Throughout the final episode to the first season of Tokyo Ghoul, Kaneki is under the captivity of the ghoul Yakumo and undergoes severe torture. In between these brutal scenes, we’re treated to various instances where the ghost of Rise talks with Kaneki, and discusses his past and how it relates to the various flaws of his. Whether this is actually Rise or just a figment of Kaneki’s imagination is up to interpretation. This eventually leads to him admitting these flaws, which in turn causes him to awaken to his true powers as a ghoul, and then getting back at Yakumo before the episode abruptly ends.
So what is Kaneki’s major flaw, the flaw which has been demonstrated throughout the series, and which he must overcome to become the white-haired man we see by the end of this episode? It’s that he’s a huge wimp. And not just any wimp, but a wimp who is weak precisely because of his stubborn clinging to good-guy ideals. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Let’s back up a bit.
Early on through one of the flashbacks which Kaneki shares with Rise, we learn that his mother was very kind and caring, and who according to Kaneki never scolded or got mad at him. She tells him as a child: “Ken…it’s okay to feel loss. Nice boys like you can be happy with just that.” Which Ken follows with “It’s better to be hurt than to hurt others. That’s what she taught me.” Kaneki obviously looked up to this woman quite a lot, which is especially evident considering that Ken has taken her attitude towards life to heart. Which, before we’re suddenly treated to more brutal torture scenes, Rise remarks that that sort of thinking is precisely why Kaneki is in this situation to begin with.
Sure, it’s certainly a nice thought that suffering and bearing whatever burden necessary instead of harming others is admirable and heroic. We often consider that to be what makes a “good” person. And maybe it is to an extent, but allowing harm to be done to yourself is also a form of inaction. In adhering to this philosophy, Kaneki has become a very passive person. From the very first episode he’s established as a bookworm who barely has the confidence to ask a girl out. Throughout the series he scarcely ever fights back when attacked, and even when he does it’s only from losing control from starvation or having Rise take over him. A lack of assertiveness isn’t going to get you anywhere in life though, and especially when you’re thrown into a seedy underworld like Kaneki was, it can even end up causing harm to others despite your intentions to specifically not do that.
Midway through the episode Yakumo throws two of Banjou’s buddy’s on the ground, who in the previous episode promised they would save Kaneki, and gives Kaneki a choice: choose which one of them should die at the hands of Yakuno and which he should spare, or else he’ll kill both of them. Kaneki, with his reluctance to do anything bad, simply cannot bring himself to do anything in this situation. “I can’t choose something like that! It would be like I’m the one doing the killing, wouldn’t it?!” And eventually, despite much insistence for Kaneki to make a choice and “save” one of them, Yakumo goes ahead and kills both of his victims.
Now, to be fair, any average person would have difficulty making such a choice, and there’s no guarantee that Yakuno would have actually spared of the two, but what’s important to note is how Kaneki responds to this. He simply chooses not to do anything, because he just can’t handle it. He doesn’t want to harm others.
“If only you had been strong at that moment,” says Rise, now referring to Ryouko’s death at the hand of the Doves, which Kaneki had to witness midway through the series. In this instance Kaneki arguably couldn’t have done anything; he wasn’t a skilled fighter and didn’t even know how to use his kagune. So going up against several Doves, including Mado and Amon, would have been a very unlikely win for him. But in this instant Rise isn’t commening on Kaneki’s hesitation or inaction, but that fact that he wasn’t strong enough as a flaw. It’s more reason why he needs to stop being so passive, since it’s that passiveness which keeps him from getting stronger. And if that doesn’t happen, then as Rise shows him, Yakumo will just go on killing all the members of Anteiku. And as Yakumo tells Kaneki, “All of the disadvantages in this world stems from a person’s lack of ability.”
“You to choose to be hurt rather than hurt others, right? You’re nice and wonderful. But while it seems like you’re choosing both, you’re really forsaking both. You’re mother was the same way.”
Rise hammers in the point that Kaneki’s mothers whole world view was flawed, and that the “kindness” which caused her to overwork herself was really just a sign of weakness. If she didn’t give money to her greedy sister, then she wouldn’t have had to work three jobs. “She didn’t have the strength—the resolve to turn back.” Kaneki clings to his mother’s philosophy in hopes that she didn’t die in vain, but Rise eventually gets him to admit his true feelings on the matter: that he really just wishes his mother would have just took better care of herself so she could have continued to raise Kaneki, even if it meant harming his aunt.
Kaneki: “I missed you…I hated being alone…I wish…I wish you would have chosen me…! I wish you would have lived…for me!”
Rise: “Even if it meant forsaking your aunt?”
Kaneki: “Even if it meant that!”
And with that Kaneki finally accepts what he is and awakens to the powers that Rise gave him, becomes more confident, and even goes so far as to blame all his troubles on the world around him:
Rise: “Are you saying you accept me?”
Kaneki: “No. I’m not saying that… I can always surpass you.”
Rise: “Even if that is the wrong choice?”
Kaneki: “I’m not the one who is wrong. What’s wrong… is the world!”
In the middle of that exchange, Kaneki hurls himself onto Rise, holding her down; clearly some sexual imagery there. Throughout this episode Rise has acted as the motherly guide for Kaneki, while now he’s “surpassed” her and asserted dominance. Then he devours her—albeit in his mind, remember—his hair turns white in a nice bit of visual change, and he’s finally awakened to his true powers. He then spends the remainder of the episode battling it out with Yakumo.
So the big message here is that in real life, you often have to be more assertive and make choices for yourself, even if that’s not always the “good” or “right” thing to do. Just blaming all your problems on the world at large isn’t exactly the best way to see things, but just being passive and letting the world do whatever it wants to you isn’t going to help anyone either. Kaneki hasn’t necessarily become a better person due to all this either, it should be noted. His awakening to new superpowers essentially means he’s better at murdering others, and he even starts torturing Yakumo a little to get some payback before he starts eating him. The point isn’t whether he’s become a better person or not, but that he has become a stronger person. At the cost of being the wholly good individual he was before, he’s now able to stand up for himself and others; able to make choices for himself for better or worse.
As for my thoughts on the episode besides themes and whatnot…well, it was certainly intense seeing Kaneki get tortured by Yakuno, so props to the show for that. Having a character who can regenerate really lets you stretch the boundaries of how much pain you can make a character go through without breaking suspension of disbelief. I’m also quite curious how the others of Anteiku will react to seeing the new and “improved” Kaneki, especially now that he suddenly has white hair. The final story arc in general was a bit rushed, and would have benefited from an extra episode and maybe a little more foreshadowing for its events, but it was a nice ending to this first cour of the series nonetheless. It was a bit more shouneny than usual too, but at this point that’s not saying much.
And as for my thoughts on this series in general… Although the source material is technically seinen, I agree with others that it’s an awfully shounen-like show, especially with the plethora of cartoony fight scenes (and yeah, I know “shounen-like” is rather arbitrary.) Although the fight scenes were amusing, I still hold that the show would have been better if it stayed a straight-up horror series like how the first episode was. But either way it’s still a decent show. For a shounen-like seinen such as this, it did still have plenty to say and plenty of themes for us to parce over, such as all the analogies that can be made between the ghouls and the crime underworld; the whole dynamic between the ghouls and doves, Kaneki’s character arc as a wimp becoming stronger, among other things. Even if it’s a “shounen”, it was still one of the more intriguing shows of the season.