When Kaneki Accepts Pain, He Finds Redemption

I just finished watching season one of Tokyo Ghoul for probably the fourth time with a friend. It’s addicting to follow Kaneki through the horror of mind games that eventually break him. Perhaps the darkness fascinates me because I am obsessed with redemption and am still waiting for a great redeeming of poor Kaneki’s soul. Episode 12 of the series reveals the depths of a traumatized mind and just how sweet redemption can be.

“It’s better to be hurt then hurt others.”

– Mrs. Kaneki

Kaneki carries some baggage from his parents that he hadn’t touched before the events of Tokyo Ghoul. His past was so tucked away in his psyche that only torture could trigger it. Kaneki, even at his young elementary school age, realized that his mother had a problem with boundaries and empathy. Kaneki’s mother didn’t understand her right to tell her sister “no” or that the most loving thing she could do would be to draw the line at giving away any more money.

I personally know all about boundary issues. Being too kind has gotten me into a lot of trouble, especially in the realm of romance, as Kaneki can so clearly demonstrate with Rize. People will always take advantage of those who love to serve and portray themselves as innocent because they are easy prey for the broken to feast on. This plays so well in with the theme of alpha vs. prey, ghouls eating humans. What does it really mean to be strong?

“You’re nice and wonderful, but while it seems you are choosing both you are really forsaking both. Your mother was the same way.”

– Rize

Kaneki’s mother also had an obscured view of loyalties. As a mother, her first priority should have been to her son, who she ended up neglecting and locking in the house on her way to work. This abuse showed Kaneki that he wasn’t as important to his mother as her sister was. While I’m not trying to compare the types of love one has for their sister against their children, there is an appropriate type of love that needs to be shown to an adult woman versus that to a vulnerable child. Mrs. Kaneki failed to show the type of love that both parties needed, and in the end, Kaneki paid the price.

“Are you sure your mother was as wonderful and nice as you think?”

– Rize

The first traumatic event of the series wasn’t physical torture; it was the accident that killed Rize and turned Kaneki into a ghoul. Near death experiences and tricky surgeries can cause a large shift in mental health. After the transplant, Kaneki started hallucinating Rize for the first time. This was a way for him to cope with the trauma as well as the start of him processing the suppressed hurt his mother inflicted on him.

While it’s clear to see Kaneki’s struggles with his new reality as a ghoul, his best friend possibly rejecting him, and getting picked on by the other ghouls, the real struggle is internal. His psyche is learning to deal with the loss of his mother, and becoming a ghoul is bringing the poor boy face to face with the real pain inside. Why is Kaneki so afraid of Hide rejecting him? Deep down, Hide symbolizes the fact that Kaneki’s mother rejected him. His inability to accept his body becoming ghoul is rooted in his struggle to accept that he was neglected as a child. Denial is the only way he can bare to live with the label of “rejected.” Being rejected as a ghoul is easier then being rejected as someone else’s child.

“Once again you failed to choose… and so this happens.”

– Rize

Not surprisingly, Kaneki has an irrational fear of rejection. He goes about his life not making any distinct choices, instead watching and waiting for something to change. He doesn’t have the ability to stand up for himself because he was never taught how to; neither was he shown that he is worth standing for. By not choosing anything at all, Kaneki never has to reject anything. He realizes soon after Jason kills the two innocent lovers in front of him that his inability to choose or say “no,” just as his mother did, is really a means to denying everything.

“If she had turned away her intolerable sister’s request, she wouldn’t have died from over work.”

“Shut up!”

“What a foolish mother huh? If she loved you she should have abandoned her foolish sister.”

“Stop it!”

“That’s what you really wanted her to do, wasn’t it?”

“Stop talking.”


“Mom… Why did you leave me all alone? … I wish you would have chosen me!”

To cope, Kaneki’s mind, in the form of Rize, makes the situation utterly black and white, further symbolized by a hair color change. He looes the ability to see the intricate details of the empathetic nature that so delicately weave the situation together. Now Kaneki faces his pain head on and feels deeply in his soul the rejection and hurt that he has muzzled since childhood. The theme song sings about a monster inside of him, but it doesn’t mean being a ghoul; it’s referring to the fact that Kaneki is afraid of being the abused and neglected boy of his youth. Turning into a ghoul was the only way he could come to terms with his true identity, forsaking all his humanity in order to become truly human. And to be human means to feel pain.

Notice how at first when Rize points out the failure of his mother that Kaneki fights back. He doesn’t want that to be his reality, but due to the physical torture, the neglected reality of Kaneki’s traumatic root is fighting to take light. And the moment when he finally realizes that he was wronged by his mother, his first words are a plea to her, the words of a little boy who doesn’t understand why his mother had to leave.

“There are times when you have to give up one thing to preserve the other. Your mother couldn’t do that. That isn’t kindness, that’s just being weak…Can you remains on the side of being hurt?”

– Rize

Kaneki then labels his mother as “weak” and his black-haired self the same. His hair turns white and he decides that he needs to make a radical decision—it’s survival of the fittest. He fights and eats Jason’s kagune to finalize his new identity as no longer being a pushover. Thus begins the journey of a boy all too intimate with pain.

This episode hands down portrays the most dramatic way to gain self-confidence and the most painful way to dye your hair. But from it, we can gain a deeper look at just how agonizing child abuse can be on a person. As empathetic as I am, I loved watching Kaneki struggle through the pain of his past and present situation. While I wish he didn’t have to go mad, I am glad that Kaneki finally found the power to fight back. The right choice is always inside of us. Sometimes, we just have to become comrades with pain in order to see it.

featured illustration by Jean (reprinted w/permission)


11 thoughts on “When Kaneki Accepts Pain, He Finds Redemption

  1. “Kaneki has an irrational fear of rejection. He goes about his life not making any distinct choices, instead watching and waiting for something to change. He doesn’t have the ability to stand up for himself because he was never taught how to; neither was he shown that he is worth standing for.”

    Oof. Wow. That hits home. Thank you for writing this, because I needed to read it.

    1. I’m hesitant to be too dogmatic about the idea that God is speaking to me through a blog post about zombie anime…but I think it’s a very real possibility.

  2. Kaneki’s revelation in this scene is one of the most powerful moments Tokyo Ghoul ever gave us and it is the reason that I still love season one despite everything else the franchise has done. This is an exceptional character moment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

  3. Reading this really makes me sympathize Kaneki. Kaneki went through a lot in life and he didn’t want to be part of it. I heard in one of the novels, we explore the mother’s sister and how she hurt Kaneki. Excellent writing!

  4. I tried reading some of the manga. I’m just troubled by the whole eating dead bodies. Watching one of the ghouls sitting in front of a plate with human digits kinda did it for me. Finger food literally. Maybe it wouldn’t have been bad if it was unrecognizable, maybe look like a charred beef steak but they seem to like it raw and uncooked. Also the problem you have is where to find dead bodies. Kinda just waiting around for someone to die in order to have a meal. Feel like a vulture. Or you can go the easy route and murder someone. None of it seems very pleasant. Also the fact that daydreaming about how good your human friends tastes is a danger

    1. I focus more on the moral dilemma of it all. I can hold in my hand that the act itself is questionable, and let my mind explore the social, and philosophical issues that arise with this anime.

Leave a Reply