In folkloric terms – not to mention horror movie history – ghouls are rather nebulous creatures. Strictly speaking, they’re demons who feast on dead human flesh – though the protagonists of the 1933, 1975 and 2015 films called The Ghoul are mostly human (and only the 1975 version is really ghoulish), whereas The Mad Ghoul could have been called pretty much anything and the use of the term to describe the flesh-eating reanimates of Night of the Living Dead didn’t last much beyond the 1968 film. Sue Ishida’s manga Tokyo Ghoul –spun off an anime series before this live-action remounting – comes up with a new distinct take on ghoulkind, who seem related to both demons and vampires, though again the dominant tic is a hunger for human meat.
In the alternate world of the franchise, it is known that ghouls live among and prey on humans and there’s a government agency (the Comission of Counter Ghoul Operations) out to exterminate them … though the story arc, following a hapless feeb turned into a half-ghoul after an ill-advised organ transplant, reveals that ghouls aren’t just conscienceless monsters (though some are) but an alternate breed with their own codes and loyalties and range of attitudes. Based on the first three volumes of the manga, this seems like a stripped-down introduction to ghoulworld – with a few dangling threads and truncated sub-plots (and one major unpunished villain) left at the fade-out. It’s slightly inconsistent in tone, with some performances pitched so broadly that characters who aren’t supposed to be irritating outwear their welcome instantly while others underplay to the point of woodenness. Leading man Masataka Kubota segues from one mode to another as his hammily awkward student Ken Kaneki transforms into zippermasked S-M superhero with three ludicrous CGI appendages sprouting from his back. Each ghoul has a distinct variety of appendage (kagune) – scorpion tail, huge fleshy wings, etc – and, in a nasty bit of invention, the ghoul hunters hack these off to make anti-ghoul weapons (quinque) which fit into natty briefcases.
It begins in teen soap mode with bookish Ken nagged by his outgoing ginger pal to ask out a pretty young girl he has spotted in a café … only for Rize (Yu Aoi) to reveal herself as a killer ghoul and attack. Falling girders interrupt the predation, but Ken ends up with Rize’s guts and one red eye – though the audience is well ahead of him in guessing what’s happened. He gets a crash course in the world of ghouls, who have hunting grounds – student Nishio (Shunya Shiraishi) is voracious because Rize had usurped his patch – and underground support networks. Somehow, this leads to him becoming a barista at a coffee place run by fatherly ghoul Yoshimura (Kunio Marai) and vaguely schooled by Touka (Fumika Shimizu), a waitress ghoul who still can’t quite get over him hitting on Rize rather than her. In the mix are a ghoul woman (Shoko Aida) and her innocent offspring (Hiyori Sakurada), who need to be sheltered after agents Mado (Yo Oizumi) and Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) have assassinated the father of the family – and taken his tentacle for a weapon. Though Amon has a conscience and gets some mid-film motivation after the death of a colleague, Mado seems to be a sadist who relishes murder more than the average ghoul. Eventually, Ken has to go up against the hunters in a typical fight scene on a darkened street – it’s very like a Batman or Punisher battle, but with slightly too cartoonish CGI tentacles.
In distilling an epic into a two-hour movie, some things get rushed or skimped – but a lot of ideas are run through. The good ghoul m.o. of clearing away bodies from a suicide leap as opposed to catching and eating randoms is an intriguing, and specifically Japanese notion. There’s a truncated plot about how ghouls get their distinctive outfits and masks – Touka has a strange killer bunny look – before they turn vigilante, which again detours from horror into dark superheroics. It’s an irony that the characters are more one-note and cartoonish in the live-action film than in the manga, but there really isn’t time to flesh them out much – though some of the supporting players (Marai, Shimizu) do wonders with limited screen time, and the broader baddies (Aoi, Shiraishi) manage the trick of being flamboyantly evil while seeming to incarnate harmless teen movie characters. Scripted by Ichiro Kusuno and directed by Kentaro Hagiwara, both relative newcomers working on their first big feature.