Aesthetic Drift #17 by Brontë Bettencourt
A Truckload of Corpses, or Violence’s Meaning in Narrative
I am haunted by Tokyo Ghoul.
The anime’s pacing was slow and dull and the finale was a hot mess, but one scene left me intrigued and horrified.
Kaneki Ken has a good heart but no backbone. He is a recently turned ghoul who remembers what it means to be human, making it morally difficult for him to consume flesh to survive. In high-stress situations his pacifist nature has left both the innocent and fucked up in the head, dead.
In the season one finale, Kaneki’s been taken captive and tortured. Although his friends are on the way to rescue him, they can’t prevent the harrowing decision he’s forced to make: Kaneki must choose to save the life of one of two other captives, or else his captor will kill them both. Up until this point there hasn’t been too much gore, with the camera panning away from anything too bloody or gruesome (a bit of a letdown considering that humans are constantly hunted).
The moment slows, the captor taking his sweet time as he strangles the life out of one of the victims. But Kaneki still cannot decide who to save. The camera cuts accelerate between the woman’s asphyxiation, the man shouting at him to decide, and the captor’s sadistic delight. The music and voices swell. The tension builds. And builds. And builds.
Finally, the victim’s neck snaps.
The scene quiets, leaving the audience with that moment to sink in.
We needed to understand how Kaneki Ken becomes the ruthless killer in season two. But did we really have to sit through that?
Was the brutality really necessary?
In undergrad lit we discussed why George Hurstwood commits suicide in Sister Carrie. We discussed spousal abuse in House of the Spirits. We explored the effects of war in The Sun Also Rises, Catch 22, and 100 Years of Solitude.
In 100 Years of Solitude, one of the characters awakens atop a truckload of corpses:
“When José Arcadio Segundo came to he was lying face up in the darkness. He realized that he was riding on an endless and silent train and that his head was caked with dry blood and that all his bones ached. He felt an intolerable desire to sleep. Prepared to sleep for many hours, safe from the terror and the horror, he made himself comfortable on the side that pained him less, and only then did he discover that he was lying against dead people… Several hours must have passed since the massacre because the corpses had the same temperature as plaster in autumn and the same consistency of petrified foam that it had, and those who had put them in the car had had time to pile them up in the same way in which they transported bunches of bananas” (Marquez 306).
Before this [grotesque] passage, I casually enjoyed the magic of the book but otherwise reading on autopilot since this was an assignment. I sat up on my bed, now awake, rereading to see what I missed while I was dozing off.
I wasn’t prepared to feel the texture of these once alive people. People die for sport in some anime, but with Marquez’s writing, I felt my most exhausted, migraine-induced, feverish night, and waking up not to a warm bed but instead surrounded by dead bodies. I enjoyed the magic so much that I forgot the realism involved, and that shred of what I felt for José Arcadio Segundo seeped into my happy, fantastical bubble, disguised as very dark magic.
I felt nauseous. I didn’t want to emphasize with his situation, but the sensory details made it inevitable. What of all these bodies? Did all of them have to die? The characters I was used to dying were villains, or minor characters, or flat characters. Such deaths were either a triumph or a plot point. I couldn’t make sense of this scene when earlier in the text I accepted sleeping sickness and a five-year rainstorm. The swiftness of their death made me feel small and wronged.
I’ve experienced scarce violence myself. I quit martial arts because a purple-belt flipped me into the ground. She caught my foot mid-kick and she flung me onto the dirt.
All the other kids stopped mid-spar to stare.
The purple-belt didn’t apologize. Instead, she scolded me for not landing better. My hip ached. Grass stained my gi. I felt nauseous and small and not badass. (This was not an anime.)
In undergrad, I learned that violence could be for more as sport, a simple way to heighten the stakes.
Around the same time I read Marquez, I also read a novel whose characters’ attitudes towards violence felt painfully vivid despite the violence itself not being explicitly presented.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch follows Sunny on her journey of self-discovery as a Leopard, a manipulator of juju.
One of the first scenes involves Sunny and her classmates getting into a fist fight: “Right there on the far side of the schoolyard, three girls and four of the boys beat Sunny as they shouted taunts and insults. She wanted to fight back, but she knew better. There were too many of them” (7-8).
Okorafor’s writing style is tersely flat. Sunny and her friends must stop Black Hat Otokoto from kidnapping and maiming children. While YA may feature as much death and suffering as the other genres, Okorafor here transgresses against the YA genre by making the suffering characters the same age as her readers.
There is a scene in chapter seven where the characters reflect on a threat. Sunny and crew travel through the treacherous Night Runner Forest to meet a Leopard elder. The elder states that if the crew hadn’t made it, they wouldn’t have been worth his time.
