Review: Tokyo Ghoul, Vol. 1

tokyo_ghoul_viz_coverTokyo Ghoul, Vol. 1
By Sui Ishida
Rated T+, for Older Teens
VIZ Media, $8.99 (digital edition)

Tokyo Ghoul opens with Ken Kaneki, a mild-mannered college student, impulsively deciding to go on a date with a beautiful stranger. As Kaneki soon discovers, however, Rize isn’t even a person–she’s a ghoul, a violent predator who feeds on human corpses. A freak accident spares Kaneki from becoming Rize’s next meal, but he has a new problem: the ER doc who saved his life used a few of Rize’s organs to do so. Within days, Kaneki begins craving flesh, too, forcing him to decide whether he’ll succumb to his ghoulish impulses or cling to his humanity.

Tokyo Ghoul‘s first chapter is the strongest, thanks in part to manga-ka Sui Ishida’s crack pacing. In less capable hands, the introduction might have been a tedious information dump; Ishida, however, is sparing with details, allowing us to learn about ghouls through the unfolding of the story. Ishida also demonstrates considerable skill in creating suspense, artfully manipulating light and shadow to amplify the contrast between well-lit, “safe” spaces such as the cafe where Kaneki likes to study, with the dark, remote areas where Rize likes to hunt–you’d be forgiven for screaming “Run away!” every time Rize steers Kaneki toward a quiet, empty street.

What should have been chapter one’s most dramatic moment, however, is executed clumsily. Ishida piles on the speed lines and close-ups, but it’s almost impossible to determine what Rize looks like in her true form: an angel with charred wings? a spider? a four-legged octopus? Compounding the confusion is the lack of background detail, a shortcoming that becomes painfully obvious near the end of the scene, when a pile of I-beams falls on Rize and Kaneki. The artwork never hints at this potential outcome, cheating the reader of the opportunity to guess what happens next–Ishida seems to be making it up as he goes along, rather than deliberately preparing an important plot twist.

Kaneki’s transformation is handled in a similarly pedestrian fashion. We see Kaneki sweat, cry, scream, and vomit like Linda Blair, but his moral crisis is painted in such broad strokes that it’s hard to feel genuine sympathy for him. When Kaneki faces a terrible choice–eat his friend or starve–Ishida resorts to a deus ex-machina to save his hero from the indignity of snacking on someone he knows. Although this plot twist makes Kaneki seem more human, it blunts the true horror of his dilemma by making him too likable; our allegiance to the hero is never really tested.

Any pretense that Tokyo Ghoul might be a character study is shed in the the final pages of volume one, when Ishida introduces a secret ghoul organization. This plot development feels like the first step towards a more conventional battle manga pitting demons against humans. More disappointing still is that Ishida seems to think that splattering the reader with entrails is scarier than asking, What really makes us human? Kaneki’s liminal status between the human and demon worlds makes him a natural vehicle for exploring this question, but Ishida shies away from the tough ethical or moral issues posed by Kaneki’s new dietary needs. The resulting story reads like a low-cal version of Parasyte, stripped of the complexities and conflict that made Hitoshi Iwaaki’s body-snatching manga so compelling.

Volume one of Tokyo Ghoul is available in ebook form now; the first print volume will be released in June.

Did you enjoy this article? Consider supporting us.


  1. Damn, I had high hopes for this, but I’ll rent it from the library first before just snatching it up at the comic shop like I’d usually do. I hate unclear action in a series, it made Trigun unreadable for me (I think Firefighter Daigo has possibly the best action I’ve seen in a manga). Indeed, it sounds like Tokyo Ghoul’s premise should’ve ripped a few more cues from Parasyte (glad to see that anime is being well received, I’ve seen 10 eps, it’s a good adaptation with the only real changes being technology: Migi learns things on a computer instead of a bunch of books and Shinichi’s dad has to add a throwaway line about his tablet being dropped during the cliff scene so that’s why he needs a newspaper, and characters won’t pick up their cell phones now instead of their house phones, but it’s very un-intrusive)

    • Katherine Dacey says

      I couldn’t help but think of Parasyte the entire time I read Tokyo Ghoul–and not in a good way! From what I’ve read about the anime, it sounds as if the animators did a better job than Ishida in rendering the action. Maybe that would be a better way to sample the story?

      • The first season of the anime is left on a pretty brutal cliffhanger and the second season is an anime original storyline. As is I loved the first season and the second season has been hit or miss in some places for me.

        Ken as a character has been frustrating to see as he has essentially become the brooding angst riddled “emo” stereotypical protagonist that I hoped he wouldn’t have become.

        Mind you this is all based off of having watched two seasons, of the Anime so maybe looking at the original work through the lens of the adaptation isn’t the wisest as you are taking in the work through an entirely different creative team.