I wanted to do an ANIME THEORY on this, but then I realized it’s more on the opinion/review side, so yeah… perhaps later, when I finish a crash course on Practical Ethics. Anyway, I’ve just finished Tokyo Ghoul, and seriously, this series needs a damn Season 2.
As a protagonist, Kaneki falls into the typical “I got powers but don’t want to use them to hurt other people despite other people getting killed by other people with powers similar to me” – in short, a pacifist protag. I’ve met similar protags like Kaneki, such as Ouma Shu of Guilty Crown, Tokishima Haruto of Valvrave, Yukiteru from Mirai Nikki, and of recent, the protagonist of World Trigger. Of course, their passivity can be measured on a spectrum: the lowest being completely pacifist (never engaging in overt violence) to pragmatically pacifist (limiting violence to a non-lethal minimum).
I find pacifist protags to be quite the annoyance. I mean, dude, someone’s hurting in front of you and you can’t even lift a finger? C’mon. But after some pondering, perhaps the pacifist protag is the most humane reflection of the norms that shape overall Japanese culture.
Through my thesis research (which was actually on collective self-defense), I’ve found that norms of pacifism are heavily entrenched in Japanese society. They even have a special article in their Constitution, the anti-war Article 9. Promulgated in 1947 and still remaining intact to this very day, this may be the ultimate enshrinement of publicly agreed norm in human history (well, there’s also the Bible and the Ten Commandments). And because it is so entrenched, we can see it in anime as well. I recall a scene in World Trigger, when the protagonist tells his alien friend not to engage in violence despite bullies actively extorting other people in the vicinity. Abiding by the protagonist’s rules, the alien friend proceeds to stomp the floor, causing it to shatter, effectively paralyzing the bullies with fear.
But I digress. Let’s focus on Tokyo Ghoul.
In Tokyo Ghoul, Kaneki awakens to find himself infused with a Ghoul by the name of Rize, effectively making him half-Ghoul and half-human. Because of the transplant, Kaneki, who was once human, now lives the life of a Ghoul. As a Ghoul, Kaneki would need to devour humans for nourishment. Faced with the idea, he is terrified. But, guided by the kind staff at Anteiku, Kaneki learns to come to terms with his condition. He then starts to live life as a Ghoul. And thus, in Season 1 of Tokyo Ghoul, we get an introduction on how Ghouls live and a slight crash course on ethics.
Kaneki is the perfect personification of pacifism. Despite having power, he is reluctant to use his powers to harm others, even in desperate situations. Now, here’s a moral grey area that the anime tries to make us think. You see a fellow Ghoul, a friend, in mortal danger. The attacker is a Dove, a human from the CCG. You have vowed not to attack humans, let alone devour them. But the Dove has your friend backed into a corner. Would you attack or not? That is exactly the dilemma Japan has been facing before Abe decided to lift the ban on collective self-defense. As per their pacifist norms, Japan cannot help an ally in their time of need.
As the anime progresses, Kaneki remains reluctant to harm humans. Despite essential to his health, Kaneki is still reluctant to eat human flesh and insists on drinking coffee, arguing that obtaining human flesh would mean harming others. When an Anteiku staff takes him to Aokigahara (the suicide forest) to harvest carcasses, Kaneki is faced with yet another moral dilemma. Indeed, he didn’t have to harm someone for his own needs, but then again, could he stand “cannibalism”? Further in the anime, in episode 8, despite being beaten to crap by a Dove, Kaneki endured the blows and tried to resolve it peacefully. We are also brought to consider: “Why try so hard?” “Why not just finish the Dove off with your powers?” “Are you not bringing more harm to others by not fighting?” and there’s many more questions the anime tries to push on us. I find this emotional turmoil quite intense, as Kaneki still tries to come to terms with his current identity. In his defense, he is undergoing quite the radical shift: from a normal human being living by the rules set by society to a Ghoul who has to live by devouring humans.
In the end, Kaneki, after suffering inhumane torture, finally lets the Ghoul inside him run wild, unleashing his true power. We see Kaneki evolve from a human shackled by his own pacifist values into a realistic Ghoul. It can be said that he has discarded his human side, though that still remains for debate if the second season comes out.
Tokyo Ghoul provides perhaps the most realistic, most human description of how a normal human comes to terms with their innate powers. There are stages of fear in the beginning, and only after the protagonist has suffered immense suffering does he awaken to his true potential. To top it all, it delivers the narrative in a nicely paced story and an intriguing plot.
As a closing note, out of all the anime I watched with pacifist protagonists, perhaps Kaneki is the most human of all.