Tokyo Ghoul, Vol. 1
By Sui Ishida
Rated T+, for Older Teens
VIZ Media, $8.99 (digital edition)
Tokyo Ghoul opens with the mild-mannered Ken Kaneki impulsively deciding to go on a date with a beautiful stranger. As Kaneki soon discovers, 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.
The 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 dreary information dump; Ishida, however, is sparing with details, allowing us to learn about ghouls through the natural unfolding of the story. Ishida also demonstrates considerable skill in creating suspense. Throughout the first chapter, he artfully manipulates 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. The individual panels lack the detail that would convey a sense of where the action is unfolding–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, leaving me to wonder if that’s how the scene originally ended.
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 pausing to ask the question, What really makes us human? Kaneki’s liminal status between the human and demon worlds makes him a natural vehicle for exploring this dilemma, 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.