Tokyo Ghoul and Mental Disorders
Originally written in my final year of high school.
Fun fact: I have OCD. Since I was nine years old I developed it, often the exact same as OCD often comes, suddenly, forcibly and without any prior warning that it is about to come. For nearly nine years I’ve struggled with something in my mind telling me what to do even when I don’t want to do it. For a long time, I considered it a violent intruder upon myself, an entity that I constantly rejected. And when I was told it was unlikely I could ever be free of it fully I began to accept it as a part of myself, something that entered me and assimilated into me, or myself into it. I was not ‘normal’, I was something else.
So, what am I doing writing this here? It is that you can draw an obvious parallel between my own psychological journey and that of Kaneki Ken, tragic protagonist of the popular Tokyo Ghoul series of manga and anime. From his own journey what I see is a reflection of myself and my journey with this mental disorder of mine, especially in how his friends helped our protagonist in his salvation from being a monster.
To those who don’t know, the premise of Tokyo Ghoul is similar to that of X-men, the superpowered minority is repressed by the normal majority, who relentlessly hunt them down. However unlike in X-men, where they are merely repressed because they are different, in Tokyo Ghoul the ghouls are repressed because they eat human flesh, as it is their only way for them to survive.
Ghouls are implied to be an evolution of humans, and while they look like us there are a few distinct differences. By eating humans they absorb RC cells (A fictitious substance, and is similar to how humans absorb amino acids from our diet), giving them a much higher count than humans.
But their biggest change is in they have evolved a ‘predatory organ’ known as a kagune, there are four types of kagune and all vary from ghoul to ghoul, they are all effectively tentacles that a ghoul can deploy from an area on their back. This also causes their eyes to become black and red, known as their kakugan (赫眼, red eye), and aside from the tentacles and the fact they are probably trying to eat/kill you, is the easiest way to tell if someone is a ghoul.
The story of Tokyo Ghoul opens with our protagonist Kaneki Ken going on a date with a bookish girl he met at a cafe, before walking her home. On the way, the girl, Rize, attacks him as a ghoul, but thanks to a Deus Ex Machina is saved at the last moment by falling metal beams. This leads to the organs that were destroyed in the attack being replaced by those of the ghoul.
As a result, he becomes the first artificial half-ghoul, only one of his eyes turns red and he hungers for human flesh, but he is also much stronger than his ghoul cohorts, which comes in hand as many ghouls are very animalistic in nature, and try to kill him.
When it was black
I can vaguely remember the first time my mother took me to the doctor’s office to get me diagnosed with OCD. The doctor was a tall stern-faced old man, who didn’t chuckle at any of the boyish jokes I often threw at him. He sat at his computer, had me read my symptoms to him and that was it, I was diagnosed with a mental disorder. I can remember crying later, about how I could never be normal (Whatever that means). As I think back today at that moment what also pops up is the first episode of Tokyo Ghoul, where Kaneki realises he has turned into a ghoul following the operation and stares in the mirror at his one activated kakugan, crying.
Kaneki felt a stigma for what he saw in the mirror because he knew that his inevitable death was due, he couldn’t eat food and the Commission of Counter Ghoul (CCG) would hunt down and kill him for what he is. This may never happen to me, but it’s the same kind of stigma that we all feel when we’re first told that we have a mental disorder. It’s a kind of numb dissociation from all around us, that we’re somehow different and if anyone ever knows, society will shun us for it.
Our protagonist got lucky in a way. Soon after his transformation into a ghoul, he was accepted by a number of pacifist Ghouls that work in a cafe known as Anteiku, where he met the ghoul who would later attack him. I never really got this lucky, mostly because I wouldn’t do it. I never wanted anyone to know about the fact I had this. I needed to keep it a secret no matter what.
When it was white
Towards the end of Season 1 of Tokyo Ghoul, Kaneki’s hair turns white. On the surface, it seems like it was Marie Antoinette syndrome from his torture at the hands of
Jason Vorhes Yamori. But the reason is much more psychological, especially when you analyse the scene.
Throughout the first season of Tokyo Ghoul, Kaneki’s ghoulish desires manifest themselves in Rize, the ghoul who’s organs are inside him. She tells him to eat his best friend, and he can barely hold himself back, just like how I can hardly hold myself back when my inner ‘voice’ of my OCD tells me to wash my hands. And while for me it is never something as extreme as eating my best friend, I can never stop myself, just like Kaneki couldn’t unless a tsundere ghoul kicked him in the face.