The elder’s statement angers Sunny: “‘We could have all been killed… We met with a bush soul! What if it had done us in?’” But the elder does not console Sunny. He instead explains that a life–especially a young person’s–is worth little. “‘I don’t make a habit of meeting Anatov’s groups of students, but Anatov thinks you’re useful—useful to the Leopard People, though all this might be harmful to you as individuals. But that’s life, eh?’ (133)”
I think the elder’s philosophy explains the lack of detail placed on the violence. Individual sacrifice is taken for granted in a gravely dangerous world. Yes, Harry Potter must be the one to stop Voldemort, or else the magical world is doomed. Katniss Everdeen must lead the revolution against President Snow’s Panem. But if Sunny’s group fails, then the elders would search for another group to stop Black Hat Otokoto. The importance falls on saving the world, regardless of if Sunny survives.
In Akata Witch the final fight lasts nine pages. Okorafor uses small descriptors such as “Sasha and Black Hat were having some sort of juju battle. Sasha was slowly sinking to the ground as a white cloud hovered around him. But he still held his knife” (320). The story has been building to this final fight, only for it to be described as “some sort of juju battle.” The narration remains with a panicking Sunny, who watches the actions of the whole team. Through her the focus is of the entire scene, not just the minute actions of the fight.
Only after Sunny can come to term with forces outside of her control, does she defeat Black Hat : “Sunny smiled. She knew how the world would end. She knew someday she would die. She knew her family would live on if she died right now… Her motions were smooth. The world shifted. Suddenly, all things were—more (326-27)”. Okorafor focuses on the world’s morality, rather than the importance of single characters.
In the Three Uses of a Knife, David Mamet claims: “Our endorsement of violence in art, like our endorsement of violence in our nation’s behavior, is a compulsive expression of the need to repress — to identify a villain and destroy it. The compulsion must be repressed because it fails. It fails because the villain does not exist in the external material world. The villain, the enemy, is our own thoughts” (53).
To Mamet, violence in art is a compulsion. We refuse to think about who we are and why we do things, instead displacing our own shortcomings in killing a designated bad guy. But the victory is short-lived; since the satisfaction is shallow, we must keep finding new villains to kill. Akata Witch breaks this pattern due to less focus on violence, and more of what it wants the reader to get from it.
In Tokyo Ghoul, I was satisfied when Kaneki Ken finally slaughters the villain. But the villain has broken Kaneki, turning him into a villain that I understood since I experienced his torment second-hand. As Mamet explained, there is an emptiness to the violence because Kaneki’s morale is broken. He does not think about the implications; he just kills. And the viewer now must question their ways of validating Kaneki’s lust for blood.
Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go vividly depicts a more systematically violent world than Tokyo Ghoul, but the novel gives us the alarming interiority of a character’s reckoning with the meaning of living in such a world.
Todd is running from his home town just several weeks short from his fifteenth birthday. The residents are after him because he is the only person who has yet to kill someone; by killing, Todd will achieve manhood. Todd is pushed to his breaking point: his dog is murdered, his caretakers’ status is unknown, and his companion Viola has been taken hostage by a homicidal zealot.
Todd eventually takes the life of a Spackle, one of the humanoid creatures of the planet. After defending himself, Todd is overcome with the gravity of killing:
“I find I’m saying ‘No’ over and over again and the fear in his Noise keeps echoing around mine and there’s nowhere to run from it, it’s just there and there and there and I’m shaking so bad I can’t even stay on my hands and knees and I fall into the mud and I can still see the blood everywhere and the rain’s not washing it off.”
Todd’s thoughts lack punctuation and run rampant with fixation on the murder. Ness distorts the text to illustrate his point. He varies the font size and warps the letters to mimic the unfiltered, intrusive thoughts that Todd cannot control. The text embodies the dark confusion of the human mind.
I was desperate for Kaneki to just act in that climatic moment in Tokyo Ghoul. I was left with the frustration of his refusal to save anyone. Now I’m traumatized, and I emphasize with his fallen morality.
Mamet writes: “true drama, and especially the tragedy, calls for the hero to exercise his will, to create, in front of us, on the stage, his or her character, the strength to continue. It is her striving to understand, to correctly assess, to face her own character (in her choice of battles) that inspires us — and gives us drama power to cleanse and enrich our own character” (43).
Sunny grows because she faces her own weakness during the final fight. Todd matures by maintaining his morality after confronting his moment of killing. Violence breaks the characters, but both manage to build themselves back up.
Kaneki buries his morality and becomes a remorseless killer. Because he no longer has a conscience, he doesn’t reflect on his actions. This could be development, or an incomplete story of his mental journey as a half-ghoul. Season one ends on a cliffhanger.
I haven’t picked the show back up in over a year. On a whole, I don’t think the first season works well. But I want to pick it back up just to see how Kaneki continues to grow.
I desperately hope he can still grow.
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34, Episode 221) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University. When she’s not writing or working she’s a full time D&D enthusiast and YouTube connoisseur.