own comics. True, for a TG novice like me there were a few plot elements which confused rather than illuminated, but I look forward to future instalments which will hopefully clarify the story further. Or maybe I should just read the comics? Anyway, go see.

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