In a very surreal scene in the final episode, the dream Rize manifests in the tortured mind of Kaneki and shows him all his weaknesses, all the false things that he keeps telling himself that he is human despite the fact he has clearly become to everyone, a ghoul. After, this he consumes Rize and turns to the camera, announcing:
He then embraces his ghoul side and rejects his human side. For me, this was only a year or so ago that I was like this. I had become sick and tired of all the doctors, the medications and all the ways I was supposed to get over this. After all, wasn’t I told that I would likely have this for the rest of my life? So what was the point in fighting it?
I may as well accept it as a part of myself, whether I like it or not. My hair turned white, four tentacles protruded from my back and I was accepting of the fact I would be different from the rest of society.
When it was black and white
I think for a lot of us with OCD when are told we have OCD we and society see ourselves as monsters. After all, there is such a stigma against anyone with a mental disorder - autism, dementia, depressions - that because it’s our mind, effectively us, that’s slipping. With cancer, it’s something else, a violent attacker onto our body that we, for having it, are nothing more than poor victims.
That was why Tokyo Ghoul chose a man being implanted with a physical thing that converts our protagonist into a monster, rather than just a mental thing in order to show, through a kind of body horror medium, what it’s like to live with a disorder. But it also means to teach us that we do not need to constantly live in fear of it.
Following an epic battle with CCG investigator Amon, Kaneki is carried back to the cafe by his friend Hide. Seeing his friend for the first time with his kakugan active, Kaneki covers it up in shame. Hide tells Kaneki that he knew, and despite this, he still accepts Kaneki as a friend, because it’s Kaneki. His friend. He can see past everything that he is physically because at his core he is his best friend Kaneki. Kaneki removes his hand from his eye and stares at his friend, realising what a fool he was the whole time.
But this is Tokyo Ghoul, so, of course, we could never have a nice ending. For the whole scene we had repeatedly seen blood splashing on the ground, and while we had assumed it was Kaneki because he had been clutching his abdomen the whole time, it’s revealed to be Hide, who cannot regenerate his own wounds as he is a puny human.
Clutched in Kaneki’s arms, Hide tells Kaneki ‘lets go home.’ A later scene shows Anteiku burning and Kaneki echo’s his best friend and, presumably, burns down the whole coffee shop. We then cut to a shot of his hair, somehow blowing dramatically, and in a scene that is startling similar to when his hair turns white, it turns back to black again.
Later when we see Kaneki walking, the hair is clearly white again. But as he carries his best friend across enemy lines, multiple times do we have a close up shot of his hair, without his face, but every time we see his face it is white. Rather this time when the colour changed it was more a mental change. Kaneki saw himself as a monster, and on the surface, that’s what humanity and the CCG see him as, but when we remove that he is the same human he was always.
By walking back into the base, he is ‘lowering his sword’ and accepting what he is; he is neither human and neither a ghoul, merely he is a ‘bridge’ between the two worlds. This final scene is to show us that, while on the surface we may see and be seen by other people as monsters, our hair may be white, the actual truth is that we are as human as the anyone else in this world of ours. If you have cancer you are a poor bastard, but a brave battler against the disease that is slowly riddling your body. Meanwhile, if you are diagnosed with a mental disorder it’s yourself that’s is slipping, your personality and everything is now just a man with a mental disorder.
We aren’t, deny this as much as we want but underneath it all we are human, and what helped me personally realise this was my friends. Hide didn’t care that Kaneki was a monster, because at his core he was still Kaneki, just like how my friends didn’t care that I had OCD. I told them, and they simply shrugged. What was the difference? I was still Jackson, wasn’t I?
Was it all in the hair?
Tokyo Ghoul is inevitable a story of acceptance for a minority, and in any vein, you could take it along the lines of any kind of disorder. But for me Tokyo Ghoul is a reflection of what I have had to go through as a person, to come where I am today. And while what I had to go through was never as intense as the intense psychological damage Kaneki had to go through, I am glad this anime exists as a medium for me to show people what it is like to live with a mental disorder every day.