“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed into a monstrous bug.” Technically, this is the first sentence of The Metamorphosis, which is a short story written by Franz Kafka in 1915. Scratch that funny-sounding German name and replace it with “Ken Kaneki,” however, and you have now just about summarized the opening chapter of Sui Ishida’s best-selling 2014 manga series, Tokyo Ghoul.
Since today’s youngsters are probably more familiar with the latter, a bit of context might be in order. Kafka was a Czech writer who lived and worked in Prague. Born a small, weak, sickly child to a strong and strong-willed father, his traumatic youth fostered in him a sense of self-worthlessness so persistent, it eventually found vent in his fiction, which typically revolves around young men who suffer terribly as a result of their inability to defend themselves.
At this time, Kafka’s connection to Tokyo Ghoul is no longer breaking news. Explicit references, such as Eto Yoshimura’s novel, “Dear Kafka,” of which Kaneki is a huge fan, are impossible to miss. Meanwhile, implicit ties, like the similarities between Kaneki’s transformation and that of the aforementioned Gregor Samsa, or the self-disciplined fasting of the protagonist of the short story A Hunger Artist, are equally difficult to overlook—and yet, they only skim the surface of the writer’s influence.
When Kafka was in his thirties, he wrote a one-hundred-page letter to his father, in which he tried to explain how the events of his childhood had affected him. It’s filled to the brim with harrowing scenes, each of which has been described with bristling clarity. In one part, Kafka remembers the humiliation he felt when he and his dad would change in the same beach hut. In another, he recalls the fear that coursed through his veins when he was locked out on the balcony in the middle of a cold night, just for asking his parents if he could have a glass of water.
Though Kaneki’s upbringing differs from Kafka’s own in detail, by and large, they are one and the same. Kaneki was raised by a single mother who, while appearing a simple and kind-hearted woman on the outside, was really an illustration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea that people are good not because they love the benefits of goodness, but because they fear the repercussions of being bad. After allowing herself to be financially exploited by a nefarious sister, she takes out her frustrations on her son.
According to psychotherapists, people develop feelings of inferiority when their own abilities are insufficient to accomplish the goal which their superego has set for them. In Kafka’s case, that goal was to live up to the expectations of his father, whom nature had granted a healthier, more powerful body. For Kaneki, it was abiding by his mother’s guiding principle: that it’s better to suffer than cause suffering. Of course, as both men soon discovered, the pursuit of these ends takes a heavy toll on their personal wellbeing.
Because he thought of himself as helplessness, Kafka perceived the world as a much more dangerous place than it really was, and likely ever will be. In his novel, The Trial, a complacent bureaucrat named Josef K. finds himself arrested. What for? No one can tell; it’s as good as irrelevant, and by the time his investigation is over, the sheer experience of being persecuted has made the defendant ready to repent for an offense he neither knows anything about nor even committed in the first place.
Likewise, the story of Tokyo Ghoul begins when it turns out that Kaneki’s date is not the sweet and shy bookworm he took her for, but fearsome, flesh-eating ghoul who tries to devour him alive. Several chapters later, it ends with his abduction by a deranged and vicious gangster who subjects him to an endless stream of torture for reasons that, though they become clear to us after the ordeal is over, remain completely obscured for the duration of the kidnapping.
In both stories, the adverse power relations that define and dominate the family dynamic are mirrored in society at large. From the moment Kafka’s work first started to become mainstream, critics interpreted the association between the flailing Josef K. and the all-powerful state that haunts him throughout The Trial as an abstraction of the toxic relationship between the anxious young writer and his unnecessarily tyrannical father.
Tokyo Ghoul, albeit less impressive as a work of literature, also connects private and public through its use of symbolism. For instance, one of the series’ most iconic motifs, the single-handed knuckle-cracking, creates a paternal link between Kaneki and Jason, his torturer. A onetime victim of horrific abuse himself, Jason inherited the tick from his own tormentor as a way of processing his suffering while Kaneki, in turn, acquired it to counteract the neurosis installed in him by his mother.
From a marketing standpoint, it’s kind of curious that Kaneki’s story sold as many copies as it did. Whereas most other popular manga, like Sword Art Online and The Seven Deadly Sins, just to name a few, promise to put you in the shoes of powerful, sexually desirable warriors, Tokyo Ghoul, for the most part, lets you experience reality from the perspective of a helpless insect. Indeed, rather than relieving its audience from the insecurities and shortcomings that plague them in their ordinary, everyday life, Ishida only amplifies them.
Perverse though it may seem to label a story intended for teens as sadomasochistic, there’s no denying Tokyo Ghoul puts people in tune with their own misery. What keeps them coming back to this series, then, isn’t the tantalizing prospect of living out their hidden power fantasies, but the addictively agonizing sensation of being denied the opportunity to do so. Put differently, just as we want Kafka’s heroes challenging the arbitrary cruelty with which the world treats them, so too do we eagerly await the moment Kaneki finally takes revenge on those who wronged him.
The big difference, of course, is that only one of these stories offers us that kind of gratification. Gregor Samsa is squashed by his loved ones, the hungry artist dies of starvation while his crowd is busy admiring a voracious lion, and Josef K., the unfortunate victim of The Trial, is stabbed in the chest. Kaneki’s fate, by contrast, is neither meaningless nor melancholic. In a sudden twist of fate, he magically finds the strength to break his chains.
While watching Kaneki obliterate Jason certainly makes for a satisfying finale, one has to wonder if such an ending is not indicative of the exact kind of wishful thinking that Tokyo Ghoul seemed to have originally set out to avoid. After all, if literary genius Kafka wasn’t able to best his inner demons, then what chance do we stand?