It’s fair to say that the reputation of live-action adaptations of manga and anime leaves much to be desired right now. With the exception of the much-praised Rurouni Kenshin trilogy (2012-2014), they regularly come under a withering salvo of vitriol for their poor special-effects work, bad acting and all-round sub-standard production values. And yet Japan continues to make them, and they continue to make money - a system operating in a kind of bizarre parody of the West’s own love-in with superhero smashes.
In this sense then, perhaps Sui Ishida’s Tokyo Ghoul manga stands as *the* perfect source material for a live-action turn, representing in many ways a spin on the classically heroic Spiderman-like tale of zero-to-hero; a dweeblike nobody infected with distinctly non-human powers and forced into a dangerous tightrope walk of power, morals and responsibility amidst a bustling urban metropolis. Enter Tokyo Ghoul’s Ken Kaneki (played here by Masataka Kubota), the perfect embodiment of Shonen manga tropes compressed together - all of Son Goku barely-repressed power and Sasuke’s icy, emo-like coolness distilled into one tight package. No wonder then that Tokyo Ghoul has firmly established itself alongside other super-heroic behemoths like Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia as one of the West’s highest selling manga serials right now. The fact remains - this is an origin story to rival the best Hollywood has to offer, and against all the odds, this live-action incarnation actually delivers the goods.
For the uninitiated, Tokyo Ghoul’s premise is a simple one. In a contemporary Tokyo much like our own, but populated with individuals who can survive only by eating flesh - Ghouls - we follow college student Ken Kaneki as a dream date turns into a living nightmare from which he awakes to find himself hankering after the taste of human flesh. Struggling with his new life as a half-Ghoul, Kaneki quickly becomes embroiled in a desperate fight for survival in a society designed to hunt and eradicate Ghouls at every opportunity.
Driven by a breathlessly fast sense of pacing, the film hurtles along at a veritable gallop, coursing with an adrenaline-rush feel that couples well with Kaneki’s highly physical struggles with his half-Ghoul / half-human persona. Tokyo Ghoul is a series that has always thrived through its visceral, kinetic energy - and while the movie lacks some of the out and out cool-factor of Ishida’s jaw-droppingly skillful artwork, it makes up for it via solid cinematography and compelling performances from its lead actors. The film might clock in at two hours, but it’s a very lean, muscular two hours - tracing an explosive marathon course through the manga’s most memorable early movements.
If anything, one might argue the film moves a little *too* fast - characters are introduced, only to be swiftly (and bloodily) dispatched, the movie stopping only long enough to wave some distressingly obvious death ‘flags’ in our face. The result is a narrative laced with a lingeringly effective ‘they’re next…’ dread, but weakened by the fact we rarely spend enough time with any of the characters to truly care about them. This is coupled with the fact the movie only really covers the first three volumes of the manga, meaning many of Tokyo Ghoul’s most engaging, memorable players are yet make a showing. Cue the inevitable ‘leaving things open for the inevitable sequel’ refrain...
If there's anywhere the movie overtly slips up, it's on the CGI front. With the ghouls' tentacular kagune adding superpowered extensions to their bodies, the film was always going to have rest heavily on computer-generated augmentation, and while the results are above-average by Japanese standards, they pale in comparison with blockbuster Western efforts. The graphics seem to 'float' around the actors, and it becomes very noticeable that the camera rarely moves when CGI has been imposed on a shot. This leads to some incredibly static looking for fight scenes that at their worst, end up looking more like a fly-swatting match between actors wielding giant ill-shapen balloons.
Likewise, there's a train of thought that says that for all of Tokyo Ghoul's CG gloss, it ends up losing some of the noir-ish grittiness of the original manga. The titular Tokyo becomes a minor player, the city reduced to an anonymous backdrop that could really be anywhere. The result is a very 'stagey' feel that, while never reaching some of the overt J-Drama excesses these live action takes have become maligned for, certainly remains a constant niggle in the back of the mind. The only saving grace is that on the one front the film absolutely couldn’t mess up - the gore - Tokyo Ghoul goes refreshingly all out; the movie is every bit as bloody as its manga and anime counterparts; splattering its actors in bucketloads of the stuff as they quite literally chew their way through each-other.
All in all, your mileage with the live-action version of Tokyo Ghoul depends on what you feel this adaptation brings to the table. Given the strength of Ishida's source material, the movie arguably rests on an incredibly robust skeleton. But looking beyond the merits of the original story, the lingering sense is that the film comes out fighting, and fighting hard. Is it flawed? Yes - but only in the sense that any live-action manga adaptation produced within the current Japanese studio system is inclined to be flawed. For the most part though, this is a terrifically enjoyable popcorn flick that retains all the bloodcurdling thrills and spills that had fans flocking to the manga in the first place. Consider our appetite sated... For now...