REVIEW: Tokyo Ghoul S Actually Improves Upon Its Predecessor

If you're a fan of horror anime, you've heard of Tokyo Ghoul. The horror series has had multiple adaptations over the years, from manga spinoffs to anime series. In 2017, Tokyo Ghoul was adapted into a live-action film of the same name, which now receives its sequel, Tokyo Ghoul S.

The first live-action film had a slow start and never felt over-the-top enough to be frightening. It never embraced the sheer horror of its potential. Only after it finished establishing the ghouls -- flesh eating monsters in human form who grow tendrils to hunt and fight -- did the original film get properly started.

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As for Tokyo Ghoul S, the film hits the ground running with a nightmarish, grizzly opening that will leave a huge grin on horror fans' faces.

In the first film, we met Ken Kaneki, a shy, dorky boy who, after a date goes south, ends up with ghoul organs inside him. Now a half-man, half-ghoul, he joins the Anteiku, an organization of ghouls who protect and feed other ghouls, offering them food and shelter from a world that sees them as monsters thanks to the circumstances of their birth.

The first film established the basic framework of the world, which gives this film time to have fun. Ken is still adjusting to life as a ghoul, struggling with balancing his double life. Ken trains with his ghoul confidant, Touka, aka Rabbit, to defend ghouls from the humans who threaten to kill them. Touka encourages him to cut the final ties with his human life for his own wellbeing.

Tokyo Ghoul S

But things get more complicated when a particularly sadistic ghoul, Shu "The Gourmet" Tsukiyama, starts hungering for Ken's half-human flesh, and Shu is not a Ghoul who allows that which he wants to slip through his fingers.

Tokyo Ghoul S is an improvement in every way over the original. Though 20 minutes shorter, the movie feels loaded with content. Without the need to introduce the world and characters, it moves at a brisk pace. Its concise writing leaves no scene or moment feeling unimportant. Just to prove this, one character from the previous film pops up halfway through without prior introduction or reference in the film, which will catch you off-guard if you have forgotten your Tokyo Ghoul lore. Tokyo Ghoul S is impossible to follow without first watching its predecessor.

Mastaka Kubota and Maika Yamamoto offer improved performances as Ken and Touka this time around. In fact, every performance in this film is far more subdued than in the prior film, which allows the fantastic things on-screen to feel more believable. Now settled into their roles, their characters act more naturally. Of particular note is Shota Matsuda, who plays the villainous Shu. He steals every scene he's in with his seductive grace and arrogance. His predatory relationship with Ken adds an element of realistic horror to the fantastic world of ghouls.

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The film even looks far better than its predecessor. The shots are moody. It feels at once more natural and phantasmic, with tons of shadows. CGI is used sparingly, but, when it is used, it's used in cinematic, effective moments. While the director of Tokyo Ghoul, Kentarô Hagiwara, filmed a dark superhero film, Tokyo Ghoul S directors, Kazuhiko Hiramaki and Takuya Kawasaki, approached the story as a naturalistic horror film. The film is (for the most part) subtle -- and all the better for it.

The film is most disturbing in its more understated moments, and the fact that this film is so much more subdued than its predecessor is its biggest strength, a contrast that becomes more apparent after a back-to-back viewing. While the previous film often let the soundtrack or over-acting manipulate audiences into feeling something, Tokyo Ghoul S's quieter approach allows people to actually feel the film -- which is vital when we have to empathize with Ken's sense of vulnerability in the face of a true predator. The element of predatory lust Shu feels toward Ken is genuinely unsettling.

Tokyo Ghoul S

But the film is not flawless. The directors fail to capitalize on their action scenes, which might underwhelm audiences who expect the prior film's over-the-top fights. In fact, there are few fights throughout the film, with most of them relying more on brutal martial arts than monstrous effects. Many of the prior film's colorful characters are either absent or take a backseat this time around. While the film is cold by design, it offers few heartfelt moments. The most emotional scene in the movie could have, conceivably, been cut out for all it adds to the plot.

The biggest problem, however, is the film's second half. While it starts out as a focused thriller, multiple subplots overcomplicate the story following a spectacular scene at a restaurant. The film's final act loses the tight pacing of the previous two. None of these flaws, however, are enough to ruin an otherwise entertaining horror-fantasy film. Also, there is a mid-credits scene teasing a sequel.

Tokyo Ghoul S follows up its excessive predecessor with a macabre cat-and-mouse hunt between monsters. While it offers the gore and fights fans expect, it's best in its bone-chilling, quiet moments.

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