A nerdy college boy is transformed into a half-human, half-monster hybrid in “Tokyo Ghoul,” an uneven live-action adaptation of Sui Ishida’s hit manga about flesh-eating creatures running amok in an alternate contemporary Japan. Stylishly decorated and generating all-important sympathy for a character living precariously in two worlds, director Kentaro Hagiwara’s feature debut gets the drama right but is let down by visual effects that are sometimes unconvincing. Given the massive global popularity of the manga and its spinoff anime series, “Tokyo Ghoul” should get off to a flying start when it opens domestically on July 29, followed by an international rollout in August (which could help build interest for a U.S. release tentatively planned later this fall by Funimation).
Before entering the dark domain of creatures that are indistinguishable from humans — until it’s too late — the images are bright and the tone is bouncy. Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota) is a shy university student who finally finds the courage to approach sweet and sensitive bookworm Rize (Yu Aoi, looking like she hasn’t aged a day since the 2006 charmer “Hula Girls”). Kubota’s boyish good looks and convincing performance as a bumbling nice guy ensures that Ken will have viewers on his side right from the start.
On the couple’s first date, mousey Rize suddenly becomes flesh-hungry Rize. After sinking her fangs into Ken, the girl is killed in a freak accident. Having barely survived the encounter, Ken is given a life-saving operation involving organ transplants from none other than Rize, the result being that he’s now a half-ghoul.
It’s only a matter of time before Ken starts craving human flesh and has no choice but to mix with ghouls who’ve infiltrated every level of Tokyo society. As with many tales of this type, there are good ghouls and bad ghouls. Attempting to co-exist as peacefully as possible with humans is Mr. Yoshimura (Kunio Marai), a wise old man who runs a cafe staffed by ghouls and who acts as spiritual guide and ethics adviser. On the other side is Touka (Fumika Shimizu), a tough schoolgirl who begrudgingly accepts Ken into the ranks, and Nishio (Shunya Shiraishi), a fiery customer who likes killing humans and ghouls just about equally.
Things roll along nicely while Ken grapples with the realities of his new life and goes through the physical and mental torture of hanging on to what’s left of his humanity. The story’s most emotionally rewarding strand shows Ken caring for Hinami (Hiyori Sakurada), a frightened child who became a ghoul under tragic circumstances and now wants only to visit her father’s grave.
Less successful are action scenes in which Ken and fellow creatures encounter government-appointed ghoul hunters Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) and Mado (Yo Oizumi), a silver-haired Van Helsing-esque eccentric. The principal weapon of ghouls is a tentacle that sprouts like a tail from their behinds. While these CGI appendages look fine in isolation, they frequently move awkwardly in relation to the characters’ other physical movements and often don’t convince as being part of ghoul anatomy. There’s impressive fighting and bloodshed that’s not tentacle-related, but when these appendages are featured in full-length shots showing them connected to ghouls, it compromises the sense of wonder that’s so successfully been created elsewhere in the film.
“Tokyo Ghoul” is smoothly shot by DP Satoru Karasawa (“20th Century Boys” trilogy) and features eye-catching costumes designed by Masanori Morikawa, founder of the Christian Dada label. A rousing orchestral score by Don Davis (“The Matrix” trilogy) adds plenty of punch.