I don’t know what stunned me more – that final episode, or the reaction to it.
Author’s Note: Given the obvious gap between anime and manga events, please refrain from posting manga spoilers in the comments even if the anime has concluded. Many of us plan to read it in full later.
This feels like a fitting moment to me in so many ways. Fitting, because it seems rarer and rarer that I agree with the mainstream on anything anime-related. Fitting, because Tokyo Ghoul (all the more so “Root A”) has been all over the map. It’s a vexing, confusing, irritating, enigma of a show and it seems only right that it should end with such a spectacular disconnect – between the audience and the series, and between myself and most of the audience.
I hadn’t read a word of reaction to the finale when I watched it – watched it half a day later than normal due to RL commitments, as it happens. And my first comment (on Twitter) after it was over was “Whatever you may think of the story choices, that was one of the most artistically beautiful anime episodes ever.” Now it so happens that I liked the story choices, but I’ll get to that shortly. After I tweeted that I started reading some of the reaction in the usual places, and lo and behold – almost universal derision and snark. And initially, that shocked me.
Here’s what I don’t know: what the relationship of this ending to the manga is. I haven’t read it (not this far into it at least), and I know this season has been a strange dance with manga canon – lots of spins and dips, sometimes cheek-to-cheek and sometimes in a different room. This has clearly been a major source of trouble, a cause of much of the inconsistency that’s been the only consistent thing in “Root A”. I get the sense that there’s been an uneasy relationship between Ishida Sui and this adaptation – and maybe between he and director Morita Shuhei too, for all I know. One where Ishida was never quite sure how close to the printed word he wanted to steer, and his halting approach impacted Morita’s.
So, then, without knowing how close these events were to the source material, my sense in watching the finale was glorious liberation. For me as a viewer, and for Morita as a director. In watching it felt like Morita-sensei just said “fuck it” and rather than a conventional narrative, delivered an impressionist painting – the inherent tragedy that was always the strongest part of Tokyo Ghoul told mostly in silence and beautiful but terrible imagery. It may not have been what most fans of the manga wanted, but I thought it was inspired and powerful.
Morita’s artistic sense seemed liberated in every way, too. He’s clearly a massively talented director, and there have been moments of brilliance throughout the series despite the limited budget. But this final episode was practically one long master class on cinematography, lighting and scene blocking – panning shots, stunning use of light, incredible dissolves, and subtle misdirection. The drips of blood, presumed to be Kaneki’s, turning out to be Hide’s. Kaneki crying his eye clear with red tears. The glint of a broken shard of china in the snowy night. In terms of pure directorial flair – sound and vision as a tool to create art – it was as fine an anime episode as I’ve seen in a very long time.
And yet, the reaction. This dangerous territory for me to even venture into, sorely testing Mom’s advice about “If you can’t say…”. And yet I feel I have to at least comment on it, because it’s the elephant in the room. Why do most Tokyo Ghoul fans seem to hate this episode that I loved unreservedly? Is it because they’ve read the manga and I haven’t (nope, too simple)? Is it because Morita broke pretty much every rule in the book in making it? Is it because it delivers very little in the way of cookies to the viewer – not much resolution, not much explanation? Or is it just a matter of Morita making the right episode for the wrong audience?
I don’t know, of course – and if I dig any deeper, I’m only going to get myself into more trouble. But I will say this: I sure as hell hope Morita Shuei continues to work in TV anime, because he’s a huge talent. I’ll go back to that first comment, “Whatever you think of the story choices…” because I think if you get past that, it’s hard to deny that the episode itself was gorgeous. It had style overflowing from every frame, and grace too – it was quiet and melancholy, which is exactly what it should have been, considering the material.
Here’s the hard truth – the Tokyo Ghoul manga is still ongoing. Even if “Root A” had followed it literally we wouldn’t have gotten a real ending. And the mistakes of the first 11 episodes (mostly the first six) weren’t going to be rectified in one finale. So Morita stripped the story of Tokyo Ghoul down to its essence – he captured perfectly what makes this a powerful premise, and quietly mused on it for 22 minutes. This is a stupid, senseless cycle of death and revenge, and this latest chapter “Raid at Anteiku” is the most pointless waste of all. No one wins here – good people die, bad people die, but the killing goes on and on and there seems no way to stop it. And Ken is caught exquisitely, perfectly in the middle – as Morita literally showed us with some incredible imagery based on his appearance. It was a far, far better way to end this series than I ever thought was possible.
So then, we don’t know whether Yoshimura is alive or dead, or Shinohara for that matter. We don’t know what happened when Ken silently delivered Hide’s body to the CCG, and Arima confronted him (and for that matter, we know next to nothing about Arima at all). I get why folks are disappointed by that, and by the general sense that so much of “Root A” was B-side material and wasted time. What did we really learn from Ken’s time with Aogiri – which took him off-screen for most of the season? Why were so many characters introduced with no context whatsoever?
Why, indeed – there’s no denying “Root A” was a mess. Whose fault was it? I don’t know, because I don’t know how much control Ishida asserted over the direction of the season. But I do know that at the very end the series redeemed itself, because Morita understands it at the molecular level. He gave us the truth of Tokyo Ghoul in this final episode unfettered by needless dialogue or by sound and fury. Finally. I’m sorry the anime wasn’t able to do justice to the story in the traditional narrative sense (though that battle, as I said, was lost before this episode ever started). But I’m also sorry so few viewers share my view that this episode, in the context of how the series built up to it, concluded the series in the best way it could possibly be concluded. It was a work of art by a director of vision, insight, and spectacular talent, and that this will be the lasting memory of the Tokyo Ghoul anime is the best outcome I could ever have hoped for.