The world is wrong. In an altverse where humanoid ghouls are DNA-programmed to need human flesh for survival and humans hunt them relentlessly in the shadows of Tokyo, there is one question that haunts the city: Who are the real monsters?
Sui Ishida’s horror manga Tokyo Ghoul, which also adapted into an anime glowing with neon gore, has finally been morphed into a live-action thriller by the supernatural touch of director Kentarō Hagiwara (an exclusive clip from the film can be found below). He has managed that rare merging of horror and beauty that reflects the deeper issues pulsing at the heart of Kaneki Ken’s transition from human to half-ghoul after a questionable organ transplant. The humanity of the ghouls —as well as the monstrous potential of humans— were elements that Hagiwara felt were especially important to translate to film.
“The ghouls want to understand humans and be understood by them, but they can’t get humans to understand them; they’re only seen as objects of fear,” Hagiwara told SYFY Wire in an exclusive interview about the film, which wraps up a one-week U.S. theatrical run on Sunday. “Kaneki’s exposure to their sorrow is what makes him rise up to tell the world what they’re really like.”
Hagiwara feels the emotional pain and sorrow that plagues the ghouls is only furthered by humans’ perpetual fear of them. This is why ghouls often congregate in places where humans least suspect them; Kaneki finds refuge in the coffeehouse Anteiku (the only thing besides human flesh that tastes decent to ghouls is coffee). Phobic human thinking is what drives the often maniacal ghoul investigators of the Commission of Counter Ghoul (CCG) to stalk and kill these gravely misunderstood beings. They remain blind to the living hell ghouls are forced to endure, instead stalking them through the streets of Tokyo with gruesome weapons made from the kagune, or killing appendages, of ghouls they have defeated.
There is a reason the human Kankeki seems cold and nearly void of emotion in the film. Hagiwara only wanted the emotion and excitability in him to bloom after his transformation, calling for a detached objectivity in actor Masataka Kubota during those times when the character considers himself to be human, or has no choice but to convince the outside world he is human if he doesn’t want to be reported to or decimated by Ghoul Investigators.
Kaneki forces himself to have a dispassionate view of ghouls when he is trying to be human, almost as if he were never entangled with them even though their blood is coursing through his veins. He keeps trying, and ultimately failing, to affect this behavior until the scene where he implores Yoshimura to allow him to help Touka. This is his ghoul awakening.
Kaneki “acknowledges himself to be a ghoul, finds his own words and his own feelings, gains more subjectivity, and from there on out behaves more proactively and emotionally,” the director said. He is also not the only ghoul who exhibits more humanity than actual humans. Hagiwara’s vision was to make the movie the story of Kaneki, who is initially prejudiced against the type of creature he will eventually become but undergoes a sort of humanization when he passes into the shadow world of ghouls and empathizes with their pain.
This is why Hagiwara gradually brought out the humanity in the other ghouls. He took a directorial approach that would bring out their sorrow, with the exception of Rize, the binge-eater (more like binge-killer, since she never finishes an entire body before she hungers for more) who attacks Kaneki in the beginning and lands him in the hospital where he receives that fateful transplant.
Another aspect of the Tokyo Ghoul universe Hagiwara brought to life were the special effects. Manga and anime are mediums with endless room for the bizarre and fantastical, but it is more challenging to turn paranormal elements such as kagune into flesh and blood. He “wanted to portray the ghouls themselves as creatures who have both beauty and ugliness at the same time” and worked closely with his VFX supervisor to bring lethal butterfly wings and clawed tentacles to life. As Kaneki’s impression of ghouls progressively changes, the gradual change in his kagune is also visible. What was once gory and detestable morphs into a thing of unexpected beauty.
“I felt one of the things that made the Tokyo Ghoul manga so popular was the incongruity between the grotesque content and the beauty of the art,” the director explained, “so I decided the guideline for the look of the film should be that no matter how disgusting something is, it also strikes you as beautiful.”
While the eating of human flesh is inescapable in the movie, Hagiwara decided to stimulate viewers’ minds by implying when “the disgusting stuff” happens out of sight with sound and alternative visuals, such as a ghoul’s eyes flashing red with hunger in the phenomenon known as kakugan. That was not even the most difficult aspect of bringing Ishida’s manga to the screen. Unlike manga, which has almost no boundaries, since the magic of pen and paper can transfer anything from the artist’s imagination to the page, films cannot fit every fantasy into their budget. The recent paradox in Japan has been the boom in manga-based movies that would be impossible to fund if everything leaped off the page and onto the screen. Dissecting the story and figuring out which elements it can absolutely not live without is vital to its film iteration.
Hagiwara has done the unthinkable in making Tokyo Ghoul believable without an excess of CGI. He uses light and shadow to his advantage to further express character emotions, and the kagune appear to be extensions of the actors’ bodies rather than digital add-ons. You almost believe that a tentacle is going to shoot through the screen and wrap you in its deadly embrace.
So if the world is wrong, who are the ones really deforming it—humans or ghouls?
“I think it’s humans,” said Hagiwara, “Because humans are the majority, you see. I feel the world can’t change until the majority understands the minority.”