Tokyo Ghoul Ep. 3: Masks and identity

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Ghouls find it necessary to wear two masks, a metaphorical one in public, and a physical one in combat. The metaphorical mask is actually a human mask. Every ghoul has a human mask, even the evil, bloodthirsty ones. After all, Nishiki attends the same university as the main character, and he is hardly shy about his murderous proclivities. Ken learns, therefore, that it is necessary for him to perfect his human mask, which is ironic since he used to be 100% human just a short while ago. Hell, he still clings to his humanity desperately: “My mind is human, but my body is ghoul, you could say.” Nevertheless, our protagonist must now relearn what it is like to be human — to eat and pretend to enjoy human food, to attend class as if nothing has happened, to work part-time like any other person his age. He has to fit in seamlessly with human society, or else suffer the consequences: “If we’re suspected for even a moment, we’re done for…” Having said that, however, I like to think that Ken is still human… at least whenever he’s wearing his human mask.

We tend to think of masks in terms of what they symbolize or represent — perhaps even what they are hiding — but there is no symbolism here. The metaphorical human mask is simply that: a human mask. This is because masks have now become “icons and indexes of [our] identity.” Our masks are no longer just a facade. Rather, they completely change who we are when we wear them. When Touka dons her human mask and becomes a 16-year-old high schooler, is she still a ghoul who’s pretending to be a young human girl, or is a young, human girl actually an important, undeniable facet of her character? Before you answer that question, keep in mind that she isn’t merely playing at being a high school student. She actually attends class. She actually studies for tests. She’ll actually graduate when the time comes. It is hard to argue, therefore, that Touka is merely pretending to be a high school student. Rather, she is a high school student, especially whenever she puts on her human mask.

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We commonly think, “This is the mask I show people, but I’m truly different on the inside.” Tokyo Ghoul clearly takes a different approach where a mask is actually an extension of our personalities rather than just something that is artificial and fabricated. This can be keenly observed in the exchange between Ken and Uta, a renowned mask-maker for ghouls. He doesn’t simply have his customers pick from a wide range of existing masks. Rather, he asks them personal questions, and their answers will serve as an inspiration for the mask that he’ll create from scratch. So even though this physical mask has a functional role of concealing a ghoul’s physical identity from the anti-ghoul investigators, these masks are nevertheless a reflection of a ghoul’s actual personality. A ghoul’s physical mask is just another facet of the ghoul’s identity. Uta doesn’t craft new faces for his customers; he crafts their faces. Nevertheless, there is another bit of irony at work here. This irony lies in the fact that someone like Mado does not need a mask.

The good ghouls, i.e. the ones that don’t go out and murder people, desperately want to fit in with the rest of human society. But because they are seen as nothing more than ravenous, bloodthirsty monsters — this is a belief that even Ken has had trouble shaking — the good ghouls must don a metaphorical human mask, which — let’s be honest — is just who they want to be. The only differences are that they can’t eat human food, and y’know, the freaky thing with the eyes and tentacle-like appendages. Big deal, right? On the other hand, Mado’s portrayal is hardly subtle. Right down to his very appearance, the story wants you to know that he is cruel and sadistic. Granted, Mado eliminates a lot of murderous ghouls, but he delights in their death. He takes pleasure in spilling their blood. Nevertheless, Mado can walk freely amongst human society because although he doesn’t need to wear any metaphorical human mask, his humanity serves to conceal his true monstrosity. Good ghouls must don a mask to conceal their perceived monstrosity, and yet Mado’s very own humanity allows his monstrosity to go unchecked

Stray observations:

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— Touka says she’d kill Hideyoshi if he ever finds that she and Ken are ghouls, but the funny part is that Hideyoshi probably already knows the truth. And like a true bro, he doesn’t really care because he trusts Ken. Otherwise, I’m sure he’d have done something to put Ken out of his misery.

— When Renji takes the main character to go “food shopping,” it’s nice to see that the story doesn’t chicken out. In a lot of like-minded stories, the good monsters distinguish themselves from the bad evil monsters by eating or drinking the blood of wild animals, which is something that has never really sat right with me. I mean, you’re not really a monster if you’re just hunting deers in the woods. After all, our ancestors used to hunt deer among other things, so big fucking deal, y’know? In Tokyo Ghoul, Ken learns that the good ghouls must depend on suicide victims to satisfy their hunger. It’s a far cry from hunting and murdering normal people, but at the same time, there’s still something monstrous about it. The good ghouls are still desecrating a dead body in a way. Suicide victims have family members too, and those family members would probably prefer it if their love ones’ bodies weren’t set upon by vulture-like ghouls even if these ghouls are benevolent in nature. Still, the good ghouls are making the best of their situation.

