Today's review is not only one of the biggest titles to get a TV-related boost, but one of the best-selling manga of the year. Who would have expected that to come from a horror series?
TOKYO GHOUL (Tokyo Guru), by Sui Ishida. First published in 2011, and first published in 2015.
Ken Keneki is an introverted bookworm with a taste for dark and morbid fiction. That's why he can't believe his luck when the lovely Rize seems to like the same books and wants to go on a date with him. Too bad for him that Rize is a ghoul, one of many human-like creatures that crave human flesh. Her attack on Ken is cut short by a freak accident that kills her and leaves Ken on the brink of death. Ken's doctor tries to save his life by transplanting some of Rize's organs into him, but the result is that Ken is now part ghoul. Now Ken finds himself struggling to maintain his humanity in the face of his new and all-consuming hunger.
Horror manga tends to leave me rather cold. Some simply use copious amounts of gore to shock the reader. Others think that the mere presence of supernatural beings is enough to count as horror. Few of them ever try to capture the true emotions behind a good scare: fear, outrage, despair, paranoia, and so forth. Tokyo Ghoul is one of those rare few works that does get it. It's a slow burn of internal torment that puts the reader vividly into Ken's place.
It is Ken's internal monologue that drives so much of the story and Ishida's writing captures every moment of Ken's fears, thoughts, and hunger brilliantly. You can all but hear the dread in Ken's voice as he discovers his terrible fate. You can feel the roll of his stomach as he tries (and fails) to contain his inhuman hunger. You can feel the despair in his mental pleas to the world to make everything return to normal. She even throws in references to Kafka and Hesse into Ken's internal narration. She really captures his particular voice that makes the story so effective and chilling.
That's not to say that the story itself doesn't try to horrify the reader from the outside! Here it's less about the gore and more about the brutality of the ghouls' infighting. Ken himself gets into more than a few scrapes and each time it's basically a one-sided massacre. Ghouls possess superhuman strength you see, and poor Ken suffers from a lack of athletic skill and barely understands the powers he inherited from Rize, so Ken suffers with every blow. These fights stem from one of the most intriguing yet underdeveloped parts of the story: ghoul culture. Unbeknownst to most humans, ghouls can be found all over Tokyo, and we learn about them alongside Ken. A local coffee house serves as their hub, and it's from there that hunting territories are distributed, flesh is given to those in need, and where Ken starts to find some sense of belonging. There's a lot unexplained about ghouls at this point, though, and it'll be up to future volumes to start filling in those blanks.
I suspect that the slow pace will be frustrating to some, as it Ken spends most of the volume in tearful, fretful denial. Personally, though, I think it's slow pacing makes the horror all that more effective. It lets the seriousness of Ken's situation really sink into the reader's mind. It's that slow burn combined with the strong character writing and the violence that makes Tokyo Ghoul so horrific, and that's what puts this manga a notch above most horror manga.
Ishida's artwork helps to ground the story in something closely resembling our own reality. Her character designs are plain not in an artistic sense, but in an everyday, person-on-the-street sense. Even good-looking people like Rize have a sense of dimension and earthiness that makes look more like real world people. She put special care into Ken's expressions, be it wide-eyed horror, strained pleasantry, or ugly, snotty crying. That overall earthiness helps to serve as all the better contrast for when the ghouls do reveal themselves. Their eyes turn dark and bloodshot, their faces contort into grimaces worthy of Higurashi, and their punches, kicks, and spectral attacks blur into dense swishes of pure energy.
Ishida also uses the framing of her panels very well. She knows just when to zoom into Ken's face for maximum impact, when to use low angles and tilts to evoke a sense of visual unease, and how to communicate the precision of a powerful strike in the midst of a chaotic fight. She is simply a very good visual storyteller and her skill for it shines from every page.
Tokyo Ghoul is one of the best horror manga I've read in years and it's one that I would highly recommend to others. It's evocative, stunning, and intriguing, and best of all it is genuinely unnerving.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 14 volumes available. 4 volumes have been published and all are currently in print.
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