— Ken can’t help but wonder why Touka would want to be involved with humans so badly. Uta can’t answer his question, but from personal experience, he finds it enjoyable whenever he does get to deal with a human customer. I wonder if this excitement is just this need to feel wanted and accepted. Even if humans ultimately do not realize who or what they are accepting, it must nevertheless feel nice for Toufa to feel as though she belongs somewhere. After all, the ghouls are keenly portrayed as the Other, and this is not reflected in just the fact that they are literally ghouls. When Touka takes Ken to see Uta, they plunge themselves into Tokyo’s seedy underbelly. They enter parts of the big city that the big city itself would like to turn a blind eye to. This is a place where women sell their bodies, where families are broken and full of strife, where alleyways are homes to potential drug deals. Naturally, the ghouls have had to hide themselves on the fringes of society even though it is hardly safer for them to do so.

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— It’s odd how female ghouls don’t like being seen when they are eating. We’ve often compared the ghouls’ hunger for human flesh to drug addiction, and there is plenty of evidence to support that angle. Nevertheless, drug use does not have such a strong gender stigma to suggest that girls would want to hide their drug use. As a result, the sex angle is the only angle that would explain why it would be embarrassing for anyone to walk in on Hinami as she is gorging herself with human flesh. And again, I’m not saying that there’s one right answer. Both angles can work in tandem.

— For most of this week’s episode, I wasn’t too fond with Touka’s character. She seemed needlessly abrasive. I realize this is meant to serve as a contrast for when she softens a bit around Ken, especially after she overhears the conversation between him and Hinami, but I still don’t like it. The contrast is too sharp, and as a result, it feels cheap as well.

— I’m struck by how both Yomori and Tsukiyama, a.k.a. the Gourmet, come across as a pair of dandies. They remind me somewhat of the recent Hannibal portrayal in the aptly-named TV show Hannibal. Hannibal, too, is a dandy, i.e. a lover of the finer things in life. For instance, he’s always dressed immaculately in his well-tailored European suits. But not only that, he’s also gourmand and an admirer of the arts. Hannibal is portrayed this way in order to juxtapose a monster against what we would normally consider to be human sophistication. If anything, however, Hannibal’s dandyish displays of opulence represent an outlet for his dark, cannibalistic desires. Anyway, enough about Hannibal.

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Basically, what I’m trying to get at is that it’s easy for the saner ghouls like Touka and Yoshimura to fit seamlessly into human society, because other than their need to consume human flesh, the two of them are human in every other way. Yomori and Tsukiyama are truly monsters, and yet, they too must walk amongst the rest of us in broad daylight. Unlike the two aforementioned ghouls, however, Yomori and Tsukiyama do not want to become humans. As a result, their wear masks in the more traditional sense, i.e. their human masks serve to conceal, hide, obfuscate, etc. Nevertheless, their true nature must leak out in some form or fashion, and I can’t help but imagine their dandy-ish nature is the result of that.

— Amon seems far too sane to be taken in by someone like Mado. I wonder if he’ll have a change of heart at some point in the series.


4 Replies to “Tokyo Ghoul Ep. 3: Masks and identity”

  1. Hmm its like their mixing the sex and drug angle. I don’t really get what message they are trying to give by mixing the 2. Or if they are just looking for random symbolism.

    1. I figure the situation is better described borrowing influences from both, really. It’s not as if likening a fantastical concept like the ghouls’ hunger for flesh to human vices has to be strictly one or the other – it’s possible the idea from the start was that this hunger is similar to the vices that we humans experience in general, from drinking to drugs to illicit sex.

      Eating human flesh to stay alive has all the biological imperatives of sex combined with the addiction angle and social stigma of drugs, and even there it’s hardly a perfect comparison. One can live without sex and drugs, but ghouls must eat or they’ll inevitably die.

      Plain old starvation is (obviously) an effective analogue here, albeit one that’s harder for us to identify with. I mean, when’s the last time you were so hungry you were compelled to do terrible things simply to survive?

      1. This just occurred to me as well: cannibalism in Tokyo Ghoul has its excesses just like all of the things I mentioned. There are binge eaters who do so just for fun and gourmets who discriminate needlessly – both things you can find in food, drugs, and sex. The real vice isn’t the hunger itself, but an over-indulgence in it far beyond what’s needed to live.

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